The Way We Used To Garden: a conversation with a 96-year-old gardener

My grandmother Cynthia was born in 1921, and has lived within a couple of miles of the same South Derbyshire village for her entire life. She has always been an enthusiastic gardener and continues to tend to her perennials and vegetables to this day, despite losing most of her eyesight to macular degeneration about twenty years ago. I talked to her about digging for victory, the rise and fall of pesticides, and what on earth gardeners did before plastic.

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My grandmother Cynthia beneath the walnut tree at the end of her garden, April 2018. She grew this tree herself from a walnut that she found under a tree in France.

J: Thank you for agreeing to talk to me about gardening through the twentieth century. First of all, what is your first garden-related memory?

C: When I was four, we had a very long garden and I used to play in the garden, and every Saturday I used to spend with my father and his gardener while they were working in the kitchen garden. They were growing vegetables. The gardener, Mr Garton, also cut the grass, pruned the fruit trees, and scythed the long grass in the orchard. I can just picture myself as a little girl being given a ride in the enormous wooden wheelbarrow. Mr Garton let me ride in the wheelbarrow every week.

J: Were there no lawnmowers?

C: There certainly were lawnmowers, rotary ones.

J: Did your father grow flowers as well as vegetables?

C: Yes, he loved growing flowers. He especially loved geums, and he also grew dahlias from seed. But during the war we only grew vegetables. He and mother worked in the garden every night during the war. My mother might only have been picking fruit, but they were out there together.

J: Were you self-sufficient during the war?

C: Yes, pretty much. Right at the beginning of the war, my father dug over the paddock and planted a whole field of potatoes. But what he hadn’t reckoned with was all the wire worms that come with a newly dug field, so the entire crop was riddled with wire worms. My father also taught me how to grow tomatoes. There were no tomatoes in winter during the war, because they would have come from Spain or Guernsey, and that was out. He kept a diary of everything that went on in the garden, and of a few things that went on in the war as well. Your aunt has that diary.

J: How did your father learn how to garden?

C: During the war he had one gardening book, which was his bible, which I still have. And he listened to Mr Middleton every weekend on the wireless – he was famous for his gardening talks. But I think he probably learned gardening long before I was born, either from his parents or from his own practice.

J: Did your father grow most plants grown from seed, or did he go to nurseries to buy plants?

C: Mostly I think my father grew things from seed, or from tubers. His gardener used to make wooden seed trays. We never had a plastic seed tray.

J: When did plastics come into general use?

C: Very shortly after the war you started getting plastic flower pots and plastic seed trays.

J: Would it have been as common as it is now to go to a garden nursery, see a plant you like in a plastic pot, and buy it and take it home?

C: No – a plant would always come bare rooted.

J: That would mean having to go to the nursery at a particular time of year. You couldn’t turn up whenever you fancied if you were buying bare rooted plants.

C: You had to go at a certain time of the year, and the bare root would come wrapped in paper.

J: Were you able to buy plug plants?

C: I can remember my father coming back with wallflower plants. There was also a market farm in Melbourne where he bought things like baby leeks and brassicas to plant. They’d be all wrapped up in a big newspaper parcel with lots of soil in them.

J: And what did your father do for potting compost?

C: My father made his compost. He was very lucky; there was an old stable and there was a brick manure heap, and all the grass cuttings and things went in there. He made a lot of compost, which he dug in every winter. But for his potting compost, he used to go out and collect leaf mould from the woods. Particularly he liked beech, and we used to go up to the top of Chevin [a local woods] and get the leaf mould from there, and then he would sieve it. And he would sieve garden soil, so that he was quite sure that there that it was clean with nothing nasty in it, and he would use that as well. His tomatoes were grown in that mixture of his own compost, sieved soil, and leaf mould. Every year the gardener dug the old soil out of the big trough and spread it on the ground and the new soil would go in.

J: And what did your father use for labels?

C: I can’t remember that he ever used anything, except a stick at each end of the row. Oh, sometimes he would stick the stick through the seed packet, or on the front of the seed tray.

J: But didn’t the seedpacket get wet in the rain?

C: Yeeees [a long pause]

I think he probably had a good memory.

J: And did he have a greenhouse?

C: Yes, when I was nine we moved to a new house which had a greenhouse. And he loved it. It was a lean-to greenhouse on the garden wall and it faced south with a wonderful amount of sun. In the summer he used to paint white stuff on the roof, like whitewash, for shading. And the back wall was painted white every year, and he grew a peach tree there. We got ever so many peaches.

J: What is the biggest improvement to life as a gardener since you started?

C: That’s a difficult question. Lawnmowers have improved, but then I have never mown a lawn, so it never affected me. I suppose it’s much easier to get your compost in a plastic bag rather than having to sieve everything! But I wouldn’t say that the result is any better.

