This library’s recent promotion involving that great Kiwi icon, the Edmonds Cookery Book, has provided a fascinating insight into social and family history, but there is another iconic guidebook that has been far more important to me personally. Let me sing the praises of Yates Garden Guide.
Like Edmonds Cookery Book, Yates Garden Guide sprang from a commercial imperative, to create a demand for the company’s product, and like Edmonds transcended mere commerce to become a basic reference guide found in many homes. My own old, battered copy of the Guide was bought in 1965 by my dad, when we moved from a mostly tarmacked backyard in Lyttelton to a quarter-acre section in Spreydon (there were houses on these properties but I always felt that the gardens were more important). Mum and Dad had migrated from London in 1958, and knew very little about gardening, so a straightforward guide to New Zealand conditions was needed.
Step back in time to 1965. The gardening world was different then. The Guide sang the praises of DDT and artificial fertilisers. DDT and its component dieldrin wiped out everything, in a hygienic, efficient and cost-effective way, especially when applied via “convenient plastic squeeze dispersing bottles”. And why use smelly, bulky natural manures when you could apply a clean, white powder and get better results?
Gardeners raised a wider selection of annuals then, the fashion for permanent perennial plantings being 20 years in the future. Surprisingly, vegetables that we think of as nouveau and trendy – Chinese cabbages, capsicums, artichokes and eggplants – appear in the Guide along with the more ordinary silverbeet, potatoes and scarlet runner beans.
Roses were as popular as they are now, but most popular in bright orange and scarlet. Gardeners liked flowers to “stand out”, so dahlias were also favoured. Dahlias fell from popularity for many years, as they were “so ’60s” but the craze for “retro” has reinstated them, and those of us that love them have been able to come out of the horticultural closet.
There seems to have been no such thing as an easy-care garden. If you had a garden you worked hard in it, double-digging and maintaining a complicated spray programme for the fruit trees. “Your garden should be a delight to all and a credit to you” said the sages of Yates, and if you had to hospitalize yourself to accomplish this, so be it.
My old copy of Yates reveals a different social world too, where the Woman of the House tended the flowers in the front garden and the Man of the House grew vegetables in the back garden. Even the cover supported this sex-role segregation. The front cover depicts a lovely lady elegantly snipping roses; on the back cover a laughing, muscly bloke shovels giant cauliflowers into a wheel-barrow. (He now has goggle eyes and fish gills. At some time in my childhood I thought he would be improved if he looked like one of the Fishmen from Doctor Who).
As a solitary, geeky little girl, Yates became my bible, a gateway to that perfect garden that lives in the imaginations of all gardeners. I planned great swathes of perfect flowers, all carefully arranged as to height and colour. Now I’m grown-up and have my own garden, and know that all the planning in the world can not predict the ways of nature. The white hollyhock won’t flower, the cabbages won’t heart up and the parsley has already gone to seed, but somewhere in Yates Garden Guide lies the solution to all these problems, and there also lies the answer to that Great Library Question, “Which book most changed your life?” Yates Garden Guide, I salute you.