Sunday, 25 May 2014

My WW1 Garden by Juliet Greenwood

This year, I’ve loved seeing the gardens commemorating WW1 at the Chelsea Flower show.
Having read newspaper reports from the time, and lived so long in a WW1 kitchen garden in my head, it was touching to see them in all their Chelsea glory. I loved the whistles that became fountains, and the stories of the men interned in Germany creating flower gardens, with even their own strictly-judged show.

My favourite of all was the potter’s garden.

With its cottage garden flowers and path of discarded pots, it caught a real sense of the potter having left everything to volunteer, as so many men did in the first year of the war, unable to imagine the unprecedented horrors they would soon be facing, and many never to return. It had the same atmosphere as the Lost Gardens of Heligan, that first sparked my fascination with the gardens of WW1, abandoned at the moment the intricate hierarchy of gardeners left for the front, and generations of expertise were lost forever.

But, as I learnt in my research, that was not the whole story. Many gardens were abandoned, but many new were created. Before WW1, the Edwardians had lived in a brave new world of luxurious imports and the novelty of canned foods. As imports were threatened by the dangers of new-fangled submarines, necessity sent the population at home growing once more. Land girls took over the roles of agricultural workers, and schoolchildren grew vegetables wherever they could. Like today (and in the 1970s of the BBC’s ‘The Good Life’), the expense of fresh food led to a huge upsurge in allotments and self-sufficiency.  Tips appeared in the newspapers for the best ways to preserve tomatoes and beetroot for the winter ahead, and arguments ranged over the best way to grow, and where allotments should be placed.

So much was learnt in WW1 that was taken on to the organisation that swung into place in WW2, and beyond. Some of my earliest memories are of the gardens of aunts and uncles, who had no doubt absorbed memories of the First World War from their parents, and then lived themselves through the Second World War. Their gardens were full of flowers, but there was always a vegetable garden at the back, filled with peas and beans and raspberry canes. They still preserved what they could, even though this was the 1960s and another brave new world of seemingly endless plenty.

I also remember those WW1 allotments in my own garden, which originally was a long strip, like many of the quarrymen’s gardens in this part of Wales. Amongst the thin, rocky soil, I’ve a patch that is rich from generations of vegetables being grown to supplement subsistence wages. Unlike those previous generations, I’ve the luxury of a polytunnel for extra protection against the wind, and additional warmth halfway up a mountain. There’s a very strange thing about my polytunnel. It’s the only place I can grow red poppies. I’ve tried so many times in the garden, but only the yellow Welsh ones appear. Then last year, when I was trying to find poppies to photograph for the update of my website, there they were: a little patch in amongst the rocket. It gave me tingling feeling. I’m keeping my fingers crossed they reappear this year.

So this is my WW1 garden. Not a potter’s garden, but a quarryman’s garden. With it lie the memories of those who were lost, and those at home who kept the nation and the soldiers fed, and who, like the act of faith that is the essence of all gardening, found the strength to carry on amidst so much loss, and build the world anew.


  1. What a wonderful post! I love my garden, especially the poppies and although my husband thought he'd managed to get rid of most of them, I've now bought three packets of Flanders Poppies to sow. I can't wait for them to come up.

  2. Lovely, Deborah! I hope they come up and glow for you :-)

  3. That is really interesting! I wonder why the poppies only bloomed in the polytunnel. Maybe the soil there is a bit more fertile for poppies to grow. I'm not sure, though, but I'm glad they bloomed. I'm keeping my fingers crossed as well in hoping that the red poppies bloom in the polytunnel this year too! Good luck with your garden. It looks beautiful. :)

    Al Perreault @ GreenCollar


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