This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
A day or two's "outing" in the middle of winter by some may not be considered a great treat, especially when cold winds, frost, and snow prevail; but when one has a purpose in view, difficulties are easily surmounted; and travelling in the railway carriages, which are now becoming proverbial for their comfort, as much as they were noted for their discomfort a few years ago, and the usual attention to creature comforts of an important nature, one can enjoy a holiday in mid-winter; and so we thought about the middle of January last when passing through the lower parts of Oxfordshire and Berks, where a large tract of fine lands was under water, and boats in some parts apparently let for hire, as great numbers in rows were closely packed together in full sail, awaiting pleasure-seekers.
Leaving this behind we sped rapidly to Woking, in Surrey, en route for the far-famed Knap Hill Nurseries. Passing from the railway station we turned in by a pathway along by a canal for nearly two miles, and turning up to the highroad, a fine large building attracted our attention, and as we got nearer it became more interesting, and at last became painfully so, as it turned out to be a convict prison. A large "team" of bipeds were drawing manure, all being apparently chained to the cart. The poor fellows often appeared to stick, the wheels sinking deeply into the mud; however, they rested a few moments and at it again. The warders in their dull blue clothing and rifles, guarding each side of the unfortunate string of men, walked leisurely, looking apparently carelessly on. Further on the road, we came up to another "team " drawing coals, probably for the prison supply. The countenances of the men seemed to show that common humanity had not left these unfortunate mortals - sadness, if not repentance, was stamped on them all.
One old white-haired man, who had been apparently living in easy circumstances, turned away his head as I passed, as if to hide his grief; there was no help but draw on, with the rifle close to his ear.
By this time " nursery stock" could be seen not far off, and I soon began to look for an entrance to the nursery of Mr Anthony Waterer. The first thing that took my attention in the way of plants was a number of Rose-stocks neatly placed in rows 2 feet apart and a few inches between each stock. Each row was kept to a uniform height, and probably colours and sorts would be arranged in the same systematic manner. A number of men were planting, and I should suppose that there were already in the ground some tens of thousands. It would appear that the taste for Roses was increasing, or great numbers must be destroyed annually. Passing in through the nursery-gates, along Yew-covered walks, leading through almost endless ranges of pits and other low structures, apparently used for the propagation, protection, etc., of shrubs and trees, I soon found Mr Waterer, a gentleman in possession of one of the largest and best-stocked nurseries in the world. One hears of great gardening sights which often are found on paper only; but these nurseries are far beyond anything I had previously conceived.
They contain about 270 acres of shrubs, trees, and everything else of an ornamental character for the decoration of gardens, - Hollies, Rhododendrons, and Conifers in magnificent specimens, all lifted and relifted, preparatory for planting, as perhaps the principal features; all being planted for effect even in the nursery-grounds.
Attention to economy may be observed; single specimens of standard Rhododendrons at good distances apart were placed in, so to speak, carpets of dwarf healthy plants. Specimen Hollies (Golden Queen, Waterers, Silver, etc.,) are in large breadths, and often forming boundaries to other shrubs which are grown in quantity. The perfect specimens, both in regard to health and shape, are very-striking; many of them I believe about 30 years old, and have been often lifted to suit removal without injury. Many nice specimens of Cupressus Lawsonia erecta were in fine condition, and this variety is a great favourite at Knap Hill.
Mr Waterer called our attention to one brake of Hollies of sorts shaped as pyramids, and standards with globular heads, some feathered to the ground, others like massive domes, all perfect specimens. Some of the "cream "of the stock were here, over 1000, all averaging from 6 to 10 feet high and as much in diameter. Close to this were 6 acres of specimens a size less but equally handsome, probably averaging 6 to 10 guineas in price, but cheap to the buyer. We passed through a large open quarter in which were planted 50,000 Lilium auratum. Standard Yews, golden and plain, are grown in equal proportion to the Hollies, etc.: all sizes and shapes are to be seen, many of the stems furnished as green pillars with golden heads.
The grand avenue, about a mile in length, is amazingly fine, being belted with specimens planted for effect, not too stiff and formal, but relieved with Cupressus, Cedrus Deodara, Wellingtonias, etc, standing out in bold relief. At each crossing fine Hollies were placed as golden pillars; and one feature worthy of notice was a Fir of considerable size loaded with a Wistaria all entwined through its branches, which must be a grand sight when in full flower. A long border by the side of a hedge was clothed with double yellow primroses blooming profusely, splendid objects for hardy flower-gardening: they were offered to us at the come-at-able price of 7os. per 100. We retraced our steps, sorry that our time was so short in this splendid nursery, but feeling we were amply paid for a journey of over 100 miles. We took the train to London, thence to Barnet, visiting Mr Cutbush's nurseries, which have so long been favourably known for the fine collections of specimen greenhouse plants cultivated there. There is about an acre of glass filled with excellent stuff, clean, healthy, and kept in fine shape.