J: Bagged compost is sterile…

C: Yes, and I remember my father losing an entire crop of tomatoes one year during the war. It was terrible. He got something called Rust. It was dreadful. He thought it was because he had experimented and put them out into the greenhouse earlier than he normally did, and they were not strong enough.

J: Has any aspect of gardening become worse over the decades?

C: [long pause] I cannot just off hand think of anything that is worse. No. I think the ease of gardening has improved considerably. But not necessarily because things are made of plastic. I don’t think the plastic seed trays make things any easier.

J: Some people might say that plastic seed trays are better because you can wash them out. But then I suppose your father would have washed his wooden seed trays.

C: Yes, indeed they would have been scrubbed. People tend to forget about things like scrubbing brushes. Scrubbing brushes and a weakish solution of Jeye’s Fluid.

J: What did your father use for netting?

C: Netting was made of green twine, string. Hedgehogs used to get tied up in it. But it didn’t tear as easily as nylon netting.

J: I think Nylon netting is probably cheaper than string.

C: Yes, it is probably cheaper.

J: In some ways, gardening has perhaps become less expensive for people because all of the cheap materials, but in other ways more expensive because gardening has become complicated. Gardeners are so ambitious because of all the inspiration from the gardening programmes and shows.

C: Oh yes – garden makeovers. Gardeners World. And the variety of plants that you can go out and buy.

J: You must have seen pesticides coming in and going out again.

C: Oh yes indeed. I remember my father having metal spray guns, which you bought full of pesticide. Goodness knows what it was. And there was something he used to make up from a packet of powder, called Caterkiller, which he used to spray the raspberries and roses with.

J: It is amazing that you are alive. Did you know to rinse the fruit before you ate them, after he’d sprayed this toxic stuff?

C: No. I would pick the raspberries off the raspberry canes and eat them as I walked past! Then there were all sorts of powders and things that started coming out after the war. Awful things. All unnecessary, because if you encourage the birds into your garden, they eat everything. And growing French marigolds in your greenhouse will keep the whitefly off. For the last 18 or 19 years I haven’t used any spray at all on my roses, and although they suffer from blackspot, they just keep on going. Some of those bushes were given to me for my 40th wedding anniversary, so they’re about 35 years old.

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From the rose garden

J: After you got married and bought your first house, did you and my grandfather start gardening together?

C: Yes we did. It wasn’t a very big garden, but we tried all sorts of things. We tried growing roses from cuttings, which grew and flowered for one year, then curled up their toes and died. We didn’t grow any vegetables; it was too small a garden. But we did have a little extension put on, a sort of porch, and I had a shelf put up in there and I grew my first tomatoes in there, in about 1960.

J: And when you bought this house [the farmhouse where Cynthia continues to live] in the early 70s, it was derelict. What was the garden like?

C: There was not much in the garden at all. There were two clumps of peonies and a whole huge bed of knotweed. To get rid of the knotweed I firstly used a lot of chemicals, I have to confess. And it sprang up in the lawn, and that was mowed down; it was actually mowed away. I also killed that other awful stuff – ground elder. I did have to use weedkiller.

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From the orchard

J: And how did you create a new garden?

We turned half the kitchen garden into an orchard. Then there was a big forsythia near the farmyard and the architect who was also a garden designer said we ought to have some very striking tree there instead. But I didn’t see what was wrong with the lovely, gorgeous, beautiful, yellow forsythia, so I kept it until it died. Then it was dug up and we put in a Ceanothus, which is probably what the architect would have liked there anyway.

We chose all the fruit trees for the orchard to produce fruit at different times. We studied hard to choose the right trees, and then they didn’t supply the trees we’d ordered. They should have supplied a Bramley, a Lord Derby and either a Keswick or a Newton Wonder. I couldn’t understand it: two of the trees kept on growing until they were much bigger than the other trees, and they were not producing any apples. Then at last they produced some apples, and I said to our decorator who was there, ‘I’ve got some Bramleys at last’. He went out and had a look and he said, ‘I’m very sorry to disappoint you, but you haven’t. They’re all three the same tree!’ They’d sent us two extra Lord Derby trees on the wrong root stock.

When we bought this house, your grandfather and I started going to local WEA [Workers’ Educational Association] lectures about Science in the Garden, run by the University of Nottingham. Your grandfather was never a keen gardener. He came to these classes but he never wanted particularly to put them into practice. I would come home full of beans, plus a soil testing kit, and could I get him interested in testing the soil? No! But he absolutely adored digging. He said that you could relax and think over problems when you were digging. If you’d have suggested no digging, he wouldn’t have liked it at all.

J: What do you think about no-dig gardening?

C: I think it’s wonderful!

J: And what was your lecturer’s opinion on pesticides?

