Very often, when gardeners walk through the well-tended garden of another gardener, the first impulse is to notice the plants, the textures, the play of color from one bed to the next. Quickly behind that assessment is the acknowledgement — and admiration — for the work and thought that went into creating their garden paradise.
It’s that thought which makes The Victorian Gardener (Shire Publications), by Caroline Ikin, such a fascinating book. Written with Ikin’s keen eye for detail and passion for all things Victorian, the book is a tribute in both words and photos to the men — and eventually the women — who made gardening their life’s work, who tended some of the most famous estate gardens in the world, and who did much of the work with their hands, muscles, and brains.
I recently had the chance to speak with Ms. Ikin, whose previous book, The Victorian Garden, was also featured on this blog.
NGDM: This is very exciting for me, since you mentioned you were working on this book in our earlier interview promoting The Victorian Garden. In that interview, you mentioned how drawn you were to the Victorian time period — the people, the technology, the role of women. Did anything surprise you in your research for The Victorian Gardener?
CI: It is astounding just how dedicated these young men were in the pursuit of their chosen career. To become a gardener they had to work their way up through the ranks of the profession, moving from garden to garden to gain experience and often living in very basic accommodations. They were expected to study in the evening, keep detailed journals of their progress, learn Latin, bookkeeping and geometry, and never really had any time off as the glasshouse vents had to be opened whether it was a weekday or a weekend.
It was inspiring to research the lives of the pioneering women gardeners who enrolled in training courses and overcame prejudice to gain employment as gardeners alongside men. However, my admiration of this achievement was tempered by the fact that many of these women abandoned their fledgling careers after a year or two to get married, forsaking their hard-won vocation so rapidly.
NGDM: At first glance, The Victorian Gardener appears to be a history book — or a tribute — to Victorian gardeners and their contributions to gardening today. I must tell you, though, that as I read your book I felt I was reading more of a family tree than a history book. I felt a very strong connection to the men — and eventually the women — who toiled in the garden. Was that your goal when you set out to write this book?
CI: There has been a lot written about gardening and garden design, but very little about the history of the gardening profession. I wanted to research the lives of the people who toiled behind the scenes to create such spectacular gardens for their employers and learn how they accomplished so much with the resources available to them at the time. It took a lot of dedication to become a gardener in the Victorian Era and there was opportunity to be grasped by the most ambitious young men. The faces looking poignantly out of the old photographs hint at untold stories and it was this history I wanted to explore.
NGDM: In our previous interview, you mentioned that the class structure and social conventions of the Victorian Era would prove too limiting for you. For many Victorian women who gardened, that seemed to be true as well — but as a male reader, I must say I was very impressed with the dedication that these gardeners displayed for their craft. What do you think they could teach us about gardening? What do you think they would think of gardening today?
CI: The Victorians recognised the value of apprenticeship where experienced gardeners would pass on their skills to the next generation. Their methods were based on trial and error, learning from experience and working with nature. Victorian gardeners did not always understand why their techniques worked; they just knew that they did.
When scientific discoveries demystified the nature of botany and processes such as photosynthesis were understood, the gardening profession was elevated to a new level and training courses were established to teach gardeners not only the practical skills necessary to grow plants, but also the science behind the practice.
Just as we do today, Victorian gardeners had to embrace new technology and innovative gadgetry, and experienced gardeners seemed remarkably adept at distinguishing the useful from the worthless. It is no surprise that basic tools such as the trowel and the rake have been in use for centuries with no change to their design.
Although the working conditions of gardeners have improved since Victorian times, it is still a profession where you have to start at the bottom and work your way up, learning all the time from other gardeners, studying books on botany and plant propagation, gaining experience in gardens with different types of soil and climate, working long hours and on weekends.
I think a Victorian gardener time-travelling to a garden in the twenty-first century would recognise a lot of what he saw, and would be disappointed to see that, despite advances in science and technology, there was still no effective way of getting rid of slugs, that weeding was still done by hand, and that water was carried around in a watering-can.
NGDM: As in your previous book, the artwork and collection of photos is astounding! When it comes to putting it all together, how difficult is it for you to narrow down your selection?
CI: I was very fortunate, as I was with my last book, to have access to the extensive collection of archive images at The Garden Museum in London. Although there are many group photographs of Victorian gardeners posing with the tools of their trade, it was quite tricky to find portraits of named gardeners, as few were recorded for posterity in this way, which reflects their status in society. It was also very difficult to find enough colour images to satisfy the publishers – all these remarkable photographs are, of course, in black and white.
NGDM: Two photos in the book jumped out at me — and they’re both of women. One has a woman in full Victorian attire — as if she were going to a garden party — while pushing a lawn mower. The other features a trio of women in men’s clothing. When you’re in your own garden, what’s most comfortable for you to wear?
CI: I love that photograph of the women gardeners at Kew, looking rather defensive in their breeches and boots. The staff at Kew were put in a tricky position when they took on these first women gardeners as there was no precedent for female gardening attire – women would not dare to show their ankles, let alone don a pair of trousers! The voluminous skirts of Victorian fashion were liable to squash the plants, and frills and lace were hardly practical for digging, barrowing and muck-spreading. The decision to allow women to wear the same clothes as men may seem like a radical act of equality, but I suspect it was made out of necessity and a lack of other options.
The idea of wearing a shirt and tie and a three-piece suit for gardening does strike me as uncommonly impractical, not to mention uncomfortable – I prefer jeans and a T-shirt and a sunhat (I’m very much a fair weather gardener, I’m afraid).
What gardening clothing or garden tool could you not live without?
If you would like to win your own copy of Caroline Ikin’s The Victorian Gardener, please leave a comment about the garden clothing or garden tool you could not live without. For a second chance to win, please visit the Nitty Gritty Dirt Man Facebook page, and answer the same question there.
Entries should be received by Friday, May 16. A winner will be announced on Sunday, May 18.
Thanks for participating — and Happy Mother’s Day!
18 thoughts on “History, Herstory, Our Story — And Giveaway!”
Fantastic giveaway! Thank you for the opportunity to win a copy of this book. I may have a small garden, but given my physical limitations, the one thing I cannot live without in my garden is my wagon. I use it to move containers (the ones small enough for me to move that is, Hubbs gets to move the others lol), I use it to load up debris after I rake so I can put it out at the curb and I even use it like a potable potting table – Hubbs will empty a bag of soil into it for me and I can move it around the garden where I need to repot plants or top off containers. It’s gotten a lot of miles on its little tires since he bought it for me a few years ago!
Hi Jo. There’s nothing like a wagon — and your ingenuity. I’m so glad you’ve found a way to keep on gardening. Be well, my friend!
This was a great interview. I love history and the fact that a book written about the best stress-buster there is in gardening and combining it with one of my favorite subjects was such a unique idea! I must be ordinary about tool selection which is my small shovel. I must admit it is weathered and stays outside because of its regular use in my garden!! I am going to share your post on my face book with all my genealogy friends. I think they will really appreciate this. : )
Hi Alesia. Thanks for sharing — and I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. Like you, I love my small shovel — but I would have had a hard time answering this question. There are just too many garden tools that I really love that it would be difficult to choose. Happy gardening (and picture taking!).
I can’t seem to garden without my apron. I stuff the pockets with everything from my sweatrag, seeds, hand tools, bottled water, etc. Then I use the skirt part for toting pots, weeds, veggies, etc. & my hands are free for working. I love my aprons. Thank you for the chance to win such a wonderful prize.
Hi Terressa. Now I’m thinking about your apron. I’m trying to figure out if it’s a Home Depot type of apron or something that June Cleaver might have worn on “Leave It To Beaver.” 🙂 Either way, I think it’s a great way to make gardening work for you!
My “can’t live without” is my rose gloves. I am always getting into brambles, thorns, etc. when pruning and forget about my forearms. Discovered these long gloves a couple of years ago and now they go with me everywhere! Thanks!
Hi Shenandoah. Genius! As much as I love roses, they fall into the category of plants I tend to avoid. If it makes me bleed, it stays out of the garden. Now, I’ll need to find some gloves! Thanks for the info.
I love to read about the history of gardening. I can’t imagine gardening in all those clothes though! My gardening attire consists of jean shorts with a back pocket to hold my pruners, the oldest, softest t shirt I can find, and my ladybug visor. Many years ago, we bought a John Deere Gator. I know that’s really not a gardening tool, but I can haul all of my gardening stuff in it and then just pull it in the barn until the next time. Thanks for doing the give away!
Hi Brenda! We must ship at the same garden fashion store! And — I wish I had large enough property to justify owning a John Deere Gator! Thanks for adding your thoughts.
Really interesting, thanks. For me I never start a gardening project, big or small without my trug of hand tools. The trug is a black nylon bucket which has pockets around its circumference in which I stow gloves, secateurs, pruning saw, string and my beloved hand fork and trowel. The hand fork and trowel are both second hand from Suffolk and are lovely to use with smooth worn wooden handles. Hope you get lots of interest!
Hi Dorris. I tend to do the same thing with an galvanized bucket. It makes gardening much easier when I don’t have to spent most of the time walking back and forth to the shed. I’m glad you enjoyed the interview!
Love to read and love to garden 🙂 My favorite tool is a great pair of gardening gloves!
Hi Rosemary. I have a bucket of old gardening gloves made of all kinds of material. What they have in common are holes in all the same places, which has me wondering what exactly I do often enough to wear them out in the same way. Thanks for adding your thoughts.
I really need my garden kneeler! My knees just aren’t what they used to be!!
Hi Sarah. Great idea! I received one as a gift a few years ago and I wondered if someone was trying to tell me something. I held onto it, but never used it. Now that I’m a bit older from when I received it, I’m glad I held onto it. Be well!
What a great sounding book! I’ve never really thought about the history of gardeners before, and I never realized that it was such a hard profession for women to break into. Love those illustrations! Honestly, the one gardening tool I really couldn’t be without is a hat. I’m too fair-skinned and freckled to be outside all the time without one!
Hey Indie. The book is a really fascinating look at the lives of gardeners — as individuals — and as a profession. Perhaps some BBC folks could create a dramatic series just for us! Now that I’m experiencing South Florida sun, I’m also looking for the right hat. 🙂