Of gardening, history, and digitisation

Recently, now the hot weather is over, I’ve been doing some work in the garden, planting and laying out garden beds, and in the process using the UK Royal Horticultural Society plant data sheets to help plan my planting.

Not that I’m worried about my Siberian dogwoods – they’re tough plants, and the pomegranate I’ve on order from a nursery should do well too – there’s one growing in the garden of an old miner’s cottage in High Street that’s been left unpruned and looks to be a hundred years old, and still producing fruit.

The obvious question is, why use the RHS website. We live in Australia after all and while the climate here in North East Victoria might be European in style it’s more like parts of central France and northern Spain than England.

And the answer, is that there is simply no equivalent Australian resource. Which is kind of strange given that the colonial governments in the nineteenth century pored resources into economic botany to find what would grow, and you have cases such as the former Botanic gardens at Beechworth where people got plants from elsewhere to see what would grow, and what would not.

So the answer would seem to be to find nineteenth century gardening guides.

In this I was inspired by the example of WT Marshall’s A School Flora from 1910, which a girlfriend recommended to me some forty years ago when I was struggling with the identification of plants in the field. Marshall’s guide wins over many more modern guides for its simplicity, clear black and white diagrams  and lack of confusing photographs.

I imagined that a nineteenth century gardening guide would be similar, and consequently as the ideal candidates for digitisation:

  • they’re out of copyright
  • they’re black and white
  • they’re easy to reprint via a print on demand service as a consequence

and of course if you use a print on demand service it doesn’t matter if only a few copies are printed.

However, there is another resource. Partly inspired by family stories of my grandfather growing fresh vegetables during world war one and also by Kath Bode’s work on lost novels I realised that newspapers could well form a source of information about nineteenth century gardening practices.

Once the goldrushes had settled down people began to put down roots, and the former gold settlements grew into proper towns. People would have grown fresh fruit and vegetables both through economic necessity, and through the need to get fresh fruit and vegetables – remember that until the mid 1870’s there was no railway line, and goods would have to be transported slowly and expensively overland.

So I decided to do a rough and ready search. Obviously I could have used a number of different search terms, but to keep things simple I chose a single term ‘gardening’.

I first of all used QueryPic to check that there were articles citing the term:


which there were, in spades, too many to deal sensibly with so I further restricted the search to publications from Victoria and article with the term gardening in the title, and restricted the date range from 01 January 1865 to 31 December 1899.

That produced over three thousand articles from 362 different publications.

Randomly selecting a few produced articles such as this from the Mount Alexander Mail of February 1876:

mount alexander mail 19 Feb 1876

And a sequence of articles in the Box Hill reporter from the 1890’s sponsored by Thomas Lang, a major seedsman and nursery business in Ballarat. This is an example of their writing

thomas lang garden notes

A little more research also revealed that their catalogue for 1868 has been digitised and is available online from the State Library of Victoria.

It actually makes quite interesting reading. There’s an emphasis on fruit trees – economically important, and on trees and hedging plants. Scattered through the sixty odd pages of the catalogue is information on what grows, and what perhaps sometimes needs a little help. And the range is much more expansive than your usual out of town early twenty first century garden centre.

In short it tells you something of life in the early days of the colony …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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