The master’s plan

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Haphazard gardening is a phrase with a future. It catches what many of us now do, especially at the start of a sodden November. It is the opposite of plans and designs. It is the sort of gardening which makes its own mistakes and finds that they suggest something new and better. It is done on days when one feels like it, not on days when a textbook says that this or that should be done.

Haphazard gardening is not a phrase that older readers among you will associate with the name of Hellyer. Nonetheless it is a Hellyer coinage, fresh out this month. It is not a phrase of the founding genius of gardening in the FT, Arthur Hellyer. He was our gardening columnist for 33 years until 1992 and was certainly not a haphazard sort of gardener. He remains the authority on what to do when, and it is to his books that I still turn in tight corners. The phrase has been coined by his daughter Penelope in her new book, as she reflects on her father and mother, their making of a garden and her own haphazard relationship with it in the years after Arthur’s death. The garden is no longer hers, but its story has bits of family history which will intrigue garden historians. They are essential reading for those of you who read this column and pine for Arthur Hellyer’s return from the next world.

Here, first, is the non-haphazard way of doing things. It is set out by the great man as What to Do in November. It is enshrined in his pocket masterpiece, Your Garden Week By Week. In the first days of the financial crash in October 2008 value went out of the window and copies of it were selling on Amazon for only 1p each. I pointed out this evidence of inefficient market pricing in the FT and within 24 hours the price per copy hit £19. The stock market then began to follow suit. As I write it is £17.45 in a reprint and there is only one copy left.

General Work for November includes Ventilating Vines According To Growth, Blanching Endives in Frames, and Pruning Fruit Trees In Pots Under Glass. How many of you know how to do any of these basic November assignments? In First Week, as you no doubt remember, glass panes should be placed over woolly alpines outdoors. Lilacs and Viburnum carlesii should be brought into the greenhouse along with young forsythias. The aim is to make them flower early for indoor decoration. However, “do not subject them to temperatures above 16C unless they are really well established in pots.” When did you last go out to lunch in February and find lilac in flower in your host’s drawing room? This trick has been forgotten by our haphazard age.

The Hellyer house in 1994

In 1934 Arthur Hellyer and his newly-wed Gay bought a “six-acre piece of scrubland in Sussex, full of brambles and willow, which had not been cultivated for over 50 years”. According to his daughter, Arthur told his bride, “If you think I am making a garden here you’ve another think coming.” Others have made similar remarks at similar times, but Gay was a botanist and had fallen in love with the site. They bought it and set about making a garden. The result was Orchards, Rowfant, which matured in their care for nearly 60 years.

In the 1930s, Penelope wryly observes that the further south you went in England, the more land you got for your money. A fine black and white photo shows Arthur in his thirties pushing a big rotavator through the tangled soil while Gay pushes another, on big wheels, beside him. Would anybody coming out of a horticultural school nowadays have any idea how to sow greenhouse primulas (in pots, not boxes) or how to prune cobnuts and filberts? They would probably turn Orchards’ six acres into a “sustainable” jungle and kid themselves in combat trousers that they were “saving” endangered types of butterfly. They would not order 35 azaleas in one go or end up growing thousands of double daffodils and selling the cut flowers to the trade. Penelope Hellyer has found Arthur’s Garden Record book, and so she can give us tantalising snapshots of the progress of his plantings.

In what ways was Hellyer a “man of his time”, a phrase which people like to apply to the recently dead at their memorials and funerals, meaning that they themselves would never have considered living such a life? All the known details of his early life are now collected in Penelope’s book. Aged 15, Arthur was being well educated at Dulwich College when a diagnosis of tuberculosis obliged him to leave and find work in the fresh air. He took with him an alert scientific mind, a training which he shared with his wife, herself a teacher of zoology, botany and biology. Nowadays, TB is treated differently and the boy Arthur would never have ended up with a job in market gardening as a cure. Thanks to it he had a rare combination of practical experience, clarity of mind and style and an intelligent interest in science. Property prices at the time enabled him to live out the sort of “good life” which featured until the early 1960s in the pages of Country Life magazine for which he also wrote. Nowadays the magazine has articles on roof gardens and advertisements for jet-powered Jacuzzis. In the 1930s the Hellyers slowly made a garden and built their own house.

Arthur and Penelope Hellyer

Thanks to Penelope I can correct an error I have printed about Arthur’s early years. He was not a member for a while of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. His wife Gay and her family were members of the Plymouth Brethren, a different sect, and when she wanted to marry Arthur she was ostracised by them. I think this background explains a remark I misunderstood at an FT party. Arthur asked me what else I was writing and when I said I was thinking of writing a book on truth and fiction in the Bible (in print still as The Unauthorised Version) he remarked that it was a brave undertaking and that he had lived in fear of a religious sect. I now see that he meant the Brethren, not because he had been a member too, but because he had married a girl from one of their families.

I much like Penelope’s story of how Arthur came to write on gardening. It has a modern ring to it. On a visit to Dublin he met a young lady who worked as a jobbing gardener and also wrote on gardening for local newspapers. He realised that he knew far more about it than she did, so he sent an article of his own to Gardening Illustrated. It was rejected, but he sent another, 117 words long, to Amateur Gardening. It appeared on October 1, 1927 and described the blue-flowered perovskia as if it was little known. Nowdays it grows invasively in my garden and in many of yours. The editor of the magazine was AJ Macself, a venerable white-bearded figure, who soon employed Arthur as his assistant. Arthur then succeeded him as editor and presided over Amateur Gardening’s golden years. By the time he moved to the FT in 1959 he was nationally renowned, the dominant writer on gardening. He was highly honoured later for his life’s work.

Did he think, perhaps, of that Irish novice when he first met me, his new colleague-to-be on the FT? He was far too polite to say so, even with a typical twinkle in his eye, but before long he sent me, as if for Christmas, a copy of his invaluable Amateur Gardening: Pocket Guide. It is still my weekly companion. His daughter Penelope tells her own tale of struggling to restore and carry forwards Arthur’s legacy at Orchards, admitting she approached it all as a haphazard gardener, doing her best. I like the phrase, but it comes with one warning. Even as Arthur’s daughter, she admits that she never consulted his books ...

Penelope S Hellyer, ‘The Haphazard Gardener’, published by Publishing, with Arts Council assistance

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