I feel more justified in being a gardening wimp, and having spent most of the past three weeks indoors, coughing, since the Health Secretary announced on the Today programme this morning that we’ve just had the coldest weather for 30 years.
Where does the government get its statistics? It hasn’t been pleasant, and I’m easily persuaded that the weather of recent Decembers has been deviant, but a few mornings of frost is scarcely a new Ice Age. Nothing in the garden has been damaged; not even the aspidistra that was too big for its pot and I divided to make a rather handsome clump on the way to the woodshed.
It has been the perfect stimulus to do some reading, though. Comfort-reading, to me, is usually something with no modern relevance. A hundred years since publication is generally a safe distance. Yet with gardening books little shocks of recognition are unavoidable.
The Gardener’s Magazine of the 1820s and ’30s is one of my favourite wallows. It was ‘conducted’ by the frighteningly productive J.C. Loudon, author of the Encyclopaedias of Gardening and of Agriculture, of the Arboretum et Fructicetum Britannicum (my abridged edition contains 1162 pages), of the Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture and Furniture, of the Horticulturist, the Amateur Gardener’s Calendar, and more besides.
The ambition of The Gardener’s Magazine was one that many editors have expressed, myself included. When he launched it in 1826, Loudon invited ‘practical gardeners to come forward and support a work calculated for their own honor (sic) and advantage. Let them not make excuses as to not being accustomed to write, want of style, etc, but fix on a subject and begin at once, and write straight on to the end, regardless of anything but the correctness of their statements. This done once or twice a good style will come of itself.’
The results were astonishing. They filled nineteen annual volumes with observations from all over the world. ‘Notices’ poured in from all over Britain and abroad. And not just from France and Germany, but from Russia, North and South America and even the infant New South Wales. Loudon’s correspondent in Sydney on November 15, 1827, admitted that ‘there was little prospect of agriculture ever being much attended to here’. ‘If we could get good gardeners’, he went on, ‘I think horticulture would even flourish with us, but all your good gardeners are so honest that none of them are transported…… Strawberries thrive remarkably well, and we generally have two crops: the first in October, the second about Christmas.’ I fear he would find the same lack of criminality among gardeners today. However does Australia manage?
It was the era when science was in its infancy but information was in limitless demand. We are wrong if we think the internet has started a completely new traffic in practical communication. Some of Loudon’s ‘notices’ are effectively pre-Victorian blogs.
This, for example, of 170 years ago: ‘Sir, Your correspondent on the subject of British wines (Vol II p.485) is most tormentingly tantalising. He raises our hopes, by stating he has had nearly twenty years’ experience, and that his family are now drinking wines twelve years old;…… and, finally, leaves us in the lurch, not giving us the least information how to make wine. My experience is very limited; but like him, I have studied Mr M’Culloch; and, as he very justly observes, have obtained from that gentleman’s book the only rational ideas I have been able to collect. I find the best wine I can make is from immature grapes; in that state they ferment rapidly, and communicate no bad taste. Indeed, the wine, if made with good lump sugar, is nearly tasteless; but flavour can be communicated to suit various tastes. I have racked some on the lees of fine claret, and others on the lees of Madeira, adding some bitter almond or peach kernels.’
‘The most successful British wine, but, at the same time, the most extravagant, is the imitation of brisk champagne; its extreme briskness, indeed sometimes breaks the bottle. I cannot yet succeed in giving this the true taste; but I am disposed to believe it may be done, by putting into the cask some few young cones of the spruce fir. These are extremely aromatic, and at the same time, have a little taste of turpentine, which, I think, I can detect, in a small degree, in true champagne.’
Complete the story if you will.