Good old days

People sometimes use the phrase 'the good old days'. I wonder which period they could be referring to in gardening and for what reason? The end of the Victorian era may have been the climax from the point of view of the range of plants grown and the size of the gardens. Though whether any time was in fact a 'good old day' from the point of view of the gardener is debatable. The Victorian great, and even some lesser, houses had wonderfully productive kitchen gardens to be sure, but they were incredibly casual as to labour requirements or working conditions and many more resembled small village economies than our modern back yard and allotment gardens.

Few of us can conceive of adopting Victorian methods today such as forcing cherries and melons by early spring conveying the trees and plants in and out of cover daily! Or applying up to three hundred tons per acre of manure as some intensive gardeners managed. Or the plain impossible; Queen Victoria's gardeners had to be able to provide four pounds of ripe strawberries at only four days notice ANY DAY OF THE YEAR!

The stress of being her head gardener must have been immense. And not much less for other head gardeners, with an immense investment to look after and maybe several dozen men under him. While only being an under gardener was long hard menial work FOR LESS THAN A LABOURER earned. A long standing complaint in Victorian magazines was the paltry pay of gardeners, which were expected to work as long if not longer days than a labourer, yet additionally were expected to 'know' about plants and have appropriate skills.

Other than working in magnificent great house establishments and on the lesser scale for squires (where conditions were usually as miserable) there were few jobs for gardeners. Some found work in nurseries and with market gardeners but generally gardeners were little wanted, or valued. The magazines have many letters condemning their low pay and recommending they emigrate. (Other letters, from emigrants, bewail the high cost of everything in the colonies, the low wages and how there are few jobs for gardeners.) The keen gardener would have worked till he dropped to become a head gardener but was unlikely to have done the same at home.

Gardening as a hobby was all about flowers, florists flowers for show, few people grew a range of crops for themselves. True those with the status had a garden and gardeners to do the work while they took an interest. Probably in orchids. Most people didn't garden because the majority had nowhere to grow to say little of their lack of interest or time to do so. Further, until the clean air acts, it was notoriously difficult to keep most plants alive in or near big cities as the smog and filth coated and clogged their leaves.

Of course some folk, the remnants of the farming population, grew staples such as potatoes or turnips. Many would have an apple tree or a few medicinal herbs. But the burgeoning of the home kitchen garden as we know it did not really get going till the latter end of the Victorian period. The railway era and the suburbs created better housing with gardens about them. Originally aspirational and for 'healthy air' the purchasers were not intended to go in for such prosaic plants as cabbages but orchids before the first world war, topiary between the wars, then dahlias and chrysanthemums after.

And of course those who did have a garden still had a gardener to do the real work. Perhaps his was the good old days until you look how lowly he was regarded, how hard he had to work and with what hazardous materials. However those pre-second world war houses with their larger plots are now most sought after as they have space for kitchen gardens for those lucky enough to be able to afford them. Fortunately we have also gained allotments- a concept rather alien to the Victorians and only brought into existence in the teeth of their opposition by the strenuous efforts of a few enlightened souls.

Farmers, market gardeners, wholesalers, hauliers, greengrocers and fruiterers all fought tooth and nail to prevent the first allotments being formed, as they saw them as a serious economic threat. The farmers and market gardeners were also especially concerned less their employees spend their energy and applied their skills on their allotments rather than at work. However allotments did come into being and have persisted since, despite continuing efforts to be rid of them by those with other interests.

However unless you were happy conforming rigorously and tugging the forelock I suspect there were still not many good old days if you wanted to grow something different or by odd ways. Well intentioned but often patronising allotment committees ensured it was 'worthy' kitchen gardening that was practised on the plots 'to feed the family' (and also to keep the men employed all hours and thus out of the tavern...). Some were so worthy-veg.-obsessed they even had rules against planting perennials or trees and shrubs. This at least pragmatic worship then mutated into the idolatry of growing for the show and having each plot full of complete rows of neat but uneaten veg. waiting for the judging day. Hardly a golden time for stress free grow-it-to-enjoy-eating-it kitchen gardening.

Although there were florists flower clubs and societies from the Victorian period on few crops were ever so promoted save the gooseberry and later the leek. Most vegetables and fruits were generally ignored or mostly referred to only when grown for show where size was everything. (This somewhat narrow view still persists.) However the magazines and books of the different periods show that the inter-war years were when kitchen gardening as we know it consolidated. No longer could teams of under gardeners be used to produce crops regardless of effort or expense for others to consume. Instead now each had to win their own crops alone, and unaided by coal fired furnaces, vast greenhouses and walled gardens. The vast range of exotics and out of season cropping achieved by the Victorians was all dropped in favour of reliable production.

