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.
To have everything that may be wanted and of fair general excellence, and everything in general good order, is the true test of a good practical gardener in the average garden establishment; where, as a rule, the means are limited, and the gardener's ingenuity taxed pretty severely. But where men and material are allowed without stint, something more is, and ought to be, expected. In the latter case, an ordinary man will probably content himself with discharging the everyday duties of his situation - his aspirations not extending beyond the garden-walls; while an energetic man, who is fond of his business, would think he had failed if he did not accomplish a great deal more for the benefit of horticulture generally. This is the right man in the right place, and there are not a few such who have given horticulture a visible lift in our time - men who form the front rank of the profession; behind comes a motley company of talkers and workers, the former not unfrequently jostling their way to the front, pushed on by the mere force of circumstances, like "Things that we know are neither rich nor rare, But wonder how the d - 1 they got there".
I fancy, if all gardeners were tried strictly by the test I have indicated, many a verdict would be reversed. Horticultural exhibitions bring out prominent features, but the best prizes do not always indicate the best gardeners. Indeed, prize-schedules do not often afford the opportunity. The prize offered by the 'Gardeners' Chronicle' proprietors at the Royal Horticultural Society's Provincial Shows, is a step in the right direction; and here, by the way, I would beg to suggest that the ' Gardener' put in an appearance at Nottingham this year, having its worthy Editor to concoct a nut for exhibitors to crack. But to return to our subject, and to begin at the beginning, I would say that the first step towards a successful career is for the beginner to get into a first-class establishment, where everything is done, and done well. In nine cases out of ten he will probably never have an opportunity of doing things as he has been accustomed; but it is a great matter to know in what perfection consists; and perfection ought always to be his aim.
I am, of course, assuming a young gardener to make the best of his opportunities; but with every inclination to view their shortcomings leniently, it must be admitted that very many show a deplorable want of discretion and good sense in their first outset as master-gardeners, not only in managing an establishment, but quite as frequently in managing their relations with their employers, and everybody with whom they are necessarily thrown in contact. Many a one has lost a good situation through no want of ability as a gardener, but solely through stubbornness, or inability to conform to circumstances over which he has no control. Scotch gardeners, more so than English, have very high notions concerning their prerogatives, perhaps because they are generally better educated than Englishmen of the same class, and have more pride of craft about them, which sometimes takes the form of conceit with young men from large establishments, but generally destined, sooner or later, to get a "fearfu' settler".
A large share of self-confidence is, however, necessary in a gardener who wishes to push ahead, but it must be accompanied with energy and resolution. Work does not end with the journeyman's career. I do not mean that the master is to make a navvy of himself, or take the spade along with his men. There are some places where a large share of work devolves upon him. but in establishments worthy of the name, where an ordinary staff is employed, a sensible employer will leave the matter to the discretion of his gardener, and he can employ himself to much better purpose by thinking for, and arranging the work for, those under him. As a rule, the ordinary workman takes but a limited interest in his duties, some none at all, and it requires all the superintendent's watchfulness and attention to details to prevent the waste of energy that would thereby result. The study of his men, and their various capabilities, is not the least important duty of the master, and a little tact in this way will often save much trouble and annoyance. Frequent changing tells against a garden very much, and he does well who realises this at the beginning. In all cases authority must be maintained, but there are various ways of doing this, and much depends upon circumstances.
We know places in England and Scotland where a whole locality sometimes depends upon one man for employment, and where heads of departments can do pretty much as they please; but in the great centres of industry, and perhaps among a rude population, where high prices are paid for unskilled labour, a gardener has to contend with some difficulties in securing and maintaining a permanent staff, which good wages do not always overcome. This is a fact which gardeners from north of the Tweed very often realise. The English labourer is a willing, but a very independent, individual; and the condition of his funds - often low enough - is no barrier to the exercising of his independence to its fullest extent, though his pride does generally sustain it for a great while. But to come nearer the question in hand, let us imagine a young man leaving a subordinate situation in an establishment, where everything has been kept in that trim order which he has been accustomed to regard as necessary to his peace of mind, to take charge of another, where, in addition to an inadequate squad in a chronic state of mutiny, he finds everything suffering from long-continued mismanagement and neglect - houses in a state of chaotic confusion, great encouragement for painters and glaziers, and particularly for carpenters, though there may be an easy-going colony over the way, upon whose staid habits our young friend's energetic representations fail to make any perceptible impression.
