Burnett: Old books can give new life to gardening

Many of the techniques and fundamentals of gardening used today have been used for centuries…

In gardening I find the more things change the more they stay the same. Many of the techniques and fundamentals used today have been used for centuries even though they may be touted as new.

My collection of old gardening books is extensive and includes writings from all over the world but for the most part North America and England. I particularly enjoy reading bits and pieces from England where many of our Canadian gardening practices have come.

One, which I have been browsing through recently, is called Twentieth Century Gardening written in 1913 by John Weathers. In it is a chapter on how to build a gravel pathway by excavating at least a foot of soil away and starting with a six-inch layer of broken brick then a three-inch layer of clinkers before the final three inches of gravel is applied to the surface. They must have borrowed that technique from the Romans famous for their network of roads winding throughout England some of which are still there today.

In paths installed in recent landscapes I often see a two-inch layer of gravel on top of a clay surface, which will be usable for only a few seasons before it becomes a haven for weeds once the gravel disappears into the clay.

In this book, written before the widespread use of manufactured fertilizers or “artificial manures” as they were known back then, the use of “canary guano” is mentioned time after time as the quintessential product to provide plants the three essential nutrients, nitrogen phosphorous and potassium.

Today bat guano is a well-known organic source for these nutrients but even with the help of Google I cannot find information on canary guano. It seems it would take an unimaginable number of canaries to provide enough of this material to satisfy the thousands of gardeners in England at the turn of the century. I did though read of a bat called the canary bat and perhaps that is where the canary guano came from.

One of the things I find interesting in old English gardening books are the terms used for weights and measures. I’m sure most of you have heard of bushels and pecks, but when I start seeing terms such as “one square pole” I begin to realize just how easy to understand our metric system is. One square pole by the way is equal to 30.25 square yards, which makes a pole 5.5 yards long. As much as many of us complain about the metric system, it’s a lot easier to work everything in 10s than to remember there are 12 inches in a foot and three feet in a yard and 1,760 yards in a mile, etcetera.

My collection of gardening books includes titles such as Garden Guide–The Amateur Gardeners Handbook 1917, The Modern Family Garden Guide 1943 and the American Family Cyclopedia Agriculturist 1885. I have many others but the point is more than just being collectible they have great information that can be very helpful to the modern gardener. I suggest we all check out our old books to find ‘new’ and exciting ways to enhance our gardening experience.