Posts Tagged ‘The Colonial Gardener’

First Published – 3 January 2010

One of the tasks of the Victorian Head Gardener was to grow all the flowers ‘the big house’ would need throughout the year.  One of the reasons why I think these Gardeners were awesomely talented, given the Victorian love of all that is floral, is that this was a mammoth task.  Head Gardeners had to master the fairly tricky production of flowers, fruit and vegetables on a commercial scale and they had to provide staff to arrange all the flowers for the house on a daily basis or do it themselves.  To add an extra degree of difficulty to their work schedule they also provided the Master with daily floral buttonholes for his lapel and the Mistress with garlands for her dress and floral head-dresses as required.  Victorian Head Gardeners invented the art and profession of Floristry.

I’ve never really grown flowers for decoration, so this is a whole new area for me to explore and an appropriate task for an Under Gardener to be studying.  To celebrate the New Year I decided to start with something small. I had thought about decorating a table in Victorian fashion but I feel that that is something to work towards for the next Australian spring.  I plan to pace myself with the floristry.

For inspiration and instruction I watched the wonderful Harry Dodson of the BBC’s ‘The Victorian Flower Garden’.  Harry and Peter Thoday are going to be my principle guides through the year ahead as I try to master some of the more technical aspects of Victorian gardening.  If you watch the clip you will see that Harry explains how to make buttonholes in the last few minutes.

Here are my efforts:

Buttonholes ready to present to the Butler and Lady's Maid.








On the left, the buttonhole for him, is a Lemon Geranium Leaf, Sage Leaves, Lavender and Nasturtium flower.

On the right, for her, a Pineapple Sage leaf, Thai Basil flower spikes and a Native Hibiscus flower.  I think the cotton I used was too big, I tried sewing cotton but that was too fine to get a hold of, so for future projects I need to find the ‘Bass’ that Harry refers to or maybe ‘Rafia’ if is was around in the Victorian era.

My sister-in-law obviously has psychic abilities as she bought me a fabulous book, ‘The Head Gardeners – Forgotten Heroes of Horticulture’ by Toby Musgrave, for Christmas.  Musgrave explains that the Head Gardener and the Butler along with the Cook were on an equal footing in the pecking order of a household.  This could lead to difficulties over buttonholes as in some households the Butler would collect the flowers and make the arrangement and in others it was solely the Head Gardener’s responsibility.   Depending on personalities this could be fraught territory.

I’m not sure what the Victorians would make of these combinations.  It seems that any Head Gardener worth his salt would know his Masters preferences and would need to juggle preference with availability in the garden probably planning ahead for special occasions. Both of my buttonholes were very aromatic which I know the Victorian’s would have approved of.  The Victorians invented a ‘Language of Flowers‘ in which any arrangement of flowers would have a particular coded meaning.  Red roses for ‘love’ and rosemary for ‘remembrance’ are probably the only modern survivors of that custom.  I remember reading a beautiful Kate Greenaway book on the subject as a child.  I think working out what the arrangement needed to ‘say’ would have been outside the scope of the Head Gardener’s role – I imagine that if particular flowers were called for this would have been the realm of the Butler or Lady’s Maid to arrange and communicate.

Anyway we enjoyed wearing them for dinner and my husband thought he could get the hang of having one for special occasions.  I don’t think I or my garden could manage daily buttonholes but I like the idea of making them throughout the year.  I may even progress to making a full arrangement for a lady’s dress. Yikes!



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This year I will be concentrating on the following experiment.

I’m going to follow the instructions written for home gardeners in 1854 by Smith, Adamson and Co in their booklet The Colonial Gardener.  This booklet is thought to be one of the first home gardening books published in Victoria and outlines monthly instructions for the vegetable garden.  If you would like to have a look at it click here it is available online through the State Library of Victoria website.

This project will start in April 2012.

In the meantime I will be re-posting a project I was involved in during 2010 called The Queen’s Scullery.  In this project I tried to re-create a number of Victoria Era gardening practices.

I hope you enjoy.


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