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Object of the Week: ‘The Gardener’s Assistant’ by Robert Thompson (1878)

For an ambitious Victorian head gardener such as Matthew Balls ‘The Gardener’s Assistant’ would have been a Bible: a guide for working gardeners, ‘Practical and Scientific’ which was in print for 54 years. The first edition was in 1859, and the last in 1913, the year before the First World War cut short the golden age of labour-intensive country house gardens; by this date, there were 4,000 Head Gardeners at work in Britain. This copy was donated to the Museum by Sir Roy Strong.

928 pages begin with a calendar of the year’s operations, with precise instructions on sowing, manuring, and the right heat for the green-house (‘Tropical plants… should be as excited as little as possible at this dull season’) through tools and manure to a final chapter on floral decorations: at this time, the Head Gardener did the floral arrangements for the house, including nosegays, and how to arrange fruit in dishes.

The Head Gardener was expected to design carpet bedding, and examples illustrated include designs for Victoria Park  in Hackney and for The Crystal Palace a pink butterfly with spots of lobelias on its wings.

This was an age in which owners and head gardeners competed in new discoveries, and it illustrates two summer-blooming lilies ‘of recent introduction’: below, Lilium Pardalinum, a North-west Amercian species, and Lilium Leichtlinii from Japan.

Robert Thompson, the editor, was employed in the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society  on land leased from the Duke of Devonshire at Chiswick, and where the RHS trained gardeners until Wisley was donated in 1903. But the changing editions were a collation of expertise from Head Gardeners, nurserymen, and Curators of Botanic Gardens.

Nothing would have made a Head Gardener prouder than to contribute to such a volume or, even better, to share a new variety or technique in The Gardener’s Chronicle.

Click on the gallery images below to view in more detail

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