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.
HAVE we recently passed a Horticultural Reform Bill, or, if not, what mean this sudden awakening, on the part of certain great ones, to the knowledge that our cottagers are "horticulturally" ignorant? and this anxious desire to spread amongst them the principles of correct gardening by means of a flood of essays that are assumed to contain, for the information of the cottage-gardener, all the knowledge and research that many years of study have enabled the writers to treasure up? It was very kind of those who held out the alluring baits to these earnest scribes thus to try to inculcate into the minds of the poor labourer a little more knowledge relative to gardening, and there was no doubt an equally kind intention on the part of the writers themselves; but, after all their labours and all their good intentions, not one-hundredth part of our cottagers will read one-tenth part of what has been written; and not more than one-tenth of those who read will comprehend, much less practise, what has been so learnedly and so laboriously composed for their special behoof.
There are two things about cottagers that seem to have escaped the attention of their would-be patrons - 1st, They take but little interest in garden literature (the horticultural column of a penny weekly paper being their chief reading); 2d, They are, as a rule, much better versed in practical cottage-gardening than they have hitherto been supposed to be. That these two assertions will have the support of nearly all who are thoroughly conversant with cottage-gardeners I feel assured; and they will also admit that the poorer classes are really good vegetable cultivators, their success in this respect being usually more often limited by the means at their disposal than by any lack of cultural knowledge. It is very rarely that the vegetables cultivated by the cottager exceed in number some seven or eight kinds - his stock-crops being Potatos, Runner and Broad Beans, Cabbages, Turnips, Onions, Parsnips, and Vegetable Marrows, with probably just a few Lettuces and Radishes for salad in the hot weather. Peas are rather too expensive, and cover too much ground; indeed, in most cases they are looked upon rather as a luxury than as a necessary vegetable.
Granting, as I do most readily, that in the matter of sorts grown there may be some improvement, yet in regard to his actual wants he is the best judge; and he invariably grows the crops upon which his mind is set, with so much of care and judgment as to frequently put professional gardeners to shame. The cottager knows as well as any one the use of a good spade or fork, and the value of deep digging; he also knows the value of manure and its application. Herein he is quite practical in two of the most important elements of vegetable culture, although, at the same time, the most simple ones. Not a little, however, in the cottage-garden, depends upon the worker's tastes. Of course, some men are more thoroughly imbued with gardening fancies than others, but it may be taken as a rule that a love of gardening is inherent in the breasts of all of us; and especially is this sentiment strong amongst the poor, who will earnestly strive to obtain a piece of allotment ground if they have no garden attached to their dwelling, and think it no hardship to walk long distances, after a day's hard labour has been performed, to gratify their natural taste for gardening operations, and secure some profit for their labour.
I have stated that the cottager takes but little interest in garden literature, and the cause of this indifference is to be found less in his comparative literary ignorance than in the fact that the horticultural serial literature of the present day has for him no features of interest, or adaptability to his capacities and requirements. It is not to be expected that matter purely professional in character can offer to the cottager much that is enticing. For him a special literature is necessary - a literature that shall awaken his interest, fall in with his notions, adapt itself to his capacities, and finally become the horticultural organ of the poorer classes. Then in regard to their practical knowledge, which, though possibly in some respects crude, is yet far from being small in amount, as is generally imagined, - it is obvious, to all familiar with them, that more improvement is to be made in this respect by the force of example than by mere precept or reading. Clergymen or gentlemen who have a special desire to extend a knowledge of horticulture amongst those by whom they are surrounded, will find their most useful assistant-teacher to be their own well-cultivated garden, into which they should invite their poorer neighbours to inspect it; and if to this lesson they can add that of a thorough practical knowledge themselves, they will find that progress and improvement in the cottage-gardens about them will be made just in proportion as they put these powerful instructive influences into operation.
