Exploring historic gardening advice (&nomination)

Gardener:Southern Gardener

Date:23 Sep 2020

Blog Type:Mini Challenge - Meet your Neighbours, Vegetables

I’m a historian by trade, so even through I am new to gardening I really enjoy reading historical tricks and tips. I was looking through some old 18th and 19th century gardening advice manuals and found some interesting suggestions. Let me know if you’ve tried any of these and if you’ve had any success.

Tip 1 Water newly planted parsnip seeds with boiling water

I mentioned this to my partner who found the idea very exciting. Before I could make any further suggestions, he was watering the whole row straight out of the jug. We have neighbour’s cats constantly visiting garden beds too… if you know what I mean. Really didn’t help. Anyhow, the experiment is on but lacking in a control group.

Tip 2 Soaking watermelon seeds in milk

This advice must be ancient; gardener to King George II himself was aware of it. I will try this, but I only have the space for one watermelon plant so won’t be able to experiment with this. I assume watermelons consume a lot of calcium. I wonder if melons and cucumbers like calcium too?

Tip 3 White butterflies are territorial, use eggshells/ butterfly-like decoys

Actually, most of the older literature suggests using kerosene or growing brassicas along with hemp… Among the safer and legal solutions is using anything that looks like a white butterfly to show that the territory is already occupied. So last night I decided to make some fake butterflies from laminated white paper, a project that my partner found incredibly hilarious. To hedge my bets, I am attaching these atop of netting I will put on my brassica patch. So basically, I will not know if decoys will work. Evidently my experiments are lacking in design!

Tip 4 When garlic stem is fully grown twist it into a knot to grow larger bulbs

The internet tells me people don’t do this anymore. Would physical restraint increase bulb size?

On the topic of garlic, someone has been digging up my growing beauties. Proper digging too, surely not a bird. A possum? Neighbour’s cat? My partner? I’ve included a photo of the suspicious diggings (about 20cm deep). Let me know if you’ve had a similar problem after the garlic has sprouted!

Interesting (history geek) facts I’ve discovered about old gardening literature

-       99% of information about vegetable gardening in the 17th century is the same as what you would read today. Only difference is - the instructions were more descriptive due to lack of illustrations beyond woodcuts. 1% accounts for (at that point) unverified semi-scientific advice.

-     There was VARIETY in the nineteenth-century Britain. The Vegetable Garden (1885) lists over 30 varieties of radish alone.

-     There is a lot of advice about winter growing (we are talking cucumbers!), including instructions on making a hot-bed in every book I’ve browsed. I guess without supermarkets to rely on, people were keen to have a constant supply of fresh veggies?


What an awesome comunity! For meet the Gardeners challenge I have to nominate Lulu's Garden - she has the most awesome and useful ideas and Jazz is the cutest :) Always a pleasure to read her blog!


The books I've looked at (free on Google Books as they are old and out of copyright):

Loudon, John Claudius. An Encyclopaedia of Gardening. Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1850.

Neill, Patrick. The Practical Fruit, Flower and Vegetable Gardener’s Companion: With Calendar. C.M. Saxton & Company, 1858.

Powell, Anthony. The Royal Gardener; Or, Complete Calendar of Gardening, for Every Month in the Year, 1769.

Vilmorin-Andrieux et. The Vegetable Garden: Illustrations, Descriptions, and Culture of the Garden Vegetables of Cold and Temperate Climates. J. Murray, 1885.


Happy gardening everyone, let me know if you've tried any of the above tricks!

Exploring historic gardening advice (&nomination)