Excerpt from Sylvia Broadbent’s “History of a Horticulturist” Memoirs

Ever since I was big enough to heft a trowel, I have been interested in horticulture. Well, maybe not horticulture, but at least in gardening. I guess it is in the blood or something. My elder brother discarded his pea-shooter for a spade at a very early age. Some people I know say I just copied him, but I always insist that it must be an hereditary predilection, being careful to stress the “an” before an aspirate “h”, or whatever it is—it just sounds learned, anyway.

It all began, I think, when I was about four. I had a playhouse at the end of the garden, in a spot later occupied by the henhouse when we started our wartime menagerie like millions of loyal British suburbanites. Perhaps my playhouse was prophetic. It was always a mess, but it was fun. In front of it was a ten by six foot area of beaten earth, with a few unhappy straggling snapdragons along one edge. This was my garden, the first of many. I don’t remember much about it, except a vague sense of proprietary pride. I think it was intended to promote respect for natural growing things, property rights, and all that sort of thing. I imagine it was an admirable place to dump a four-year-old with reasonable safety. It was a comfortable distance away from the house, and I could break as many things as I like down there without disturbing the peace of the household. Also, the mess did not matter because grown-ups could not get into the playhouse anyway.

That phase, however, was more domestic than horticultural. The second phase started when I was about six. At that time I had mumps or measles or something equally puerile and contagious, and while I was still confined and untouchable, my brother and uncle knocked together a new playhouse for me. This was a much smarter affair than the other, with a neat gabled roof, a little bow window, and a real house door that my brother had somehow body-snatched from some dismantlement or other. It was painted green, the other one had been merely creosoted.* It was a playhouse to delight any six-year-old, especially one recovering from chickenpox or whatever it was.

However, it was not the playhouse itself that interested me. It had in front of it a strip of flowerbed about ten feet long planted with some strange vegetable whose name I have long since forgotten and which I could never pronounce anyway. This became my new garden. However, I still didn’t do much about it. It was dug and planted and even occasionally weeded by my brother, who was then an amateur gardener, and hence interested to a certain degree in the welfare of our own backyard. When he later attained professional status all such interest waned abruptly. However, he still grows a few dahlias—mostly, I fear, so that he could have new plants from the tubers that he could use in the garden he cared for professionally.

The third phase of my horticultural career constituted a real advance. For the first time I started taking care of “my” garden myself. Until then someone else had always dug the thing over and planted a few things left over from other parts of the garden. Now, at the age of about eight, I suddenly became violently interested in the actual working side of gardening. One late winter’s day I struggled down the garden path with my brother’s spade, a hefty, man-sized weapon, and, with sweat and toil and blistered palms, dug over my ten foot flower bed. It was hard work for an eight-year-old. I then planted some marigold seeds I had bought at Woolworth’s. They never grew. I shall always suspect that someone else dug that bed over again later—perhaps even intentionally. I made no accusations, but after that I was wary.

Soon after this phase began, the family hen-house was moved to the site of my second playhouse, which had been torn down and its beloved boards put into that awful structure. There, as least, it was serving the war effort. That was a consolation, more of less—that nice cliché that became the reason for so many privations, great and small.

The new position of the henhouse meant that my garden was no longer accessible, and in any case was in grave danger from the hens, who could stick their heads through the wire netting in that region, and eat everything within about a foot—and the only thing there was my garden. So that garden went. I was given another area to play with; I insisted on that. It was a trapezoid area between the henhouse and the air raid shelter. It was thoroughly shaded by an apple tree and the shelter, but it was fine for me. It was cut off on three sides from the rest of the garden, a secluded little peninsula of grass and good black loam. The side of the air raid shelter facing my garden was covered by a sort of rock garden, since the shelter was an Anderson, a corrugated iron arch covered with earth. They were good protection against blast, but rather fatal in the event of a direct hit. I soon took over the rock garden, and then the entire earth covering of the shelter.

In this area my golden age of horticulture began. I cultivated it with an economy that would have put the Belgians to shame. I grew sage and thyme in patches of clay a foot square. I grew honesty on the top of the air raid shelter, where no one would see it. I found an old washtub and made it into a pond for tadpoles. As a gallant gesture of patriotism, I grew half a dozen Romaine lettuces—my most successful crop. I discovered that parsley and poppies could not be successfully transplanted. I collected seeds from everything in the garden that had them and grew some fine columbines that never bloomed. I think I bought perhaps two packets of seeds for the garden—the rest of the plants I begged, borrowed or stole from other parts of the garden.

My ambition spread. I thought of the other side of the air raid shelter—a still more secluded area, then filled with weeds, apple tree prunings, and cold frame lights, plus a quantity of broken glass. I did not bother to ask anyone’s permission. One day, when no one else was around, I cleared out the rubbish, stacked the cold frame lights and flower pots where my brother was sure to trip over them when he tried to get into the greenhouse, and dug the area over. Here at last was virgin ground. There was no garden already there to be worked on and developed; I had to make it. I found some old bricks and made a sort of a path. I got grass seed and planted a handkerchief-sized lawn, which since it was never rolled, was always too soft to cut successfully with the lawn mower. Being at the romantic or rather sentimental age of ten or eleven—it must have been then I was reading “Ivanhoe” I remember—I converted the dangling trails of our neighbour’s pet rambler rose into my idea of a bower. It was one of the oddest roses I ever saw; the blossoms were a bluish pink at first, and later faded to a pinkish blue. My blue rose bower added exactly the right touch of unreality to my secret and secluded garden. I made a small rockery in one corner, and planted a bed of pansies, with sweet peas behind, intended to cover the side of the air aid shelter, but which somehow never achieved its purpose. I even made a little lath fence and gate to keep the dog out—a rather over optimistic enterprise choice.

In the late summer of that year, this six by ten foot area seemed like heaven to me. I could go there and lie on the grass to read Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, Lord Peter Wimsey and Father Brown, Arthur Ransome and “Biggles”. I could steal apples without fear of discovery. No grown-up could ever intrude on this ideal haven it seemed. I could go there and satisfy my mother’s vague feeling that I should be out-of-doors, without having to go and play cowboys and Indians with the boy across the street, whom I hated energetically. I always ended up fighting him, using my head as a battering ram, although he was a much better fighter than I. I could read and dream as much as I wanted.

This joy, however, was short-lived. As soon as the war was over, my brother and uncle started making plans for the no longer needed air raid shelter. They planned to dig it up, fit it together with a similar shelter, and set it, on a concrete foundation right on top of my beloved garden, for use as a tool shed. My astonishment, rage, and disappointment at this, to me, unwarrantable betrayal were more than I had ever known in my twelve or thirteen years. This was incredible. That my brother could take away from me this, my most precious possession, was more than I could understand. I had had my garden moved before. But this was different. This was a garden I had made all myself, from nothing. My faith in humanity suffered a very severe blow.

As always in such cases, I, as the youngest, lost out. My garden went. Instead I was given a bed in the front garden, and another in the back garden. I suppose my brother tried to make up for the loss of the garden I had made myself. However, the front garden was open to everyone’s view—there was no hiding there with a book on a sunny afternoon. Also, it was gummy, yellow London clay instead of the rich fine loam of the back garden. It was hard to work, and harder still to get things to grow in. I tried, but my heart was never in it. My backyard patch I converted into a vegetable garden. I grew a few peas and radishes, but for some reason that bed was infested with chickweed, and nothing I could do would get rid of it. I finally gave up the battle. By that time I was becoming more or less responsible for most of the garden. I cut the grass occaisionally, did a bit of weeding now and then, and cut down the perennials at the end of the season, and left it at that, apart from climbing the apple trees as often as possible, ostensibly to pick apples, but mostly just for the fun of climbing.

My interest in gardening became more and more vague after that, but it has never quite waned. Last year I cleared a patch two feet long by the barbecue pit and planted some parsley. The last I saw of it, a rather hungry looking robin was attacking it with might and main. I turned my back and walked away in disgust.