Friday, May 24, 2013

Making Do

After three weeks of sunshine, it has now been raining steadily for three days and nights. Not only is the garden soaked, in some places the paths between the raised beds are flooded (this is the main reason why the beds are raised). Such weather provides an opportunity to do indoor jobs and perhaps some reading.

I am just as interested in gardening books as I am in gardening, and in my opinion, some of the most interesting and practical books, are the ones that were published roughly between 1930 and 1960. Read more to see why.

The war years, and even the nineteen fifties in Britain, were periods of scarcity and restrictions, when people had to make do with what was available. This makes for gardening books that have a very different emphasis than most of the modern ones. They abound in tips on how to cope with shortages, and in general how to manage using what you have got on hand.

Book by Eleanor Sinclair RohdeTwo authors I like are Constance Spry and Eleanour Sincair Rohde. In their books and articles on vegetables, they tend to emphasize hardy vegetables that require less maintenance.  As well, they always provide tips on how to use them in recipes.

They also write about unusual vegetables like the Hamburg parsley or the turnip-rooted chervil. Of course you have to adapt their recommendations to modern taste. On the whole, if they say to boil a vegetable for half an hour, ten minutes will be plenty. They will tell you how to make a curry with western herbs (as the Indian spices were not available during the war), what to use when you cannot get capers (nasturtium seeds), etc. They are very knowledgeable on herbs and how to use them to improve bland food.

The writers from the early part of the 20th century can also be particularly useful to the frugal gardener. One of my favorite is E. R. Janes. Reading him, you realize right away that he knew his business thoroughly. He gives you very specific instructions on how to grow thing, always using what is at hand rather than buying gadgets. Of course, when he starts listing cultivars, these lists are useless to us since most of the varieties he mentions have not been available for decades. In The Flower Garden he lists his 50 favorite asters and his 55 favorite Michaelmas Daisies – these are only his favorites among the varieties available!

As well, these books can sometimes be very attractive with superb line drawings.

If I could keep only one reference work, I would not hesitate to choose the New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening edited by T. H. Everett of the New York Botanical garden. Modern editions are available but mine from 1960 is perfect and cost me $15 (for a 14 volume set). If I had to restrict myself to one volume, I would take Norman Taylor's Practical Encyclopedia of Gardening (1936).

You can order such books from used book dealers, but it is cheaper to pick them up whenever you see one. It is a question of serendipity. For instance, two winters ago I got in a charity shop quite a few issues of My Garden, an English magazine published between 1930 and 1950. My issues are from the war period and they make for fascinating reading.

Not only because they provide lots of highly practical gardening tips, but for the glimpse they give you of people living through war: tales of bombs falling on the garden, having to put up children from the city if you lived in the country, the impossibility of finding onions anywhere (and how to cope without them). Even the advertising is interesting. It deals mostly with things that were not at that time available – like Ford cars – but the advertisers want the public to remember them once the war is over and production resumes.

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