Plus ça change Posted on November 27, 2013

There is endless sustenance and comfort to be found in old gardening magazines. Sustenance, because the ideas and answers flow seamlessly down the generations. Comfort, for the same reason. My resource on a gloomy November afternoon for many years has been The Gardeners’ Magazine, conducted from1826 to 1848 by the apparently unwearyingly J. C. Loudon in the intervals in writing his majestic encyclopedias.

I picked up the volume for 1838 this afternoon. 175 years ago gardeners’ concerns were very similar to ours, but their candour and freedom of expression very different. In the September issue is an illustrated (with engravings) article on the Duke of Bedford’s garden, just up the road from here on Camden Hill. One year into Queen Victoria’s reign it is already the epitome of Victoriana: a restless mass of geometrical planting in the brightest colours, intensely gardenesque (to use Loudon’s coinage) except for an orchard of fifty trees on the south slope. Every plant is enumerated in the engravings and its name and colour listed. It is in every sense a dazzling list.

In November, though, comes the critique, something no modern magazine would ever publish. Poor duke, and poor Mr Craie, his gardener. Mr Glendinning of Bicton, having avowed that his “few observations are by means intended to detract from the praise that is so justly his due” lambasts both the design and the cultivation. “The shrub with the spherical lumpy head’ he writes, ‘.. appears like an enormous hedgehog’ The beds are too close together, the paths are wrongly designed, and he “strongly objects” to placing pots with plants in them on walls. He “cannot see what business they have there”.

In the same spirit of candour the conductor reviews front gardens, or “street gardens” as he calls them. He strolls through Brighton commenting on the residents’ efforts. No. 15 Marlborough Place gets the thumbs up for “no more than two square yards” containing “dark and light-flowered nasturtiums, convolvulus major and mignonettes”. Nos. 16 and 17 York Place seem to win his gold medal for their “very select planting” in which Lobelia gracilis, Anagallis coccinea grandiflora and verbenas “make a conspicuous appearance”. “The pyramids of heartseases were remarkably fine”. Loudon even tasted one gardener’s potatoes and thoroughly approved of their “flavour and mealiness “. If a front garden was not up to scratch Loudon was not unkind; he moved on, but a ducal garden was apparently fair game. Today? The rule seems to be De hortuis nil nisi bonum.

Mr Craie, that same duke’s gardener, had some ingenious tricks. Does this one make sense? To preserve a tender rose bush, in this case R. Lamarque, he budded a hardy rose near the tips of its branches. The yellow Lamarque survived the dreadful winter of 1837/38 thanks to R. Brennus, a crimson rose, being budded on the year before. “Brennus flowered first, luxuriantly, and was followed by Lamarque, which also flowered well, though the latter, in all cases where the shoots were not budded, was killed back by the frost. It thus appears that the vigorous growth of the scion had thrown the Lamarque stock into a state of vigorous growth at a time when the Lamarque would otherwise have been quite dormant. ” Does this make sense? Was it hardier because it was in growth? Does anyone do this today? I plunge back into my dusty old leather volume eager for more horticultural history.

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