Books - old books have become the gardening grandparents I never had. The information in them is a true mix of the kind of lore grandparents have been handing down for years. Some of it good, solid advice and some… well, some is a bit out of date.
I started collecting old gardening books as just something to do and for the curiosity of the information they contained. Their unique voices have since become my entry point into an exclusive world of bygone skills and attitudes.
These authors speak of the changes in our gardens, changes in the plants, the techniques and the very way in which we approach this activity we call gardening. They speak across the years of a very high regard, one might even call it love, of the soil and the gardening lifestyle it enables.
As I tuck myself into bed or put my feet up on my desk and share a few moments with an author who is long since dead, I feel a sense of continuity and clearly hear his or her voice as it struggles to describe not only the techniques of gardening but also the intangibles that only fellow gardeners understand.
These techniques and intangibles have led me to collect ever more old gardening books, to search through dusty corners and out-of-the-way places to find the treasure that speaks to me of gardening in a voice from my past. Indeed, if you are a gardener, these voices are from your past as well.
All those of us who garden share this continuity of knowledge, just as we share in the continuity of plants. We pass along our plants from neighbor to neighbor and think that is a normal part of gardening activity; so too in the same way, we transmit gardening techniques to each other across backyard fences and down through the years.
One tragedy of gardening is that often these voices get lost or bent in the translation. Voices that start out so clear and resolute become forgotten, lost or consigned to the back shelf to sit, molding and sad, a victim of progress. Often lost along with them are the techniques that produced their garden bounty.
We have often forgotten these techniques, just as we have forgotten their voices. In these pages, I intend to pass along some of the voices as well as their techniques of gardening.
Some of the techniques are extremely valuable and deserve remembering. Some might better be remembered and then quietly stored away while others will undoubtedly produce laughter when exposed to the harsh glare of modern research. Whatever the value of the techniques, what should not be forgotten is the essence of what compelled each of these people to write about the act of gardening. These are the voices of real gardeners.
For example, in the introduction to his Gardening for Profit, (1866) Peter Henderson writes, "I hope it is no egotism to state that in both the Floral and Vegetable departments of Horticulture, in which I have been engaged for the past eighteen years, I have been entirely successful." "From this standpoint, I claim the right to attempt the instruction of the student of horticulture in the tactics in the field." No mealy mouth statements here, this is one author that claims his knowledge is up to snuff and so it is.
On the other hand, Jane Loudon is a touch more humble in her introduction to the classic Gardening for Ladies and Companion to the Flower Garden (1843) when she writes, "When I married Mr. Loudon, it is scarcely possible to imagine a person more completely ignorant than I was, of every thing relating to plants and gardening; and, as may be easily imagined, I found every one about me so well acquainted with the subject, that I was soon heartily ashamed of my ignorance. My husband, of course, was quite anxious to teach me as I was to learn, and it is the result of his instructions that I now (after ten years experience of their efficacy) wish to make public for the benefit of others."
It should be noted that not only was Mr. Loudon one of England's more famous writers on the garden, but Mrs. Loudon's name did not appear on the cover of the American edition. Rather, the name of A. J. Downing, a well-known American plantsman, was listed as the editor of the work on the spine. Perhaps the publicity department of the publisher took Mrs. Loudon's modesty to heart.
Frank J. Scott in the American ground breaking book, Beautiful Homes (1870)put it directly, "The aim of this book is to aid persons of moderate income, who know little of the arts of decorative gardening, to beautify their homes; to suggest and illustrate the simple means with which beautiful homesurroundings may be realized on small grounds, and with little cost; and thus to assist in giving an intelligent directions to the desires, and a satisfactory result for the labors of those who are engaged in embellishing homes, as well as those whose imaginations are warm with the hopes of homes that are yet to be."
Well, perhaps not as directly as we might write today, but his 1870 voice still sounds clear to my ear. I consider myself of moderate income, and would welcome his suggestions for beautifying my home "with little cost."
Some wrote to express a viewpoint on the state of landscape design, such as did William Robinson, one of the most influential of garden writers of the late 1800's. He started the ninth edition of his influential English Flower Garden, 1905) with these words, "There was little or no reason admitted into garden design: the same poor imitation of the Italian garden being set down in all sorts of positions. If the place did not suit the style, the ground had to be bolstered up in some way so that the plan might be carried out a costly way to get an often ridiculous result."
Robinson's book is directly responsible for what we now call the English border or cottage garden style of gardening. Historically, cottage style gardening is the grandfather of the landscape style referred to as "New American" or simply "American" with its use of North American natives.
Gardeners write their books for a variety of reasons. In 1879, Macoun and Spotton wrote Elementary Botany because, "The works on Botany, many of them of great excellence, which have found their way into this country, have been prepared with reference to climates differing, in some cases, very widely from our own."
Reginald Farrer, the great plant explorer and alpine gardener began his 1918 classic, The English Rock Garden with these words, "Proclamations of purpose are often confessions of failure to achieve it."
Farrer had a way with words and was never faint of heart when expressing an opinion.
The reader will be the judge of the proclamations of this book. If the gardening voices, techniques and information are worthy, then the book will be judged accordingly. If not, Farrer will have had the last word, as he so often did in life.
Author Note: This is an ongoing project to publish the entire Gardening Wisdom (award winning book) online. I usually publish one part of a chapter a week and you can be notified of new additions by signing up for the newsletter from the navigation bar
Gardening Wisdom Table of Contents