National Gardening Week: Gardening Genes

meI have always loved gardens. Whether it is planting and pruning, harvesting and cutting, photographing blooms, or simply sitting and contemplating, gardens offer so much pleasure. A handful of seed is one of the most magical and optimistic things I can think of, and something that delights me as much now as it did when I sowed my first nasturtiums and sunflowers as a young child. Nothing tastes quite the same, as vegetables or fruit harvested from your own soil, or smells quite a sweet as your own bunches of sweet peas or roses. I don’t claim to be an expert, and I don’t necessarily succeed in my efforts, but I always enjoy the process.

Mum says a passion for gardening is in my genes.

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This photo is a favourite of mine. It shows my Great Grandpa, Mr Sidney Barnes, relaxing with a newspaper in the 1940’s.

sidBorn in 1902, Sid lived in and around the Sussex town of Brighton. He spent his career driving trolley busses and trams, and later double decker busses, for Brighton and Hove Corporation, including throughout the Second World War. Between work shifts, he could turn his hand to most other trades, including bricklaying to help bring home a few extra pennies. In peacetime, he enjoyed walks on the Downs, busman’s outings to the horseracing at Goodwood, darts matches and a decent cold pint of beer. But most of all he enjoyed gardening. Sid was rightly proud of his garden, and won many prizes in the ‘County Borough of Brighton Gardens Competition’ in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s for “THE GENERAL EXCELLENCE of his garden at 91 Ringmer Road on the North Moulsecomb housing estate”. The pinnacle of this success came in 1953, when Sid won the ‘Horton-Stephens Cup’, and First prize in ‘Group A’.

During the war years, the focus of the nation’s gardens was dominated by food production, most famously defined by the Dig for Victory campaign. Sid’s garden was no different. From leeks, beans, carrots and potatoes to sweet strawberries, all sorts of edible crops found their place within his production system, which stretched from partway along the garden behind the house, all the way to the railway embankment that ran parallel to the street. Sid is remembered to have refused to grow cucumbers, claiming they took up too much space and had little nutrition content being mostly made of water. I think he was perhaps more of a meat-and-two-veg kind of man! Despite this apparent dislike of salad, Sid did grow tomatoes, and went to great lengths to ensure a good crop. First of all, the tomato plants were always grown against a whitewashed wall, which would reflect the sunlight and warmth back onto the fruit to ripen it. Secondly he had a secret trick: sheep poo! Often, when Sid and the family would walk across the Downland to visit friends or relatives in other parts of Brighton, he would take a hessian sack, and collect sheep dung to hang in his watering can, creating the perfect liquid fertilizer for watering his hungry tomato plants!

That part of the garden not turned over to vegetable growing, close to the house, was tended immaculately and with equal dedication. Paths and flowerbeds were edged with straight concrete borders, hand build by Sid. Concrete paths and a short-mown lawn were finished off with carefully pruned roses and neat rows of auricular primulas, as well as a small formal fishpond. The front garden was filled with a display of bedding plants in the traditional ‘parks and gardens’ style of the time, whilst tulip bulbs and dahlia tubers were diligently lifted every year after flowering, and stored over winter.

west dean 055
Auricular, like this lovely lemon one at West Dean Gardens, will always make me think of my Great-Grandpa Sidney Barnes of Brighton.

All this gardening, and the resulting crops and displays that Sid achieved, are all the more impressive when one considers that it would have all been undertaken without many of the things us gardeners of today take for granted. The large Garden Centres and huge range of products and labour saving tools, and even plants, available on today’s retail market simply didn’t exist in the quantity and diversity that they do now. My Nanny, Sid’s daughter, can remember visiting the small shop along the street in town, purchasing loose seeds in weighed quantities, taken home in brown paper envelopes. Tools would have been cared for so as to last a lifetime; cleaned and oiled after use and constructed so that handles or other parts could be simply replaced if and when they wore out.

Gardening styles and attitudes have changed immensely in the intervening years. I wonder what Sid would make of the average back garden today? The annual displays of ordered and regimented rows of bright and bold bedding plants have become rather unfashionable, replaced by a more relaxed and informal style of planting. From jungle gardens to Japanese Zen gardens, plant and design enthusiast draw inspiration from all over the world. In many towns however, front gardens are increasingly paved over for parking spaces, and new build houses often have very little if any growing space. A connection with our food and how it is produced is becoming stretched very thin. Lawns double up as children’s football pitches and family entertaining spaces, as our gardens have to evolve to support multiple uses and busy lifestyles.

In my own garden, I favour something along the lines of the ‘cottage garden’ look, and grow a mixture of flowers and veg with very little formality or any tight regime. I grow what makes me happy, and rarely follow the rules. I do however keep in mind the advice passed down from my Great-grandpa Sid; don’t be afraid to prune your roses hard, be sure to save seeds for sowing next year, and be thrifty – reusing and making do. I still grow a few auricular in Sid’s honour, and never bother with cucumbers. But please don’t tell him how long it is since I last cleaned and oiled my tools!

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