from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Flowers…

May 29. Flowers!  On May 19 I discussed the very high level of domestic gardens in this lock-downed country.  It is a practice with a long and much-described history.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, specialised plant-rearing spread out from country houses to the mass of the population.  By the beginning of the Victorian period there was a large industry of specialised nurseries, supported by a burgeoning literature which in its way supplied as much useful and timely information as Monty Don’s Gardener’s World.  The 1803 edition of John Abercrombie’s Every Man His Own Gardener, for instance, ran to 646 pages of monthly tasks, followed by another hundred pages cataloguing plants and then a thorough index.  Artisans joined together in associations which offered annual prizes.  A survey of the industrial north in 1826, identified fifty auricular and polyanthus shows annually, together with twenty-seven tulip, nine ranunculus, nineteen pink and forty-eight carnation competitions. 

I have on past Fridays, supplied stay-at-home food from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1861Here now, for those who like me still cannot get to garden centres, is the London trade in plants as sold in the Covent Garden and Farringdon wholesale markets.  In this case the volumes are not the point; there were numerous nurseries on the edge of the capital also supplying a substantial market.  But Mayhew’s table does describe the basic tastes of Londoners in garden flowers:

Primroses         1,000                                     Polyanthus                         1440

Cowslips           1200                                       Daisies                                  1400

Wallflowers     1920                                       Candytufts                          1200

Daffodils          1200                                       Violets                                  2400

Mignonette      3800                                       Stocks                                   2880

Pinks & and Carnations   800                      Lilies of the Valley            288

Pansies              1080                                      Lilies and Tulips                 280

Balsam               640                                       Calceolarii                            600

Musk Plants       10560                                   London Pride                     720

Lupins                 1600                                     China-Asters                      850

Marigolds           10560                                    Dahlias                                  160

Heliotropes        1280                                      Michaelmas Daisies         432        (p.131)

Most of these plants, in one form or another, are the staple of modern nurseries.  It could be argued that gardens constitute one of the strongest links between the present and the past.  In most other areas – diet, clothing, occupation, health, mortality, warfare, politics, religious belief (in particular) there is a void between our own times and a period even as recent as the Victorian era.  But less so in the practice of growing flowers (and vegetables).

Rose Cecile Brunner

John Clare (1793-1864), the great peasant poet of nature, owned half a dozen gardening books, including Abercrombie, and had a deep interest in the latest developments in horticulture.  Were he to find his way into my garden, he would recognise many of the plants as versions of those that he grew, and would take an informed interest in later imports and introductions.

Above all he would understand why I spend so much time between my hedges, and what pleasure it gives me, with or without the current inconvenience.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: pickled eggs

May 19.  Last week the invaluable Office for National Statistics published a survey of gardens in the UK.  The headline news was that one in eight homes lacked a garden, another measure of the wide-ranging inequality of experience in this crisis.

It is possible, however, to take a glass half-full, or seven-eighths-full, view of this finding.  It seems to me astonishing that on this over-crowded island, so long after the invention of high-rise living, the great majority of people in Britain want to live in property with a fenced fragment of nature attached to it, and are able to do so.  For the locked-in elderly the proportion of those with access to private outdoor space is even higher at 92%.

The size of the patch of land is not really the point.  Obviously, half an acre is a luxury to be enjoyed if it can be afforded.  But each of my children, living in their first houses in London, take immense pleasure in the small rectangles of grass and surrounding borders beyond their back doors.  The two that have young offspring have room for a sandpit, a paddling pool on hot days, a portable wigwam to play in.  It’s been kind of rite of passage for them to start acquiring the horticultural knowledge and skills that they saw their parents possess and practice when they were themselves growing up.

Possession and use of a garden are matters of private choice.  It is a measure of the relative transience of the coronavirus pandemic is that we have not been instructed to ‘dig for victory’ as was the case in the Second World War (although today Prince Charles has launched a ‘pick for victory’ campaign to help the commercial fruit growers).  Despite occasional gloomy forecasts, we have not been told to grow our own food to survive.  In the First World War the pressures of urban slums were relieved by the provision of over half a million allotments following the Smallholdings and Allotment Act of 1908, which required local authorities to purchase or lease land upon which their communities could grow flowers and food.

Gardening is a necessary pleasure.  As we begin to reduce the lockdown, garden centres have been amongst the first to be allowed to re-open, albeit with appropriate distancing measures.  That much of their retail space is out of doors makes them a safer proposition than, say, clothing shops, but the queues that immediately formed once the relaxation was announced were testament to the pent-up demand.  As I noted in a previous entry, the fact that in the northern hemisphere the pandemic has coincided with Spring not Autumn has helped to make the crisis bearable, but it has also created a lively market for plants, fertilizer and other sundries.

As with any recreation, gardening also performs the function of providing substitute dramas and anxieties, to distract from the larger problems.  Last week the major misfortune in my life was not some coronavirus-related event, but a sharp May frost which decimated fifty cosmos plants that I had grown in my greenhouse and just planted out in the garden.  Then there is the mole which has started digging up a lately sown patch of grass.  In a Zoom session with my home-schooling seven-year old granddaughter, I asked her to research humane remedies for moles.  She came back later in the day with information that putting pickled eggs down their holes should keep them at bay.

But where, in the midst of a lock-down, am I going to obtain pickled eggs?

https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/oneineightbritishhouseholdshasnogarden/2020-05-14