Pet-Vines are among Mr Cutbush's specialties. His stock is always fine; and one of the secrets of getting such finely-ripened canes, Mr Fancourt (the able manager) told us, was by very slow forcing in their young stage, and when they had made plenty of roots they are driven along at rapid pace in the long days, completing their growth early, and allowing a long period for ripening and for rest. Stove-plants were very clean and healthy, growing in a very low temperature.
The nursery-grounds were well stocked with shrubs and general stock, but we had time to inspect very little of it. The great breadths of Hollies surely indicate that the demand for these plants is greatly on the increase. This nursery produces splendid Roses, the soil being strong and deep. Among the specialties are fruit-trees and Mushroom spawn. The latter is sent in great quantities to all parts of the British Isles; and like his brother at Highgate, Mr Cutbush is favourably known for his large trade in bulbs. Leaving Mr Cutbush and his kind hospitality, we made a hurried visit to an old friend whose value to lovers of plants is well known, but not so widely as the splendid contributions he sent home from Brazil and elsewhere, while collecting for the Horticultural Society of London. We refer to Mr John Weir, who lost his health and almost his life while sailing down a South American river. He now lives at Hadley, near Barnet, deprived of almost all physical power, but with an intellect as bright as ever, and a heart as warm as we knew it, by experience, to be twenty years ago.
This is one of the cases which we would not consider it to be wrong if dealt with by the State, and means allowed for the support of those who have given what was dearest to them in the world (their health) for the benefit of science and their race. Wishing that we had more time to spend in the locality, we beat a hasty retreat and took train to London, visiting Covent Garden with the view of comparing notes. We have seen some things at the season much finer in the market, but never saw quantities lai-ger. Fruits consisted of some fine Pears, showy Apples, Grapes plentiful, but with the exception of some Alicants and Gros Colrnan, the others were unfit for use. The quantities of wretched small Pines with huge crowns showed that the growth of inferior fruit was not out of date. There were a few good Cayennes and Black Jamaicas. Asparagus was poor, French Beans very few and "seedy." Seakale was plentiful but moderate in quality. Common vegetables were good and plentiful. Cut-flowers abundant, consisting chiefly of Camellias, Roses-Devoniensis, Souvenir de Malmaison, Gloire de Dijon, and others of that class mostly in bud.
After seeing all that Covent Garden exhibited to public view, our next route was to the nurseries at Fulham. This "firm," so long and favourably known for its respectability, is conducted much on the same principles as when the late Messrs Osborne were at the head of the affairs of the business. An excellent manager has been secured, and the various departments are each well managed; we thought the stoves and greenhouses were never in better order. Great quantities of plants fit for table-decoration were in robust health and very clean. The demand for these plants seems on the increase. The young stock of Heaths was in very fine condition. Though every garden requisite is kept in stock at the Fulham Nurseries, the feature which has so long distinguished this fine old business is the unrivalled stock of fruit-trees, which are in as fine condition as ever; and we were pleased to see the veteran Mr Pitman, though marked with the shades of time since last we saw him, as active and enthusiastic among the fruit-trees under his charge as ever he was. He may have equals as knifemen, though we have not met them, but it is hardly possible that he can have a superior in the art.
It was gratifying to know that this nursery business is prospering though deprived of its two leaders last year under melancholy circumstances, and that the widows and children are substantially provided for, though nothing in a tangible form can make up for the loss of an excellent father. Leaving Fulham we intended visiting Veitch's Exotic Nurseries, but the want of time prevented us enjoying a peep of this the finest plant establishment in Europe, and we could only glance over the vast ranges of glass as we passed along on the 'bus; but we had a run through this establishment two months ago, and the quantity and quality of every plant worth growing are still maintained in all their excellence; and we may say that this nursery holds the same position for its exotic plants which Knap Hill holds for its hardy shrubs and trees. We returned to Oxfordshire much refreshed by sight-seeing: and when employers send their gardeners out for a gardening tour, we consider it advantageous to both parties, and money expended in this way by considerate employers is generally returned to them with interest in another form.