Back in the day, I was involved in reissuing several books by the polemical garden writer William Robinson (1838–1935), he of Gravetye Manor. The Wheel of Fortune having nudged on a bit, I am now spending a few hours each week leafing through Robinson’s weekly periodical, The Garden, which he wrote large chunks of, edited and published from 1871 to 1899. (He continued to own it until 1919.) I am looking for certain specific references, but it’s fatally easy to get distracted.
For example, who knew that a major preoccupation of both amateur and professional gardeners during this period was how to get rid of worms from the soil? All sorts of unpleasant chemical mixtures were offered as a sure-fire solution, so it came as something of a relief to read a rave, full-page review in 1881 of Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms: With Observations on their Habits (published that year). Unfortunately, two weeks later, along came another worm-destroying recipe…
One of the most interesting regular columns is a ‘what to do this week in your garden’ – or rather, ‘what I did this week in my garden, for you to catch up with’. Several gardeners contributed over the years, but the (to me) most engaging was Mr W.G. Pragnell, who in addition to his Herculean labours in the garden also listed the fruits made available to the house for dessert.
The house in question, after a bit of rooting round online, turned out to be Sherborne Castle in Dorset, seat (then as now) of the Wingfield Digby family, for whom William Pragnell was head gardener, as his father Joseph had been before him. (He attended, and sent his sons, to Foster’s School in Sherborne, where one of them, George, is commemorated as a benefactor: he ended up working as managing partner for Sir Francis Cook, textile millionaire and art collector, and ‘was made Deputy Lieutenant of the City of London, and last of all [in 1912, three years before his death at the age of 53] the special honour of knighthood has been conferred on him by his Sovereign. The photograph which Sir George has been good enough to give us will be a lasting reminder of what a Foster’s Schoolboy by integrity, determination, and perseverance can do’.)
The gardens at Sherborne Castle today consist of about 30 acres of garden and pleasure ground, plus 1,200 acres of parkland. It was an early (1753) project of Capability Brown, who put a lake in between the picturesque ruins of the old castle (wasted during the Civil War) and the new. One assumes therefore that Pragnell was in charge of quite a large team – just as well, when you consider his ‘Extracts from my diary’ from 1877.
I have started in July, when amateur/lazy gardeners like me tend to relax a bit after the frenetic activity of spring and early summer: weather permitting, actually sitting in the garden and reading is occasionally possible. But for the gardeners of Sherborne, there was no down time: relentless work six days a week, even in the ‘quietest’ months of the year.
Here is the first extract:
Note the reference to the Black Hamburg Grape bunches, to be cut and stood in bottles of water: this was a recognised way of preserving ripe grapes which is frequently referred to in The Garden. I also like the gathering of ‘gherkins, cucumber, cauliflower, onions, etc., for mixed pickles’.
In the following week, as well as lots of sowing of spring vegetables, and lifting kidney potatoes for seed, there is ‘layering strawberry runners on square pieces of turf, in order to obtain plants for a new plantation’ – an ingenious idea. Fruits for dessert are pines [pineapples, from a heated bed], melons, grapes, figs, plums, cherries, pears, apples, gooseberries and currants.
On 1 September, inter alia, the grape bottles are emptied, and refilled with ‘spring water with a little charcoal added’. Fruit in use for dessert this week includes peaches and nectarines as well as the usual pineapples, grapes, pears, figs and plums.
On 7 September, a batch of Osborn’s Early Forcing French Beans is sown in pots ‘for a supply at Christmas’, while earlier in the week, onions are laid to dry in the fruit-cleared vine houses before they are plaited and roped together.
Later in September, pelargoniums are dried off for the winter ‘in large store boxes and pots’.
Going through to October, there is a lot of emphasis on potting up pelargonium cuttings from a large number of varieties: this is presumably building up stocks for bedding out (was William Robinson grinding his teeth as he read this?) next summer. But there is also ‘clearing out all water-spouts and drains before the rainy season sets in’, and ‘roping onions’, ‘looking over seed potatoes’, making pegs, labels, etc.’ as activities for wet weather.
Later in October, the last of the tomatoes are gathered, and hung in glasshouse to ripen, and French beans sown for the following year; hyacinths, narcissi and tulips are planted in pots.
In early November, ‘pips’ of lily of the valley are potted up for forcing for Christmas, while a new mushroom bed is ‘spawned’, and the ice-house is cleared out, ‘ready for refilling the first opportunity’.
On 16 November there is a note which gives in passing the scale of the operation: ‘Getting in 100 pots of French beans’ – in addition, presumably, to the beans that were sown a fortnight earlier.
As Christmas approaches, as well as the sowing of mustard and cress which happens almost every week, there is ‘getting in another batch of French beans’, as well as checking all the potted-up pelargoniums for signs of rot.
The end of December produces a break in the routine: between cutting evergreens on 24 December and ‘getting into gentle heat a few old fuchsias to provide cuttings’ on the 26th, the gardeners have had Christmas Day off!
But the following week, we are back to six days of work, with no mention of any frivolity between 31 December and 1 January. And on 4 January, yet another ‘100 pots of French beans in, and earthing up a more forward lot’.
It would be fascinating to find out more about the size of the gardening team at Sherborne, and the numbers of family, household staff and visitors they were working to keep not only fed but surrounded by flowers in the house (to say nothing of the maintenance of the pleasure grounds and park). William Pragnell’s relentless daily round of tasks, the constant planning ahead to keep supplies coming through, and the remarkable number of varieties of the various flowers, fruit and veg grown, show an experienced and skillful head gardener – one wonders how many of the suburban amateurs who read The Garden shook their heads in mute despair at this weekly challenge to their own energy and expertise.