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The Wiltshire Gardener

A few weeks ago I wrote a post for the genealogy section of Dominic’s blog, Flibberatic Skreebles.  He also writes at A Wiltshire Garden. This is a post that he so thoughtfully wrote for me about gardening. Enjoy! Thank you Dominic!

Growing up in a small Wiltshire village amidst the rolling hills of south-western England, I had what most would call a typical childhood relationship with our garden. That is, the edges of the garden borders became havens for my various wild animal toys. The lawn was turned into prairie, savannah or – more prosaically – farmland. Camp outs, snail hunts, hedgehog spotting and somewhere to play and be free. I can’t say that I consciously took a great deal of notice of what was around me. 

I did, however, notice that not everybody had such a garden as mine, that not everybody’s mother spent hours in a greenhouse or would spend hours in a garden centre (or carried a small penknife with her when she went on trips to public gardens so she could ‘appropriate’ cuttings). I also noticed that not all of my friends ate vegetables fresh from the garden. I began to taste the difference between a tomato picked fresh from the vine not more than 10 minutes before and one that was taken from a plastic box out of the fridge. It was then that I realised I didn’t have what other people necessarily had: a constant and early exposure to horticulture.

“My Mother's Garden, 2005.

“My Mother’s Garden, 2005.

Of course, gardening isn’t something new. As soon as humans ear-marked permanent homes then the local environment was altered – beneficial plants collected and protected, undesirables eliminated and foreign species introduced. The enclosure of outdoor space began around 10,000 BCE – and the words garden and yard both come from the Old English term geard which means fence or enclosure.

The Romans may have imported their own views on gardening – a separation of the aesthetic beauty from the pragmatic fruit and vegetable (i.e. kitchen) garden – but I can’t imagine pre-Roman Britain devoid of domestic spaces that yielded produce for the household. This produce would’ve been primarily limited to plants with culinary, medicinal or other practical uses (violas were often strewn on the floor to release their aroma when stood upon, for example, as well as their leaves being used as a potherb to flavour soups and stews).

Whilst gardening trends came and went with the owners of large houses – Italian Renaissance, French Baroque, English Romantic – the general population, predominantly rural in nature, continued with their own home gardens. These were used to grow fruit and vegetables that weren’t available elsewhere – after all, there were no supermarkets and no greengrocers conveniently around the corner stocking all foods in all seasons! These spaces also included animals such as poultry and often a pig or two (my mother remembers quite clearly her grandparents fattening up a pig each year in a sty at the bottom of the garden and then sending it to slaughter).

Of course, as the Industrial Revolution and Enclosure movements* came about, more and more people were migrating into urban areas and these towns and cities exploded. There wasn’t the space for people to grow their own produce or the leisure time to dedicate to these pursuits. However, as the 19th century continued, the Victorian philanthropists realised that the poor would benefit both physically and spiritually from having outdoor areas in which to grow their own food. 

(*It’d be a bit outside of this post to discuss the Enclosure movement in England – but suffice to say that it changed the face of the British countryside by chopping up the open field system, and allowed the wealthy landowners to own more land and accumulate more wealth at the expense of their tenant farmers.)

“Allotments in Bath, England.

“Allotments in Bath, England.

Areas given over to growing produce for private use (as opposed to areas used for growing food to sell – market gardens) were nothing new in England. These allotments were parcels of land rented from a central local authority and each individual is responsible for his or her own patch – and often include a shed of some kind. (This aspect of one parcel of a much larger area being managed individually makes them different from community or victory gardens – more on which later!)

Allotments have gone in and out of fashion over the years – with the most recent peaks being during WWI (1,500,000 plots) and WWII (1,400,000 plots) – but over the last few decades the numbers have started to grow again with demand outstripping supply. This is seen to be a reaction against growing food prices and modern agricultural practices, as well as consumers demanding a greater awareness of where their food comes from. 

“Dig For Victory, UK WWII poster”

“Dig For Victory, UK WWII Poster”

Victory gardens sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic during WWI, with household yards, parks and public areas being turned into vegetable and fruit gardens in USA, UK, Canada and Germany. In America alone over 5 million gardens were created during WWI. In WWII England’s gardeners were exhorted through the “Dig For Victory” campaign – and waste ground, railway verges, lawns and sports grounds, even areas of Hyde Park in London, were requisitioned for the purpose. After WWII the majority of these English victory gardens reverted back to their pre-war state. In America it was common to see vacant lots and apartment building roofs as gardens – something that has come back into vogue with not only the guerilla gardening movement but also the rise of urban gardening and food production.

Guerilla gardening is a global movement, defined as “an act of gardening on land that the gardeners do not have the legal rights to utilize”. This includes such diverse areas as verges, roundabouts/traffic islands, tree pits, bus stops or even potholes in roads! This is often done to highlight the neglect of certain areas of land, but also to foster a sense of community or to raise a smile on passersby.

“The Work of UK Pothole Gardener Extraordinaire, Steve Wheen”

“The Work of UK Pothole Gardener Extraordinaire, Steve Wheen”

Of course, along side this guerilla gardening is the increase not only of urban greening but also of the regeneration of the community gardening movement used to change not only the inner city landscape but also the mental health of people using them – one community garden based in the UK is being used by local doctors to help patients with depression and anxiety disorders. 

One thing that the rise in the number of these activities highlights is that gardening isn’t going anywhere. Its been part of the British landscape for as long as there have been people around to pull up an unwanted plant and replace it with something else, and despite the rapid urbanisation of the country around us, the desire to plunge your fingers into some loam and watch the beauty that follows is still with us. And long may it last!

For more information on any of the in the UK, please visit some of the links below!

Guerilla Gardening –

Groundwork – community greening charity –

Project Dirt – social network for green communities –

The Edible Bus Stop – from one community garden to an entire scheme –

Landshare – social network connecting growers to those with land to share –

Federation of City Farms & Community Gardens –

National Society of Allotment & Leisure Gardeners –

Kabloom Seedboms – a mixture of compost and seeds –


5 Responses to “The Wiltshire Gardener”

  1. AnnetteM

    That was really interesting – thanks Dominic. I love the photo of your mother’s garden! I did grow a few vegetables once, but the patch got taken over by the roots of a fir tree. When the tree came out the year before last we just couldn’t resist making a bigger flower border instead. I would love to have the time and energy to keep an allotment – they are very popular in Aberdeen too. I wonder who is keeping them when people all seem busier than ever?

  2. ChristineR

    My grandmother on my mum’s side had a glorious garden like your mum. I loved going their at xmas when it was a riot of flowers around a deep springy the lawn out front, up the side of the house where there was a fishpond and around the back until it met the orchard where the ducks were. She kept her dairy cows on the common. I don’t think we have commons any more in Australia, not sure. 🙂 Great post, very interesting.


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