|Molly “reading” Reginald Arkell’s “Old Herbaceous.”|
“Old Herbaceous” is the nostalgic reminiscence of Herbert Pinnegar, an outsider who had a slight limp due to one leg being shorter than the other. He found his life’s calling after entering a flower in the local flower show and winning a ribbon. He was given a job at a grand English manor garden by a young widow, Mrs. Charteris. The story follows Herbert’s life from a young kid cleaning pots to working his way up to head gardener. He lives a small, quiet life and through the years he earns the respect of others as a gardener and flower show judge.
Much of the story is about the relationship of landowner and head gardener, and head gardener and worker. Herbert spends six decades lovingly tending his mistress’ garden — forcing early strawberries in the greenhouse, surprising his mistress by finding seeds/growing a beautiful blue morning glory she saw on a trip and fell in love with, and arguing with her over what should be planted where and when. We see a garden at its height during the Victorian and Edwardian ages and its slow decline as owner and gardener get older and the manor house and garden are sold after World War II. After the estate is sold, it looks like our cantankerous head gardener will lose his job and be forced to move out. This is a devastating prospect for Herbert, who “couldn’t face life without his garden.” I think any gardener understands that feeling. Lucky for our hero, he is able to stay in his cottage for the remainder of his days, even after the property is sold. His mistress saw to it in the sale of the estate that he would always have a home there.
Herbert never married. The one and only girl he tried to win over he wooed by trying to teach her how to be a proper gardener. I think it was probably the lesson on “The Use of Manures and Fertilizers in the Garden” that finally made her realize he wasn’t the one for her.
It was Herbert’s love of gardening that sustained him through good times and bad. Things happened around him, people came and went, but there was always work to do in the garden. Even though it wasn’t his own garden, he took pride in his work and thought of it as his own — which was the root of many of the arguments Herbert had with Mrs. Charteris, who saw herself as mistress of her own garden. As the author tells us: “There is something about a garden that brings out a fiercely possessive streak in the best of us. All our triumphs, to be really satisfying, must stem from our own individual efforts; and we look with a cold eye upon innovations for which we are not personally responsible. Even a suggestion, however tactfully introduced, is not always taken in good part. ‘Alone I did it,’ is the motto of all really keen gardeners; a sentiment which found its modern equivalent in the Army’s laconic warning, ‘Keep out! This means you!’ We gardeners should not be blamed for this defensive attitude, which is based on the intense interest we take in our work. Without it, gardening would become an undertaking so laborious, so frustrating, so maddening, that there would soon be no gardens at all. As with all truly creative pursuits, the appeal is to the mind and to the heart, rather than to the pocket; and unless we convince ourselves, beyond any doubt, that the credit is ours, and ours alone, we are like a singer listening to the applause for a song that someone else sang.” I can relate to this because I, too, suffer from the need to say, “Alone I did it.”
Herbert was difficult and Mrs. Charteris had her stubborn streak, however, they understood each other and it always worked out ok in the end. After all, no matter what happens, “…you can’t be angry, not for long, in a garden.”
One bittersweet final thought from “Old Herbaceous:” “You planted a tree; you watched it grow; you picked the fruit and, when you were old, you sat in the shade of it. Then you died and they forgot all about you — just as though you had never been…But the tree went on growing, and everybody took it for granted. It always had been there and it always would be there.”