Time of Plenty Posted on November 28, 2012

When it gets dark at tea-time I look around my bookshelves in a different mood. It isn’t the latest book I want to read, but one that carries me along on the broad tide of thought that spans generations; indeed centuries.

Gardeners have always had the same preoccupations, and similar questions in mind. Their priorities change, and so does their rate of progress in answering questions. 170 years ago progress was in overdrive, as I learn on consulting one of my favourite winter evening resources: The Gardeners Magazine.

John Claudius Loudon conducted this magazine, the first of its kind, from 1826 until he died of editorial exhaustion in 1845. In 1842 Queen Victoria had been on the throne for five years. It was a time of exhilarating progress in many spheres. Reading Loudon’s review of the year 1842 is positively exciting. The German chemist von Liebig had just discovered the value of nitrogen to plants and revised the whole science of manure. ‘The higher the animal the better its manure’ was one of his sayings, with the conclusion that ‘night soil’ was thus the best manure of all – as the Chinese well knew. Liebig propagated the idea that roots need oxygen, too. He advocated mulching to keep them near the surface, and using a mixture of unsifted rough turfy soil and stones in pots to increase drainage. Plants that needed protection under glass became hardier this way, he found.

Joseph Paxton had just built his Chatsworth glasshouse with bigger panes of cheaper glass than those used before – starting a craze for greenhouses. ‘Strained wire’ was coming into use for fences that were ‘inconspicuous and  cheap.’ The ‘increased taste for the pine and fir tribe’ was bringing conifers into gardens. Ferns and ferneries were coming into fashion. Loudon had advocated, with remarkable success, the proper drainage and weather-proofing of workmen’s cottages. The queen did her first ceremonial tree-planting (at Taymouth Castle), signalling a new tree-consciousness. Loudon persuaded the authorities to label the trees in Kensington Gardens and St James’s Park; a momentous move for, among others, the nursery industry. And Chevreul’s new colour wheel was circulating among gardeners, revolutionizing their colour schemes for flower-beds.

The Gardeners Magazine was an extraordinary community effort. Loudon persuaded and provoked gardeners world-wide (there are notes from India, America and Australia) to communicate their experiences in a way that every good editor should, but very few have. How he would have loved the Internet.

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