Gardener on 'The Victorian Kitchen Garden'
Tuesday 20 September 2005
When England's great houses and gardens began to disappear towards the middle of the 20th century, the career structure of their indoor and outdoor servants crumbled with them. Some head gardeners went into the horticultural industry or public parks, others took on jobbing work, while a fortunate few, such as Fred Streeter and Percy Thrower, found their niche on radio and television.
It was not until Harry Dodson was in his mid-sixties that he, too, became a media personality. In 1947, aged only 28, he had been appointed head gardener at Chilton Foliat, on the Berkshire/ Wiltshire border, growing flowers and vegetables for the household in an extensive walled garden, with heated greenhouses and 200 yards of cloches (which he later increased to 400 yards). But, by 1967, the cost of maintaining the garden had become too high for its owner, Lt-Col John Ward. He made it over to Dodson, who ran it as a commercial nursery.
In 1984, the BBC was looking for a venue for a projected television programme on traditional methods of vegetable gardening, to be called The Victorian Kitchen Garden. The producers needed somewhere with a still viable walled garden; but by then these were thin on the ground, many having been turned into car parks as their adjoining stately homes became tourist attractions. Chilton Foliat was ideal for their purpose - and, as it turned out, so was its personable and down-to-earth head gardener.
Harry Dodson, born in 1919, could not claim to have been a Victorian gardener himself. But he had learnt his trade from men whose lives had been spent growing immaculate produce for large 19th-century households, and he appreciated the lasting value of the techniques they had developed. The series, screened in 1987, heralded an important switch in horticultural fashion, as vegetables began to be seen as positive adornments to a garden, not something to be concealed in a remote corner. The potager, the decorative vegetable garden, would soon become all the rage.
The Victorian Kitchen Garden was so successful that it spawned three other BBC series - The Victorian Kitchen, The Victorian Flower Garden and The Wartime Kitchen and Garden - and the accompanying books were best-sellers. Dodson became a popular personality and in 1992 wrote his own book about growing vegetables, Harry Dodson's Practical Kitchen Garden.
Horticulture was in his blood. His father, a gardener at Byfleet in Surrey, died when he was six, and his mother took him to Hampshire, where her parents lived and where her brother, Fred Norris, was head gardener to the Earl and Countess of Selborne. Harry helped his uncle with menial tasks such as cleaning pots, while observing how he handled the more technical operations. "Uncle Fred taught me all the rudiments of gardening," he wrote. The lessons were so effective that at the age of 11 he was made head garden boy at his local Blackmoor School, where gardening was part of the curriculum.
Leaving school at 14, he spent two years as garden boy to the rector of Blackmoor. There he learned how to make a hotbed using manure from the local carthorse stables: the rector liked to grow his own melons. Still in his teens, Dodson moved around the south of England as a journeyman gardener, first for the Earl of Bessborough at Rowlands Castle, Hampshire, and then for Lady Ashburnham at Ashburnham Place, near Battle in Sussex. There he was fascinated by the ancient glasshouses, dating from the previous century, and his experience of working in them stood him in good stead for his television series 50 years later.
When the Second World War began, Dodson was enlisted into the Royal Sussex Regiment and served briefly in France, but in 1941 he was discharged on medical grounds and appointed general garden foreman at Leigh Park in Hampshire. The large house had been commandeered by the Admiralty and Dodson's task was to grow enough food for several hundred people every day. After the war he moved to Nuneham Park, near Oxford, where he met his future wife, Kathleen (whom he always called Jane). Feeling that he was not earning enough as a general foreman to embark on marriage, he advertised for a head gardener's job and secured the appointment at Chilton Foliat.
Before the war 23 men had worked in the garden there but by the time he arrived, two years after VE Day, the staff was down to eight. The gardens had been put to wholesale vegetable production during the war, and Dodson's task was to restore them to their former splendour. "The guv'nor's guests were brought here on Sunday mornings and the gardeners had to be here in their Sunday best to show them round," he recalled later.
By 1950 he had persuaded the guv'nor, Colonel Ward, to increase the number of gardeners to 12, and he became a successful exhibitor at the Royal Horticultural Society's shows, specialising in impressive vegetable montages. In 1956 he joined the RHS's fruit and vegetable committee and served as a judge at its shows for nearly 50 years.
When the garden was given to Dodson, he and his wife did what they could with it, but did not have the resources to maintain it at its former level. So when the television offer came along, his greatest satisfaction came not from the celebrity it brought him but from the funds and the staff the BBC was prepared to invest in bringing the garden up to scratch.
"It's been a great joy to me to get the garden back into this state," he told me in 1991. "It's not quite the standard we had it in during the Fifties, but it's pretty good." It remained his pride and joy for the rest of his life. In an interview last year, he declared: "Only three of us were in charge here in the last hundred-odd years, and I have done the longest."
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