However although the range and season of almost every crop became restricted when compared to the Victorian era what was still grown was now being cultivated by far more gardeners individually for their own benefit. The second world war enforced this further with the Dig for Victory campaign -though of course there was then a counter reaction afterwards when food crops became ignored as mundane. Allotments went into a temporary decline or became inundated with such as dahlias and chrysanthemums. So could those times be said to have been good old days? And probably not if you are at all prissy or delicate.

From earliest times it was recognised that dung of all sorts was of benefit in enriching the soil. The gardeners first job of the day was collecting the night's productions of human wastes, plus the soapy washing water, and utilising these on the land. Almost all the rest of all fertility was some dung or the other and moving it around was not with modern health and safety knowledge or conditions, equipment or hours! Or even with a bath after.

It was the late Victorians who analysed what was actually doing what and why and started using compounded fertilisers and controlled application rates. Vast amounts of guano (old seagull droppings) and phosphatic rock (very old dinosaur droppings) were adulterated, or blended as they put it, with other wastes now cunningly treated. Bones were mixed with acid to act in a season or two, processing wastes were combined and wool clothes picked fine enough to incorporate. All well and good but an awful lot of rather undesirable chemicals and often pathogens, even Anthrax, were included inadvertently. Oh to be a gardener with cuts and blisters sent to spread the new 'clean' compounded fertiliser.

The replacement of horses by petrol engines dramatically reduced dung supplies so that by the second world war the allegedly cleaner to handle artificials had won pre-eminence and became regarded as almost magical compared to dirty old dung. This view was much promoted by purveyors of those same artificials who had made miraculous claims for their efficacy and how they would feed the world (sound familiar). Fortunately for our soil the natural conservatism, and parsimony, of many gardeners still saw reliance on dung when they could get it although those who grew for show or commercially followed the chemical trend. It was after the second world war that there was the steepest rise in the use of artificials though so perhaps those pre-war years could be considered good old days if you dream of a once golden organic age. But then the making and use of garden compost instead of dung or artificials was just in it's infancy and so little was known of companion planting or even of trace elements..

And look how they used to kill weeds. Hoe and fingers have long been our tools of trade and the quest for effective chemical weed killers is not a modern invention. Probably the saddest indictment of any of the good old days is the liberal way they lobbed seriously poisonous substances about apparently almost thoughtlessly. By comparison our latest herbicides are relatively innocuous. Who now could possibly consider using Boron or Chromium compounds or worse -Lead Arsenate and Sodium Arsenite; to control weeds? I'm seriously concerned about the long term contamination some of us may be suffering from this. Later the manufacturers even promoted Carbon bisulphide and most amazing of all, Chloropicrin (Tear Gas) as herbicides! It seems almost insane that gardeners were expected to use these substances at all, even crazier for them to use them on land which may (ever) grow crops.

And if you think any good old days were either sanitary or ecological in their approach to pests then it is frightening to discover that both Lead and Arsenic featured again right up until recent times. Plus that exceedingly dangerous element Mercury was in countless preparations. Indeed until very recent times much of the annual world production of Mercury was consumed in poisoning our soils as seed dressings. (Much still is.) And sanitary?; I may advocate using fresh urine on the compost heap but olden times gardeners were out there sloshing and spraying stale urine and fresh dung hither and thither well before rubber gloves or face masks.

Probably much of it was their own though as Victorian gardeners lived on site in a shed called a Bothy where they were often less well catered for than the owner's horses. Of course the head gardener would probably have his own abode but likewise still be on call every day and night of the year. Day and night because of the critical furnaces and the incredible losses if they failed. And by day the hands on ventilation and watering. If nothing else we should be grateful for thermostats, fans and soil warming cables!

And clothes. If you think back then there were ever any good old days have a look at old photos and their heavy cumbersome footwear and gloves or rather lack of them. Their trousers, shirts and jackets may have been adequate for clement weather but must have been stifling in hot and ineffective in the cold or wet. Modern waterproof materials, plastic shoes and rubber boots are seriously welcome improvements. And modern gloves are marvellous, and cheap.

Perhaps the weirdest part of those good old days was the attitude to tobacco. Most gardeners over the last couple of hundred years seem to have conformed by smoking heavily, often with a pipe. But they were also effectively subjected to more than a little passive smoking to boot. Nicotine from tobacco as a fumigant was routinely used from Victorian times till very recently with whole greenhouses filled with the powerful smoke from burning tobacco shreds or nicotine impregnated paper. Although the gardeners did not actually stay in for the duration of the smoking they were still obliged to inhale the stuff whilst initiating and finalising the process.

I guess you've probably got my drift by now. I really don't think those good old days were that good overall and that maybe gardening right now is as good as it ever can be!