Gardening magazines from nearly 80 years ago

Totally unrelated but prettier – the tui are holding their annual convention in our Taiwanese cherry trees (Prunus campanulata)

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 World atlases go out of date.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.

There are some fairly large gaps appearing in our bookcases

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.

There are an uncomfortably large number of advertisments like this one where you, too, can nuke your lawn with a mix of 2 4 D and 2 4 5 T – often known as Agent Orange which was used to lay waste to the forests of Vietnam. Such a bargain at 35c!

‘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.

‘The Law and the Gardener’, in case you wish to know, is largely a scholarly dissertation on English case law related to boundary trees including whether it is legal to pick fruit that is overhanging the boundary.

“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?

Narcissus ‘Peeping Tom’ and Carex buchananii
A pair of kereru villains discussing which magnolia has the best tasting petals
And a pair of tui discussing which campanulata in the garden has the best nectar

11 thoughts on “Gardening magazines from nearly 80 years ago

  1. Robin Dowie

    I have fond memories as a child of my mother and grandmother reading the NZ Gardener and discussing the articles. I think my grandmother may have ordered plants through advertisements in it.

  2. Keith Harris

    Following a much needed tidy-up I took a box of quite old NZ Gardener mags, along with some more recent but now obsolete Weekend Gardeners, to Dunedin’s Hocken Library recently, unsure whether they would want them. Want them they did, remarking that despite their collection being substantial, there were still many gaps.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Keith, how lovely to hear from you. I don’t keep modern magazines unless we are featured in them or I wrote for them – and often I just keep the relevant pages – because I am sure someone, somewhere will be archiving them. I am glad to hear that the Hocken is doing that.

  3. Pat Webster

    Love the thought of these old magazines and old articles. Not sure I’d read them but appreciate the idea behind them.

  4. Paddy Tobin

    Yes, the tone of writing styles has certainly changed over the years, perhaps, reflecting that gardening is less a class-based activity than it once was and magazines and books now aim at a wider and, perhaps, less Oxford-educated audience!

    I have always treated magazines as fleeting publications and have disposed of them very quickly after reading them. Nowadays, I no longer buy them as I can read them online via our library system but I continue to keep those from one gardening society of which I am a member.

    A cull of books is a regular necessity.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I hadn’t thought of that class element, though it would not be the case in NZ which evolved as a much more democratic society back in those days. But our early gardening magazine would have used the UK versions as the model to follow. I admit I very rarely buy magazines and then usually only because we have been featured in them!

      1. Abbie Jury Post author

        Funny you should say! I have been trying to organise the filed stuff so the kids don’t inherit a massive load of random bits so I have mostly been cutting out the articles and filing them in boxes so they don’t have to leaf through old magazines wondering why Mum and Dad had kept them.

  5. Nick Miller

    Interesting to read of your early “NZ Gardeners’
    We have a long run of them from Vol 1, Issue 2, through to this day, – we never did find a copy of Vol 1, Issue 1, alas. There is a ten year gap in them (dating back to the 70’s from memory) due to a corporate taking over and dumbing the mag down.There is a lot of fascinating information in them, which we still use.
    Nick & Elizabeth Miller, Rotorua

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