I started gardening and growing my own just over 30 years ago now and it’s quite incredible to think back and see how things have changed. We were living in our first house, a semi that we’d paid the princely sum of £19, 000 for and would now set us back something around £200,000 and were blessed with a large garden compared with houses built nowadays where the garden is smaller than the patio in that house. The pound in our pocket was worth what a fiver is today and we seemed to have more of them.
My first computer, an Atari 800, was still a couple of years in the future with its incredible 48K of memory and cassette recorder instead of disk drive. In today’s money it cost around £2,000 (£400 back then). I bought it on tick (that’s credit to younger readers) and by the time I’d paid for it a year later it had quartered in price!
Back then we didn’t worry about global warming, the main climate change fear was a new ice age arriving. Glaciers driving down from Scotland to Devon seemed more likely than a Mediterranean climate. Of course, we had a more serious worry, the might of the Soviet Union had hundreds of atom bombs ready to destroy us at four minutes notice.
The reason for all this reminiscing is that it is pouring with rain and I’ve been looking through some of my old gardening books. Now we don’t think of gardening as something that changes too much. Perhaps the odd new seed variety is introduced, a few fashion changes but that’s it.
Well fashions certainly do change. We’d not heard the word ‘pergola’ and block brick paving drives was something we’d never seen Decking was something that you had on ships, not a garden and we were really pleased with our patio made from 2′ x 3′ grey concrete slabs.
Raised beds in the vegetable patch were a very new-fangled idea, mainly one adopted by the new wave of good lifers who were buying up the cheap properties in Wales. They were just mounded affairs between paths, no wooden sides to them and, of course, washing away under heavy rain. Not that we worried about that in the wonderful summer of 1976.
In 1978 the EU, then known as the EEC, decided to regulate seeds. The feeling was that the same seed varieties were being sold under different names misleading the consumer. Each variety would need to be approved for sale and this, of course, had to be paid for by the grower.
The effect, as predicted, was a huge reduction in the range available. If you were to take a packet of seeds and grow half in the south and half in the north, selecting for the best and saving the seeds in five years or so you’d have two variations on the same plant best suited for the different climate conditions.
Under the new regulations, testing in the same scientifically controlled conditions, these would be deemed to be the same. If you had a variety that sold in very low numbers, it was just not economical to seek approval and almost overnight hundreds of varieties disappeared from the catalogues.
It prompted the small (at that time) HDRA to start The Heritage Seed Library where these uneconomic varieties could be preserved You can find more on this on the Garden Organic site.
A few years before this time, in 1972, Rachel Carson had published a book called Silent Spring. It awakened the world to the dangers of pesticides in the environment and the image of science being able to supply a magic bullet for every problem was tarnished.
I don’t think we realise now how many chemicals were used by serious vegetable growers in those days. Organic growers were bearded, sandal wearing hippies with daft ideas like using predators to control pests, making compost instead of bonfires and spreading muck like a peasant farmer from the dark ages.
Even the organic growers suffered from the frustrated chemist, or alchemist, effect. Making compost involved careful layering of different materials and the addition of activators to encourage bacterial activity in precisely measured quantities.
Proper growers knew this was not the way to proceed. Plants required fertilisers which should be formulated to their individual needs. In their tidy potting shed, equipped with scales, scoops and mixing bowls 2 parts of sulphate of ammonia were added to 7 parts of super phosphate with 4 parts of sulphate of potash and 2 parts of bone flour but for carrots the mixture was changed to 8 parts of super phosphate.
The psychology of this was that by mixing chemicals to precise formulae they were being scientific and science had revolutionised farming and growing. Yields were higher than ever before and the privations of world war two only 30 years back. Rationing had only finally ended 20 years before, so anything that improved production was good. That this method of growing, treating the soil as just an inert medium to support the plants and hold water was the gardening version of asset stripping, was only dimly perceived.
Once fertilised into growth, our crops were menaced by hordes of pests and bugs, but have no fear – the chemicals are here! Some like Dithane and Derrisare still available, albeit limited now in their permitted uses. Malathion, Bromophos, Fison’s Super Kill are no longer seen. For cabbage root fly no longer do we have Calomel and Lindex, for damping off, how do we cope without Orthocide and Captan? The armoury was enormous
Weeds would get a good dose of paraquat, which was so poisonous just a few drops would kill you as well.
These chemicals have gone from the gardener’s shed because nowadays a chemical must pass stringent health and safety tests for each crop on which it is approved for as well as general safety. These tests cost the manufacturers a lot of money so spending on that is uneconomic for them.
Many chemicals are available to those trained and licensed to use them like farmers and professional growers but gardeners were too fond of keeping things in lemonade bottles and following the principle that using as per the instructions was OK but a double dose was better still.
There’s now underground movements of people swapping and selling seeds that are not legally available. I’ve even been offered chemical pest controls under the counter, but I’ve not accepted.
Things have changed, some for the better and some not but nostalgia for the good old days is part of human nature. Reality is a little different.