Green behind the ears Posted on April 29, 2021

It’s a funny feeling coming back to a book you wrote forty years ago. ‘How on earth did I know that?’ is my main reaction. In this case the book is The Principles of Gardening. I remember thinking that my publisher’s choice of title (portentous, impersonal) and worse still of the cover image (a scarlet poppy on a black background) would kill it stone dead. It survived. Some of the reviews – thank you, Penelope Hobhouse – were blush-making. But what still amazes me is how I amassed and compressed about four books worth of information, as a novice gardener in the inevitable hurry. (Is green behind the ears akin to green-fingered?)

The present drought – or let’s call it lack of proper spring rain – caused me to look up what I had to say about rain and the garden. In a chapter called The Soil as a Reservoir I included diagrams of the behaviour of moisture in the soil, and how long it took for rainfall to evaporate from different sorts of soil. In sandy soils one inch of rain will reach down 14 inches and be gone by evaporation and transpiration in five days. In loamy soil the same inch takes ten days to dry out to the same depth. But 14 inches of clay soil take seventeen days to dry out. Or so I said in 1979 – but don’t ask me to prove it now.

In other brief chapters I treated weather fronts and cloud patterns, air movement, wind and frosts in the same sort of factual, dispassionate way, thinking that background knowledge of the elements would be as helpful to a gardener as plant families as pruning routines. I suppose such things would be classed under geography at school, but I don’t remember being taught any of them. So where did I beg, borrow or steal all the detailed information?

Tom Lehrer knew. ‘Plagiarize, plagiarize; let no one else’s work evade your eyes … but remember always to call it research.’ Books feed off other books; that’s how knowledge advances. I know I’m responsible for whole new fields of writing about wine. My World Atlas of Wine, fifty years old this year, offered other writers resources of geography and to a degree geology and climate that would have taken them months to find independently. That was also my aim in writing The Principles of Gardening eight years later – to advance general knowledge of a subject so the following generation didn’t have to reach so far back to find useful information.

All books date. There were things I thought were essential (or ‘Principles’) that have turned out to have been mere fashions. Who talks about peat gardens today, or who plants the heathers and dwarf conifers that were all the rage in the ‘70s? There is one theme that won’t go away, though: ‘labour-saving’. Is gardening labour? I thought we did it for fun.

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