"The charm of vintage gardening books"

A trip back in time.
Sunday, 28 February 2021        

Garden Book by F.R. Green, 1953

Towards the end of last year, I received from a friend her mother's gardening books, when the mum's house was being cleaned out prior to sale after her move to a different place. It was a lovely gesture, as I had always known her to be a keen and skillful gardener. On one of the books was a Post-It note, scrawled with the message: 'Keep this book - good hints'. The book was F.R. Green's Garden Book, self-published in 1953. F.R. Green was apparently the gardening columnist for the Sydney newspaper The Daily Mirror at the time. It is a compact, no-nonsense tome, with dense text and no illustrations, except for a picture of a flower arrangement the front cover and some black-and-white sketches in a few of the ads throughout the book that presumably funded the printing. It is nothing like the glossy, coffee-table gardening books that we are used to these days. Reading it gives a wonderful insight into the world of Sydney gardening nearly 70 years ago, which was very different by the time I got interested in the 1980s.

By the time I took up a spade in 1983, gardening in Sydney was all about creating cottage gardens in the English style, and the amassing of rare plants, with scant regard to their suitability for our climate. I feel if I had had this book then, it would have saved me quite a lot of heartache! F.R. Green explicitly advocates the use of warm-climate trees, shrubs, climbers, bulbs and perennials in the book, encouraging the choice of various specimens to provide blooms at different times of the year, and sternly advises that cool-climate beauties such as lilacs, deciduous Hibiscus, paeonies, lily-of-the-valley and perennial lupins are not suitable for Sydney. So many of my current favourite plants were recommended by F.R. Green, such as Abutilon, Camellia, Brunfelsia, Dahlia, coleus, goldfussia (Strobilanthes persicifolia), Hippeastrum, Marguerite daisies, Verbena, Pelargonium - and even Salvia, which F.R. Green says can be obtained in 'several different varieties'! If only the author could have foreseen the vast array of Salvia that we have available to us these days, most of which perform brilliantly in Sydney.

The author mentions that it had only been discovered a few years before the book's publication that Cymbidium orchids could grow outdoor to perfection in Sydney, and that we were the envy of gardeners elsewhere who had to grow them in hot houses. Many gardeners had quickly embraced these orchids (some costing as much as 20 pounds, a huge sum in those days!), a trend that continues to this day for glorious, flamboyant winter blooms. He explains in the book how to grow them for success. On of the ads in the book was for a nursery in Haberfield devoted entirely to Cymbidium orchids; another one in Bexley had 'all types of orchids'.

The early sections of the book are very down-to-earth, giving information on the importance of having a compost heap and incorporating organic matter into the soil, and mulching the surface of the ground. As was the fashion at the time, artificial fertilisers are given a good rap, something we are less likely to do these days. Pest control was all about DDT - thank goodness we have moved on from that, and we have some good organic options available to us today! Interestingly, in one of the ads for 'modern pesticides and fungicides' in the book, white oil - much used today to deter various insect pests such as aphids, scale and white fly - is mentioned along with 'DDT emulsion'!

Gardeners in the 1950s seemed much more likely to raise their own annual seedlings each year, and detailed instructions are given for seed-raising, and delightful descriptions are given of some lovely old-fashioned annuals that I remember my grandmother and my parents growing back in the day: Godetia, larkspur, China aster, Canterbury bells, stock and Schizanthus. I made a note to try to grow some of these for next spring as they brought back such nostalgic memories! It is still possible to get seeds and seedlings of some of these. Several seed merchants advertised in the book: all located in the heart of the CBD of Sydney!

Home vegetable growing was also obviously the thing to do and many pages are devoted to the best way to grow different crops and timetables of planting. Good tips are given, such as: plenty of feeding and water will help prevent lettuces from prematurely running to seed; all curcubits (that is melons, pumpkins, zucchini, cucumbers and squash) need to be pollinated by hand; rhubarb needs plenty of water, compost and manure to thrive. It was heartening to see how many people embraced veggie growing last year - let's hope this continues on into the future!

The details given for ornamental plants in the book also gave me some good hints. On the growing of Shasta daisies, which I have always had trouble getting to flower well, it is suggested that the plants be divided up in late autumn every year and the pieces replanted in amended soil, and the same applies to florists' chrysanthemums, which were apparently very popular at the time; these should be divided in spring, however. Marguerite daisies need to be renewed from cuttings every second year. Hippeastrum are gross feeders and need annual dressings of manure around them. Gardenia have a small root system, thus must be given some shade in the garden, or they will lose too much moisture through their leaves on hot days. Shrubby Rondeletia needs severe pruning each year after flowering to keep it in good shape; great news considering that my own specimen was given a massive 'boy prune' (NOT by me) last spring! Sweet violets need some sun, not being the shady woodland dwellers we might think they are, and they too should be divided every second year. It is suggested that to get deeper colour in Hydrangea flowers, sulphate of iron be applied, so this may be a way of keeping those gorgeous red cultivars that we buy from nurseries to stay that hue: certainly it's worth a try.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this little book and it will be treasured for years to come.

 Reader Comments

1/8  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 01 March 2021

I am also a fan of old gardening books, and I derive much pleasure from reading them, but lamenting the disappearance of so many plants, previously available. I also have 'Waratah's' book, along with a 1963 edition of Yates garden guide and two garden books/catalogues from Andersons, 1958 and 1960. Full of practical gardening! Yes they are certainly very worthwhile books. Deirdre

2/8  Geoff - 2323 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 01 March 2021

I was interested to read about Odontonema tubaeforme as your plant of the week. I see a number of them growing in this area, (Maitland Hunter Valley), and I know that through the drought they received no water, yet they're thriving again, with beautiful red flowers contrasting with the lush green foliage. They are very tough and decorative, and excellent for shade. Deirdre

3/8  Pam - 2159 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 01 March 2021

I love to browse and buy old gardening books - one is dated 1929. Favourites are Betty Maloney's 'Designing Australian Bush Gardens' 1966 and all about 'Australian Bush Gardens' 1973 - they inspired me to mass native orchids under trees along paths.

4/8  Anne - 2518 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 01 March 2021

I was discovering gardening round this time as a small child beside my keen gardener Mum. Remember we all went to a cymbidium sale in Sydney's Town Hall. Mum bought back bulbs as one did in those days. Frank Slattery had the orchid nursery in Bexley and was famous in that field for a long time. Have vague memories of going there too. I do remember the days of books with few illustrations. I guess the cost involved and the technology. A lovely memory. Yes, colour printing was so expensive in those days. Some gardening books had some pages in the middle with colour pics and the rest were black and white through the book. Deirdre

5/8  Anne - 2518 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 01 March 2021

Also meant to say it is amazing the variety of salvias we have available now and how well they grow. They are wonderful! And it has really happened just in the past 30 years that we have so many available to us. Deirdre

6/8  Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 01 March 2021

Very interesting Deidre, I too have P.J.Hurley's This Week in your Garden and his 1946 Encyclopaedia for Australian Gardens, which covers more than Sydney, but good information on plants. Another is Gardens in Bloom by Helen Proudfoot, about Jocelyn Brown Landscape Architect who also wrote 35 articles for 'The Home' magazine (1939-1942) published monthly in Sydney by the SMH - 'The Beauty of Garden Overgrowth' is one article I wished they had included instead of just a mention. Thanks, Sue. That Jocelyn Brown book is very good. That article sounds great - maybe it can be found somewhere! Deirdre

7/8  Madeleine - 2065 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 01 March 2021

I have had no trouble growing Shastas in Wollstonecraft, in fact they grow too well. By the end of summer and flowering they have formed a thick mass. Nearing 80 I cant dig up and divide so I just yank the older stems out by the roots leaving enough space for the rest. Its worked so far. Madeleine That's great, Madeleine! Sounds as if your technique gives them room to keep growing. Deirdre

8/8  Virginia - 2125 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Friday, 05 March 2021

At the beginning of COVID I began clearing out some old books when I came across my first gardening book. As I was in England then its of no use to me now in Sydney but I just couldnt throw it out as it had too much sentimental value. I can well understand that, Virginia. Such a huge adjustment learning to garden here. The old gardening book would have been a poignant reminder of English gardening! Deirdre

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