C: Our lecturer was still using pesticides. This was the middle of the 70s, and he always  stressed that you must read the instructions, and not just wallop a dollop of insecticide into your spray gun. We were still using dreadful things then, like DDT.

J: What else can you tell me about changes in gardening through the 20th Century?

C: Well, one of the things is the number of different varieties that you can grow now. I mean, my father grew Ailsa Craig tomatoes, because that was what you grew. I also think that gardening has become a great deal more popular, more of a past-time. Within the last few years more and more people have started growing vegetables who would never have thought of growing them before. Women in particular are much keener on gardening. During the war, people became land girls —  afterwards they wanted to carry on outside and enjoy working in their gardens. Before the war, women liked to go out and dead-head the roses, but that was about as far as they wanted to dirty their hands.

J: Apart from Vita Sackville-West.

C: Oh, well, all those people; and Margery whatever her name was.

J: Why do you think gardening has become more popular?

C: Because one likes to have vegetables that you know are not contaminated by sprays and things. It’s all clean, it tastes better, and it’s great fun to go into the garden and harvest your own things that you’ve grown yourself. It’s real fun. I’ve always enjoyed that. I remember as an 8 or 9 year old going down the garden after school and picking an apple off the tree. It was marvellous! It was wonderful to do that. And I didn’t wash it!

J: What are the things that have made it easier to carry on gardening into your later years?

C: I know it sounds a bit trite, but it’s because I’ve never stopped. The raised beds have helped. I did a lot of things to try to make things easier. I planted quite a lot of shrubby things, flowering shrubs. I plant things like yellow courgettes. I’d never be able to see the courgettes otherwise. And my family helps a great deal.

J: What’s your favourite plant in your garden?

C: My daffodils! The spring garden plants are always my favourite. I’m also devoted to my walnut tree. I think it was very clever of me to grow it from a walnut. We were having a picnic under a walnut tree in France, and we said ‘Look at all these walnuts’, so we tried one and it was gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. And so we picked up a bagful, which was very naughty I know, but we did. They were on the ground; we didn’t pick any off the tree. And we ate most of them, but I kept five or six. I brought them back and put them in the bed in the greenhouse, and to my astonishment, they sprouted almost immediately.

J: Which is your favourite garden to have visited?

C: I loved Hidcote; I loved Levens Hall; I also loved Haddon for its roses. Those three gardens are outstanding in my mind.

J: If you could invite one famous gardener for dinner, who would it be?

C: Well it certainly wouldn’t be Christopher Lloyd because I would be frightened of him criticising my dinner. Do you know, I’d rather like to invite that Yorkshireman who did Gardeners’ World for so long. A lovely Yorkshireman — Geoffrey Smith, wasn’t it. He had such a wonderful sense of humour. I loved his gardening. He was a very sensible gardener. You could understand what he was talking about; he was very clear in his explanations. He absolutely adored flowers, and he did this wonderful programme, the best I’ve almost ever seen: he went round to find out where our favourite garden flowers originate. To see him lying flat on his stomach on a hillside in Greece, looking at a tiny flower, it was wonderful.

J: And which TV or radio gardeners do you currently enjoy watching or listening to?

C: I am very fond of Ann Swithinbank on Gardener’s Question Time. And on Gardeners’ World I like Monty Don. We don’t get enough of Monty Don. There are too many other presenters. You get distracted.

J: Thank you very much for talking to me about your gardening life.

C: I don’t think I was very enlightening.

J: But it was very helpful to learning about how gardeners did things in the old days and managed very well.

C: The basics of gardening, of digging and forking over and digging holes in the ground with trowels probably haven’t changed since the days of the monks and their herb gardens.

_______________

I do hope you enjoyed reading this conversation with my grandmother. We certainly enjoyed chatting away together! I should mention here that our whole family is indebted to my aunt, uncle and cousin who also do huge amounts of work in my grandmother’s garden. She also couldn’t do without her regular gardener who does the mowing and general maintenance. Having said that, my grandmother is still very much in charge, can still name every single plant in the garden along with its provenance (I’ve tested this), and makes regular forays to pick herbs and inspect the plants.

If you are thinking that there is something that I ought to have asked her but didn’t anything at all about any aspect of gardening during the twentieth century, or about gardening into old age then please let me know in the comments below and I will put your questions to her and get back to you with the answers.

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From the greenhouse vine. My grandmother once met the head gardener at Chatsworth and asked his advice on how to correctly prune her vine. She followed his instructions to the letter and she is always rewarded with delicious grapes every year.

 

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43 thoughts on “The Way We Used To Garden: a conversation with a 96-year-old gardener

  1. I thought it was fascinating reading about what your grandmother had to say about gardening. She’s a truly inspiring woman.

