Friday, January 25, 2013

Gardening? Are you serious?

Maggie Smith has had some great lines in Downton Abbey as the inimitable Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham and she didn't disappoint us this past week in episode 3 of the third season.  The gardener in me loved a scene in this episode when the Dowager Countess sat down with her granddaughter, Lady Edith who, shortly after being jilted at the altar, was not at all sure what to do with the rest of her life:

Lady Edith:  There's nothing to do at the house, except when we entertain.

Dowager Countess:  There must be something you can put your mind to.

Lady Edith:  Like, what?  Gardening?

Dowager Countess:  Well, you can't be as desperate as that.

Maybe this explains why, as a gardener, I suffer from bouts of desperation. Nevertheless, even though the Dowager Countess couldn't begin to imagine her granddaughter's hands in the dirt, I'm sure that among those in service at Downton, she must have held the gardeners in fairly high regard.

The gardens at Highclere Castle, the set for Downton Abbey.  Photo courtesy, Highclere Castle

Although the gardens have not figured prominently in the plot of the popular television series, in its day an Edwardian country house the size of Downton Abbey would have had a large team of gardeners caring for the gardens and grounds, as well as supplying the kitchen with food for every meal and the house with arrangement after arrangement of cut flowers every morning.  This was no small feat in manor houses where estates could consist of thousands of acres and where gardens could include huge ornamental grounds, potagers that fed the entire estate, aviaries, grottoes, orangeries and enormous glasshouses.  The photo below, taken around 1900 at Waddeson Manor, one of the Rothschild houses concentrated in the Vale of Aylesbury in the UK, shows a gardening staff of twenty-two.

Photo courtesy Waddeson Manor and National Trust, UK

Gardener with Pipe by Frederick William Elwell, 1898
Gardeners at large manor houses in England didn't earn much money; even the head gardener.  They most often spent their entire life and career at one estate, spending many years in an apprenticeship trying to work their way up the horticultural ladder to the role of head gardener.   Some of the top head gardeners in pre-World War I England--like Joseph Paxton who worked for the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth--could earn up to around £500 per year.  However, in Paxton's case, he was not only employed as the head gardener but was also agent for the entire estate.  The going salary for most head gardeners in England around 1900 was about £100 per annum.  This salary at the turn of the century was hardly keeping pace with inflation since this was the same amount awarded to John Tradescant the Elder, when he worked as Keeper of The Royal Gardens for Queen Henrietta Maria at Oatlands in 1630, some 300 years earlier!

Preparing The Flower Beds by Pieter Bruegel The Younger, 1625

For a wonderful look at the role of the head gardener in the English country house prior to the first world war, see Toby Musgrave's book, The Head Gardeners: Forgotten Heroes of Horticulture.


  1. Great post Joe. I've often wondered how many gardeners it took to maintain these estates. I wish I could just borrow one of them a few times a week, or more! Looks like an interesting book too.

  2. Thank you, Maude! Yes, I'm with you...I'd be satisfied with a little help from the lowest apprentice on the ladder for just a few hours a week. Maybe then I wouldn't have to spend the entire gardening season feeling so desperate, as the Dowager Countess put it. ~ Joe

  3. Ah..the life of a's grand, to be sure. Joe..

    I still think my all time favouite garden was in the movie' A Secret Garden'

    That was the stuff dreams are made of..a gardner's life is a magical one. :)

    1. You know, Jeanne...I just looked at that trailer and I'm not sure I ever saw that version. Well, it's on my movie list now! Thanks! ~Joe


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