In the kitchen-garden things are on a par - walks, the outlines of which are here and there indicated by vestiges of extinct edgings, he finds to serve both for purposes of traffic and main-drainage, becoming small mountain-torrents after a thunderstorm, which, following the well-worn barrow-tracks, turn in at the first door of a range of sheds, where, after filling up the inequalities of the floor, they find their way to a Mushroom cellar, which they traverse, eventually finding their way through a hole in the wall, knocked out with an eye to expediency, and pouring like a small waterfall into a deep stoke-hole on the other side, drawing forth, at the same time, a very emphatic commentary from the superintendent of these regions, who nevertheless displays great engineering ability in contending with an element so unfavourable to his operations, the circumstances never failing to set him a-cogitating on a grand drainage scheme that is for ever to emancipate him from his troubles. As regards vegetables, let him imagine some crops tolerable, some very bad, with here and there large tracts bearing marvellous crops of Groundsel and Sow-Thistle; Espaliers contending for very existence with long rows of ancient Gooseberry-bushes planted in front of them, and everything else in the same cheerful order.
In such circumstances, great reliance has been placed upon a field of Turnip-tops for furnishing a second-course dish; and for bedding-stock, etc, an extensive acquaintance with friends better off has been found of great advantage. In addition to all this, a civil understanding with a number of important individuals who entertain the most innocent ideas concerning the capabilities of a garden has to be kept up, not to speak of employers, whose hobbies the gardener must adopt as his own, until such time as he can modify them at his discretion. Now, this, though a tolerably bad case, is no imaginary picture; the great consolatory feature being, that there is plenty of room for improvement. A young man placed in such circumstances is very likely to be the subject of what a certain class of individuals would call "salutary reflections." His self-esteem, unless of an unusually elastic description, would be likely to collapse, and he would rather that the indefatigable editor of the 'Directory' had left his name out of the list, or that, at least, he had added a 2 to the cipher that indicated the accessibility of his whereabouts from the station.
At first, ideas of a moonlight flitting will probably occur to him; on second thoughts, he will resolve on making energetic representations to the proprietor; lastly, he will probably decide, and wisely, to make the best of things as they are, until his success with the means at his disposal encourages him to expect greater facilities. A year's experience of a place and its capabilities will often induce one to alter many plans that perhaps may have suggested themselves sooner; besides, employers do not care, and are not to be expected, to launch into expense at the suggestion of one of whose ability and reputation they have had as yet no practical confirmation. It is at first a puzzle to one, who has been accustomed to ample assistance in the shape of men and means, to know how he is to make ends meet when these are altogether inadequate, and very probably the same results expected. He will have a few lessons to unlearn, probably; means will have to be stretched, and a strict line drawn between what is essential and what is not; little superfluities - nibbling, trimming, and dressing - must be given up when not likely to offend the eye greatly, for good gardening is compatible with a certain amount of untidiness.
Under any circumstances, good tools are indispensable, and should be found, otherwise work cannot be accomplished. Everything ought to be thought out previously by those in authority, and, as far as possible, every detail foreseen. An incalculable loss of time is the result of want of method - a very general failing. A foreman who is deficient in this quality is a complete stumbling-block to a master, and the sooner they part the better for both. Some men lack in a remarkable degree that sustained energy necessary for a gardener, and either fail altogether or content themselves with following some particular hobby - perhaps it is Orchids, perhaps Roses, perhaps Grape-growing, or something else - while everything else is a complete muddle; and yet such people often get elevated into great horticultural authorities.
A note-book should be the constant companion of master and foreman, and everything should be noted down as it occurs to the memory, and this should always be referred to in arranging the work for the following week or day. By doing this nothing is likely to be forgot, and everything is likely to have its legitimate share of attention.
I find I could carry the subject farther than space allows, and I will conclude by enumerating the three things essential to success in a gardener - they may be food for discussion among your readers: the first is a love for the profession for its own sake; the second, energy; and the 'third, skill: have the first, and the rest will be added unto you.