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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough, Cam...

Ashdown Group: C# Developer - (C#, VB.Net, SQL, Git, TDD)

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Developer (C#, VB & ASP.Net, SQL Server, TSQL) - Pe...

Ashdown Group: Business Relationship Manager

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Business Relationship Manager - Enfield, North Lond...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea