Then and Now. Garden Lore and Musty Books

Knight in not so shiny armour guards the play house

Gardening is both ever evolving and stuck in time.  It’s full of new technology and old wives tales.  Some practices that were used a hundred years ago still hold true today while new technology tempts us at every turn to make the job easier, lighter or faster.  We’ve planted by the moon, by day length, by soil temperature, by the Farmer’s Almanac and by whether the crow looks at you sideways with one eye closed.  We’ve run the gamut with poisonous chemicals and now we’re ‘going green’.  We have nifty, lightweight, ergonomic tools yet some of my favourites are old wooden handled ones handed down from previous generations, all worn smooth from many hands and much hard work.

I was recently flipping through a book lent to me by a  customer about old wives’ lore in respect to gardening.  I had to shake my head at some of the things they (whoever ‘they’ were) used to do in the old days such as lay a piece of creosoted string or felt around cabbages to repel attack of the cabbage fly or hang mothballs from peach trees to discourage peach leaf curl.  Nowadays if you said creosote in the same sentence as vegetables gardening…well, let’s just say that I don’t think you’d get many takers for a freshly picked cabbage from your garden.

One theory I found in the book that I tend to go by is what it said about about bugs.  If it moves slowly enough, step on it; if it doesn’t, leave it – it’ll probably kill something else.  Although this advice is pretty general and should be taken with a grain of salt (another old day saying) I have found myself telling basically the same thing to my children as they continuously ask about bugs they see when we’re in the garden (although they are against stepping on them, “ewww, it will stick to my shoe”).   A good example is the millipede versus the centipede.  They can never remember which one is considered a ‘good’ bug (the faster one).  Although I don’t recommend stepping on every slow poke the theory does make sense.  Or you can just leave them all alone to do as they will.  They’re all here for a purpose.

Lion manure apparently scares off deer.  I figure if you have lion manure you must have lions and that would scare off pretty much anything, including deer.

My father, an avid gardener himself, gave me a book awhile back from his collection, written in 1936 in England.  Back then they used to garden wearing suits with their wellies, at least for the few pictures taken, so they probably came up with the best methods so as not to soil their finery.  Other than the constant mention of using DDT to kill any pests (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane, banned from most countries by the 1970’s), much of the methods they used back then are still practiced today.

They pruned much the same way, they took cuttings, they hilled potatoes and they mowed their lawns.  We still plant marigolds with our tomatoes and garlic with our roses.  The push reel mower is another tool that has resurfaced from the past in the ‘go green’ movement.  Funny how some things come full circle.

Manure teas are as popular today as they were back then and I don’t mean ladies getting together in their best dresses sipping from china cups atop a pile of cow dung.  I mean soaking a sack of manure in a barrel of water then using it to water your plants.  I wonder if using lion manure would kill two birds with one stone.

We may not dress up to garden but we certainly hold on to other traditions and methods from way back when.  We just have fancier tools and lighter wheelbarrows.  It’s fun to look through old books with musty pages.  Makes me wonder what my children will say in their later years, looking through my archive of articles.

Shirley Eppler

April 2009