In the 'Gardener's Annual' for 1863, an unique little volume, edited by the Rev. S. Reynolds Hole, is to be found a most admirably-written chapter on cottage-gardening, that is ten times more worthy of circulation amongst rich and poor alike than are the heavy, cumbrous, and dry details of even the prize essay spoken of in your last number. Here a little story is told of how, by example and precept, a persevering clergyman succeeded in reforming the morals and quickening the horticultural life of the poor of his parish, not by the prescribed formulas of church and school, but through the power of that love of beauty and order dwelling so strongly within himself. I give one short extract: - "I am sure that ours would be a happier world if we had more such assemblies of rich and poor [the cottagers' show], if we would allow ourselves to be convinced that our neighbours (our neighbours are those who live nearest to us) bring, like all other duties, the surest and purest recompense, if the members of a parish would try to act, as the members of a family, more in unison • and if, making our friendships where we see more of our friends, and weighing men's merits rather than their spoons, we would enjoy the Primroses and Violets under our feet, instead of breaking our hearts about a blue Dahlia." How many of our provincial clergy or gentry are willing to emulate the example this little story sets forth, and thus, by the power of horticultural teaching, strive to aid the material welfare of their neighbours? Especially can they prove useful in getting for distribution amongst them vegetable and flower seeds of an improved character, newer and more prolific varieties of Potatoes, cheap and useful fruit-trees, and furnishing them with advice and help in a hundred ways, without trespassing over those bounds of charity that are at all times so dangerous to cross when dealing with the working-classes.
The gratuitous advice, freely given to cottagers of late, about the best sorts of fruit-trees for their gardens, should rather be addressed to landowners and others who are constituted the cottage landlords. How many of this class of persons are there who make the provisioning of their cottage - gardens with a proper supply of fruit-trees a matter of grave interest or even of inquiry? Yet that it is a part of their duty as owners there can be no doubt, as fruit-trees are not the creatures of a day, but for many succeeding years. Is it wise or just to expect that cottagers, whose tenancy of their gardens is limited by uncertainty, and whose means are equally so, will expend money upon the purchase of trees that can only yield a moderate crop at least in some five or six years afterwards? Advice as to the best sorts to grow may be all very well, but that the advice thus tendered will be practised by those to whom it is addressed is beyond the range of probabilities; it may be within the reach of one or two to accomplish it, but to the great mass of poor men it will prove superfluous.
Perhaps some day the few who hold the millions of broad acres of which Great Britain consists may awake to the conviction that their vast possessions may be improved, and the lives of their poorer tenants made more tolerable, by the addition of a nursery to their estates, from which every garden, great and small, may have a full and constant supply of all useful kinds of productive fruit-trees free of charge, and shall place all these gardens under such a degree of horticultural control that none shall be lacking in any important respect. Such a proposal as this carried out would be the means of almost working a revolution in cottage homes, and be made useful in adding largely to the means of subsistence of the rural poor. We have never too much fruit. Very abundant seasons are in this unpropitious clime "few and far between;" and, owing to the comparatively small quantity of the better sorts of fruit that are grown, such kinds are rarely within the reach of the poor.
Many a writer, and oft, has painted the delightful spectacle of seeing all our cottages covered with the fruit of the Peach, Nectarine, Pear, Apricot, and the Grape. What has been done practically to realise this conception'? Comparatively nothing. Let the trees be supplied by landowners free, and be subjected to a certain amount of professional supervision, and then we may be found in a fair way to realise the ideal picture.
In good sooth, writers may write and printers may print whole heaps of book-lore for the special edification of these same cottagers, but the real work must be done by those whose position in life is such as to give force to their precept and power to their example. There are few greater aids to the promotion of improved cottage-gardening than in the establishment of cottagers' shows, either once or twice in the year; but the promoters must not fall into the mistake of supposing that to establish the show is all they have to do. The gathering together of produce of the year's labours may be, and is, a sight of great interest; but that interest, and the advantage of the spectacle, can only be measured by the patient working and teaching that has been afforded by those who wish to see real improvement and success. The kindly word, the right advice, the apt cultural hints, the showing how to do where mere precept fails, - this is the seed to sow, of which the show is the fruit and realisation.
To this part of the subject, however, I will revert anon. That our cottagers already know much, I believe; that they are willing to be taught more, I feel assured; their teaching must not be pedantic, but rather a labour of pleasure and of love.
A Cottage Gardener.