On wet and bleak days, I have been sorting through our bookcases. Not all books are precious, I decided, and not all are worth keeping. The substantial hardback books that were released annually by the American Camellia Society had probably not been looked at since the year they arrived. They took up two shelves and dated from the late 1940s through until the early 1980s. I asked Mark years ago if we needed to keep them and he thought we should but this year, he agreed they could go. I managed to rehome them with a friend who is a camellia aficionado. He assured me there was a lot of interesting reading in them. True, I sweetened the rehoming exercise by also supplying him with a surplus bookcase from here to hold them.
Some books do not age well. World atlases go out of date. We had a surprising number of those and really, I just need to go and buy a single up to date one for the times when I want to hold a map in my hand, not look on a screen.
The internet has rendered many reference books unnecessary. Mark still reaches for books to look up details on a plant but that is because he resolutely remains a technophobe, despite my efforts to upskill him. I don’t use reference books much now, preferring the ease and immediacy of a Google search.
Some books we keep for inspiration, some for sentimental reasons, some for family reasons, some because they are simply beautiful books and some because we are sure one of us will read them one day. There is a lot of surplus dross that we will never miss between those books that justify being retained.
But then there are the odd forgotten treasures. So it was with the issues of ‘My Garden’, very early issues of the ‘New Zealand Gardener’ from the 1950s and the ‘Amateur Gardening Annuals’ from 1954 to 1957.
‘The New Zealand Gardener’ was actually started in 1944 and is still produced today although it is unrecognisable in production values, tone and content. I could relate to a letter from a defensive nurseryman, justifying plant prices by comparing pre-1900 wages and prices to those of 1955. He had started in 1896 on 5/- a week (5 shillings, for post decimal generations, was 50c) but now his firm paid £2/16/- ($5.60) to apprentices and ‘journeymen’ were paid £12/1/- ($24.10). I may once have written on a similar theme myself, pointing out that the real price of plants has declined a great deal over time but I do not think I matched his final comment:
“We find that those who complain about the price of a few plants think nothing about going into a shop and paying £5 for a hat!”
We appear to have a few more issues of the English ‘My Garden’ edited by Theo A. Stephens. The fact that the August 1950 one proudly proclaims it is the 200th issue suggests it started publication in late 1933 or maybe January 1934 but our earliest copies are from 1943. It is subtitled ‘An Intimate Magazine for Garden Lovers’. I did wonder if it was a forerunner to the Royal Horticultural Society journal named ‘The Garden’ but I don’t think so. My quick browse of Theo Stephens’ publication on line simply showed me that there is a thriving international market for early copies but I am not looking to sell our ours. Looking at an issue from March 1943 – written in the midst of WW2 – was oddly haunting with parallels to the current state of our world in a global pandemic.
“This war is giving us many new experiences and teaching us much. One thing it is bringing home to us in a way we have never experienced before is the worthlessness of money until you can translate it into some form of goods or services….
At the present time I have money which I want to exchange for services which are necessary. Where my garden normally calls for two gardeners I am quite prepared to carry on with one, and in view of the number of people I could, and would, keep supplied with vegetables, eggs, and meat, this one would be justified – but I can’t find him.”
Grammar pedants may notice the use of the Oxford comma in that quote. True, few of us need to hire one, let alone two gardeners but the labour shortage in NZ is real and the daily lives of so many people everywhere have changed in a multitude of ways as we are forced to adapt rapidly, if reluctantly, to a world that has changed dramatically in the last 20 months.
All these publications share certain characteristics. The writing content rules supreme. Photos are few in number, small and in black and white. There is next to no humour, wit or levity and very little that is personal. This transmission of information is a serious business and of a technical complexity and range that would befuddle modern gardeners. The Amateur Gardening Annual from 1954 has 54 erudite articles ranging from stump-rooted carrots to the classification of dahlias, from apple maggots to jacobinias to Australian gum trees and 49 other specialised topics. The level of technical knowledge and expertise in the average home gardener was much higher back then, apparently with a thirst for more information.
Modern garden magazines are more about entertainment, image and aspiration but maybe they will acquire some quaint, nostalgic charm when viewed from 2090?