    1. Yes, indeed I shall! I have a few other ‘interviews’ with her on a dictaphone, about the war and so forth. Whenever she starts a new anecdote I find myself wishing I could record it. She’s too quick for me though!

  2. What a wonderful, unique interview. Thank you both SO much!!! I love love hearing about earlier days and the way things were done, and during the War, and the changes. This was just wonderful. Oh how I wish I had asked my grandmother, or my mother, some of these things….

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments, Libby. I am so glad you enjoyed it. I feel so fortunate that my Granny is around and able to tell me so many of her fascinating tales, and that I had the foresight to record some of them.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Amelia! She has inspired all of her four children into a lifetime of gardening, and a few of her grandchildren too. But I especially love that it came down through her father before her. I never knew my great grandfather, but I like to think that he would be pleased to see how his enthusiasm for gardening has kept trickling on down the generations.

  3. Such a wonderful idea to record these conversations. So much knowledge is lost because we don’t ask the questions. And she has a beautiful garden which must give her so much joy.

    “The basics of gardening, of digging and forking over and digging holes in the ground with trowels probably haven’t changed since the days of the monks and their herb gardens.”

    is my favourite part though, because she is quite right!

  4. Oh, this was such a treat! I loved hearing your Grandother’s take on all these topics- she sounds like a wonderful lady! I wish I had been able to chat with mine about gardening, but alas, my bug didn’t strike me until she had passed. Thank you for sharing this conversation and your Grandmother with us!

    1. Thank you Courtney – I am so sorry that your grandmother is no longer around to share her wonderful stories. I feel very lucky that I, and many members of my family, have recorded my Granny’s tales for posterity.

  5. Such a precious thing to have done! Lots of similarities with the gardening of my late father (born in 1926) and grandmother (born pre-1900). I agree with your grandmother about wanting to meet Geoff Hamilton – I never saw him on TV but it seems he promoted organic gardening before it became trendy, and was just full of common sense. Also agree with your grandmother on too many presenters within a single TV gardening programme. I like Monty, but others annoy me extremely and I hit the mute button until their segment is over.

    1. Thank you for your nice comments Linda – it does seem as though organic gardening started to take a grip quite a few decades ago, contrary to my own supposition. I do hope it becomes even more widespread these days, thanks to people like the presenters of Gardener’s World, who have been inspiring so many for so long.

  6. What a wonderful opportunity to sit and talk gardening with your grandmother. I only wish I could have asked my grandfather questions because he produced enough food in a very short growing season to last an entire year and was able to give frozen goodies away during winter visits. Thank you for sharing your lovely conversation. 🙂

    1. Thank you Judy – I hope grandchildren everywhere will be inspired to ask their grandparents questions about the past. There is so much interesting history of ordinary lives locked away in people’s minds. Your grandfather sounds like a wonderful gardener of the past. Oh, for a time machine!

    1. Thank you Eliza – she is a most determined person. The most determined I have ever met, and constantly active and full of ideas for the future. She embodies the adage that you are only the age you feel.

  7. Geoffrey Smith pre-dated Geoff Hamilton by a few years. He came across as a kind and patient man with a most beautiful Yorkshire accent. But Geoff Hamilton was lovely too – both are much missed.

    1. Thank you Katie – I think Mum met Geoff Hamilton when he was still at Barnsdale, a place I have always wanted to go to and for some ungraspable reason have STILL never been to despite it being such a short stride from home.

  8. I really enjoyed reading this Joanna; it was fascinating to read about previous gardening practices and how they compared. What a wonderful woman your grandmother is – what village does she live in now? Melbourne is barely half an hoir from us so please do think about popping in the next time you come down…you would be so welcome 🙂

    1. Dear Cathy, I’m so pleased you enjoyed it. Yes, it never crossed my mind that I pass through the West Midlands quite frequently whenever I travel home from Derbyshire up the M6. I would absolutely love to come and visit you, and as my next visit to Derbyshire will probably be in May I will certainly take you up on that offer if I may. I think I have your email address so I will be in touch as soon as I know the dates.

      1. Oh please do, Joanna. Just let us know when you have some dates in mind and we can liaise the best time for both of us. Hurrah! I look forward to it 🙂

  9. What a lovely post! really interesting to hear about how things were done before the rise of plastics, and totally agree with your grandmother – Hidcote is one of my favourites too!

    1. Thank you Charlotte – I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I was inspired to find out how people gardened before plastic as it seems to be swamping us these days. My grandmother put so many things straight for me. Listening to her stories always sweeps me away to another long-ago world. I can (and often do) sit for hours listening to her.

  10. Sorry for the late comment Joanna but I’m here for a long overdue catch-up. A lovely post. Your grandmother must provide you with much inspiration and knowledge. I’m not surprised that the walnut tree is one of her favourite plants. I would be interested to know how many years it has taken to reach that size.

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