As you might have heard, Chelsea Flower show this year is in September, rather than the usual date of late May. This is exciting, as it has never been held at this time of year before and probably never will be again; (Covid allowing) it will go back to May again next year. I am lucky enough to be part of the team mentoring the horticultural students at Sparsholt college, who are putting together the College Show Garden in the Floral Marquee. The theme this year will be celebrating the Tricentenary of Gilbert White, the renowned naturalist and author who published the world’s first natural history book: The Natural History of Selbourne.
White, born in 1720, grew up and spent most of his life in the Hampshire village of Selbourne and from a young age was a keen gardener. He took a wide interest in the natural world around him and was keen to experiment with growing traditional and novel fruit and vegetables; he was the first person in the area to grow potatoes! This fascination with horticulture led to Gilbert writing his first book the Garden Kalendar which meticulously recorded sowings, harvesting, weather, temperature, and other details. He went on to keep over 30 years of diaries, observing all that went on in the surrounding countryside -the comings and goings of migratory birds, the behaviour of animals and insects and the progress (or not) of the plants in his garden. These journals culminated in his writing of ‘The Natural History of Selbourne’ which was published in the form of letters to two eminent naturalists at the time, Thomas Pennant and the Honourable Daines Barrington.
The students have been following plantings familiar to White to recreate a fabulous version of his garden, including the wildflower meadow, hot bed melon frame and beds packed with flowers, herbs and vegetables. Despite it being put together for the autumn they have kept true to the plan and shown real horticultural skills to keep the plants looking their best for the show.
It is rather apt, when dealing with the extremes of weather over the past few months, the invasion of tortrix moths on Kale and other general day- to- day dramas in running the nursery, that we look to Gilbert White’s own entries into the ‘Kalendar’:
1769 September 4th: Hop picking begins.
1772 September 7th: Peaches Begin to ripen.
1773 September 10th: Rain damages the walled fruit
1779 September 9th: My kidney beans are much withered for want of rain.
1784 September 21st: Gathered in the early pippins, called white apples: a great crop
1785 September 15th: the dripping weather has lasted this day nine weeks, all thro haying and harvest; much hay also soiled of the second cutting: so that men, having lost both crops, will in many parts be very short of fodder, especially, as turnips have missed in many parts.
1790 September 16t:h: Cut 100 cucumber, Sweet Autumnal weather.
Let’s hope for some sweet Autumnal weather this year and many bountiful crops!
Originally published in Focus magazine