Gardening: Need an answer? Just ask Victor

Professional private gardeners, with their exhaustive knowledge of the natural world, are a dying breed

As August wears on, an air of tension hangs over British households. The imminent announcement of public examination results plays havoc with the even tenor of family ways. Success in examinations has become synonymous with a good education.

It was not always so. In private service gardening, for example, examinations once meant very little but experience almost everything. Intelligent men "worked themselves up" from garden boy to journeyman improver, then foreman, and, if they were very good and very lucky, to head gardener. Their knowledge was prodigious. Though there are still men about who spent their working lives in private service, their ranks are thinning fast.

Victor Scott is one of those at the end of a proud tradition. He is 70 and has lived all his life in the pretty village of Aston Abbotts, near Aylesbury. He is a charming man, courteous, friendly and seemingly at ease. He is happy to talk, in engaging and fluent manner, and in a soothing Buckinghamshire burr, of what he knows. And he knows a very great deal. He is a countryman and a gifted and hard-working gardener; but he is also a botanist and naturalist and largely self taught.

His earliest memory is of being lifted up on to his father's shoulders to look into a bird's nest. By the age of nine, he knew the Latin names of all the local flowers and birds. By the time he left school at 14, in the middle of the Second World War, he was already in demand to show people the wild flowers of Buckinghamshire. In his youth, he cycled as far away as the Lake District and Cornwall looking for, and photographing, British native flowers.

After a year on a local farm, he entered "private service", going to work as a garden boy for the owners of one of the big houses in the village. In time he became head gardener, in charge of extensive herbaceous borders, ornamental shrubs and trees, and the kitchen garden. Whilst there, he attended night school to study botany. zoology and geography, and he also took the Royal Horticultural Society's General Certificate, for which he received the highest marks in his year. So he pass some examinations in the end.

Because of his interest in natural history, Victor's reputation grew beyond the boundaries of the village. During the brilliant, and successful, campaign to prevent the building of London's third airport at nearby Cublington, he gave evidence to the public inquiry on the likely impact of an airport on local birds and, in particular, the largest starling roost (some two million strong) in the country. "No Airport Here" can still be discerned, painted on the side wall of the Victorian house where his family has lived since 1854.

About 20 years ago, the garden where he worked changed hands; somewhat out of sympathy with the new owners' idea of what a garden should be, he took his leave. As he was already a part-time lecturer on botany and natural history for the Workers' Educational Association and had conducted study groups abroad, he decided to take his chance as a freelance naturalist. He was assisted by his wife, Christine, a retired teacher whom he met on one of his first study tours, to Cyprus. On trips abroad she acted as courier and bird expert while Victor concentrated on flowers. Among other destinations, they went to Eastern Europe, Soviet Central Asia, Uzbekistan, India, Canada, Australia, and Costa Rica. They always took care to do their research beforehand, so that they might have an answer to any question fired at them.

Victor is certainly full of information. I never knew, for example, that there are many common plants of the Canadian Rockies, such as the one- flowered wintergreen and the calypso orchid, which grow as great rarities in north-east Scotland and Scandinavia.

Unfortunately, a mild stroke has recently forced Victor to retire from leading tours abroad. But there is always the garden. As well as an allotment, he cares for about an acre surrounding the house.

At first sight it appears to be a charming and natural country garden, but closer examination reveals many plants that you will not come by every day.

There are no fewer than 40 plants collected by Victor abroad (with the appropriate plant permits, of course). Here there is Arum creticum, which he brought back from Crete; there is Paeonia mlokosewitschii ('Molly the Witch') from the Caucasus; elsewhere is Geranium dalmaticum, collected in southern Yugoslavia.

A wander with Victor around his garden is a tour of the world's temperate flora. Most impressive is the coastal redwood, Sequoiadendron sempervirens, which has grown into a handsome tree from seed. In fact, most of the ornamental plants are from seed, including some fine silver birches and Western red cedars.

There are peaches, 'Lord Napier' nectarines and 'Moor Park' apricots, growing in a home-made cold greenhouse; plums and cherries on a warm wall; a pond and bog garden; a rockery; and, of course, neat rows of vegetables. The Scotts can boast that they are self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. Further from the house, Victor has made a wild flower meadow, and has planted a hedge of native trees and an orchard.

Although his wings have now been clipped, Victor still conducts local naturalists' groups and gives talks in the area. He is on the panel of lecturers for the National Trust, the Royal Horticultural Society and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and has a collection of more than 20,000 slides. For a modest fee, any organisation in Buckinghamshire and the surrounding counties may engage him to give an illustrated talk. I should say it was money well spent, for listening to Victor is an education in itself.

Victor Scott may be contacted on 01296 681488

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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