Reviewing gardening advice from days past

The first primrose, like the first salmon of the season, stirs one into awe and action. Did you know primroses are edible? This tiny, three-quarter-inch flower was spotted on March 30 after the snow receded.

For the first time in a few weeks, the temperature climbed above 40 degrees. I don’t know about you, but my spirit climbed, too. The ground relaxed and softened, ice melted and even the crows seemed happy. With all the activity and celebration, I want to slow things down a bit. You know, take a breath.

Why’s that?

The other day, I picked up a copy of “The Curious Gardener’s Almanac: Centuries of Practical Garden Wisdom.” For no particular reason, I turned to page 46 and began reading ...

“The following ten excerpts are from Ministry of Agriculture booklets published as guides for amateur gardeners toward the end of World War II, when rationing was likely to remain in place for some time. The advice holds good today.”

As I read a few passages, I began to feel a little nostalgic. Not because I lived during World War II (though I am of the Baby Boomer generation), but because things seemed, well, much simpler compared to the present. 

Does every generation feel that way?

Of course, comparing a world war to our battle with COVID is to engage in apples and oranges.

So, travel with me as we review gardening advice from days past, harvested from well-worn books from the 1920s to the 1980s.

From “Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening” (1936), I turned to the chapter “The Garden Calendar (April)” and found the following references: 

The flower garden:

“Remove winter coverings; dry burlap and store. Plant deciduous nursery stock as soon as received. Treat gladiolus corms for thrips and plant the last of the month at successive intervals of two weeks until July, for a succession of flowers.”

The mention of “a succession of flowers” was a good reminder for me as it’s easy to get in a rut of just one planting of broccoli, lettuce, cilantro and so on. Plants tire; when they’re done, they’re done. No sense wringing our hands hoping for one more broccoli floret to mature. Maybe. Just sow seeds every two weeks and enjoy a fruitful harvest of veggies, herbs and flowers.

Cold frames and hotbeds:

“Set out in the garden all plants which were moved into the hotbeds last month, such as pansies, forget-me-nots and columbines. With increased sun power and longer days place our plants with regard to their physical requirements.” 

Hot beds, by the way, were very popular in Victorian times. Once set up, they can be used to grow salad crops in late fall or winter, get a head-start on seed sowing in the spring (by up to a month). 

How is this possible? A hot bed provides bottom heat, using manure rather than electricity as the heat source, thus speeding up plant growth of seedlings and tender plants.

As for the growing medium, which is placed on top of the manure in a layer 8 to 10 inches thick, English gardeners aimed for a mixture of one part topsoil to one part garden compost. 

A hot bed is usually constructed outside in the garden, though it works equally well, or better, in a greenhouse or high tunnel.

From “The Curious Gardener’s Almanac”:

“Once weather and soil are right, we should take time by the forelock and get on with the job — not leaving everything to the weekend if we can help it, but seizing any opportunity of an evening when it’s fine to put in a little time on essentials work on the plot.”

And then a work from the same text, about one of my favorite topics — compost:

Now remember, this following was published during WWII:

“There are some people who seem to think that the compost heap is a new idea, introduced because farmyard manure is hard to come by. It is no novelty, for the gardening books of a century or more ago mentioned it; long before it was called ‘compost’ the value of decayed vegetable refuse was well known and understood, particularly by the professional gardener.”

And for those of you who appreciate a good vegetable when you see one:

“Early-planted Brussels sprouts should now (October) be ready for picking. There is a right way and a wrong way of gathering them. Start at the bottom and clear the stem of sprouts as they become large enough; don’t pick a sprout here and there, but do it systematically from the bottom of the stem.”

And from S. J. Perelman (1904-1979) who obviously never heard of green tomato relish:

“Tomatoes and squash never fail to reach maturity. You can spray them with acid, beath them with sticks and burn them; they love it.”

And here’s another use for rhubarb:

“Cutting an unripe tomato in half and rubbing the juice on your fingers before washing will remove suborn green stains. Other handy tips for cleaning hands include mixing a teaspoon of sugar with the lather from your soap and rubbing your hands with the cut end of a rhubarb stick.”

Finally, did you know that primroses are edible? It seems that they were once made into puddings by frying the flowers in butter and sugar. British Prime Minister Disraeli was said to have enjoyed the dish for his breakfast.

There you go, a little nostalgia. Enjoy your week and be sure to visit your garden. Things are happening! 


Garden job jar:

Vegetables to start from seed: Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, lettuce (cos, head, leaf). Cress, lettuce, arugula, kale, broccoli.

Mark your calendars for May 8: the spring plant sale — all proceeds go to benefit KMXT. As primroses and other perennials make themselves available, consider dividing them up and donating them to the plant sale. Contact me for more information. Standby for future announcements ...


Mark If you have a gardening question or you’d like to volunteer to help with the May 8 plant sale, contact me at:

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