The book "Your Garden In Wartime", combines two of my passions - history and gardening. It is a reprint of a 1941 gardening guide, written by the king of Dig for Victory himself, C.H Middleton, or Mr Middleton as he was often known. I bought my copy from The Works a couple of years ago, with the idea that it would give me some inspiration for my then new allotment, as well as being an interesting historical read.
The author is described by the publishers as the first celebrity gardener, but don't hold that against him! He made a series of radio programmes during the war, encouraging people to "grow their own", which attracted 3 million listeners. My granddad as a head gardener during those years, described Middleton as the voice of gardening at that time. Some of those radio talks were subsequently collected together and published in book form. This is a facsimile of the fifth volume published. Two others are also available from the same publishers, Arum Press. [These are "Digging for Victory" and "Dig on for Victory".]
THE BOOK ITSELF
The book is a small hardack, about the size of a paperback novel. The cover has an attractive retro image of a man wheeling a large quantity of vegetables along in a wheelbarrow. Inside though there are no illustrations at all. I didn't miss them because it isn't a long book, and the chapters are short, so I didn't feel the need for images to break up the text so much. There apparently were not any in the original volume either, no doubt due to efforts to cut costs and preserve printing resources. The text is a good size, and has the typewriter look of old books. Not only authentic, but easy to read.
Although Middleton covered all aspects of gardening in his talks, during the war the focus became food crops, and that is reflected in this volume. The book is divided into seasonal sections, starting in the autumn. Each month has it's own chapter, dealing more or less with one subject. The author acknowledges that many people would have been growing their own vegetables for the first time so the early parts give advice for beginners on subjects such as clearing ground for a new plot, and how to sow seed. This sort of information is fairly timeless, and is all patiently and clearly explained by Mr Middleton. He had a knack of imparting basic information without seeming patronising. The whole book is actually chatty in tone, with many asides about what his friends and neighbours are doing with their plots. This is what gives the book it's character, and gives you an idea about why so many people found his programmes unmissable listening.
The war is never far a way, even when the author is just chatting about selecting seeds fo next years allotment. He suggests that they may be hard to come buy, due to the dificulty of importing any, and fuel shortages for delivery vehicles. He suggests that letting some plants go to seed would be a sensible way of ensuring your supply. "Hope for the best and prepare for the worst." It is in this and other period advice such as not having a bonfire at times that it would upset an ARP warden, that make the book different form just any old gardening book to me. I think this historical aspect is the most interesting, which isn't to say that there aren't useful tips aplenty. It is just difficult to find those that you can still apply, as there is no index, and the chapter headings don't really give much clue to the actual contents, eg "Castles in the air". I have taken to writing out any good advice as soon as I see it so I don't have to search for it again. This has been little tips on subjects such as thinning crops and pruning cordon apples, that have made those things easier for me. Other advice would be more difficult to follow. For example, the pest and disease control solutions involve using mixtures and chemicals that by and large have been withdrawn from sale. Many of his recommended vegetable and fruit varieties appear to be no longer available. Most of us will also not have a ready supply of soot to use as a soil conditioner either. For this reason I think the book is better read out of historical interest, than used as a practical growing guide, for all the good advice that is there.
One part I found especially moving, and it isn't often you can say that about a gardening book. It was the comments about whether to grow flowers in wartime, or whether to concentrate all efforts into food production. Mr Middleton says that although food should take priority, space should also be made for blooms because they were a soothing reminder of "better influences even a war can't take from us." He criticises thouse who front their gardens with tall hedges, rather than allow passers by to have their hearts lifted by the sight of the flowers growing there. The suggestion that the remains of bombed out houses should be gathered to make into a rockery memorial for those who have "suffered the most", had the tears welling in my eyes!
WOULD I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK?
I have really enjoyed reading it, and have done so more than once. I read most gardening books when I am looking for advice on a specific problem, or am planning the next lot of sowing. This book I just read for pleasure though, because the chatty style makes it fun to do so, for all the occasional more sombre moments. I wouldn't recommend this as a really hands-on guide, for the reasons mentioned above, and because you could buy books for a similar price with more up to date plant feeding and pest control information. For a good read in an allotment tea-break, or out of historical interest, I do recommend it highly.
I paid £2.99 in The Works, but I have not seen it in there recently. New copies are £6.99 on Amazon, against the cover price of £9.99. There are also numerous copies available from marketplace sellers, both new and used.
ISBN 978 184 513 6048
200 pages, hardback, published by Arum Press.
[This review also appears under my user name on Ciao.]