Harry Dodson

Gardener on 'The Victorian Kitchen Garden'

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."

Michael Leapman

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
Arts & Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'
tv
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
life
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit