Little seems to lend itself better to the pleasure of reading vintage magazines than gardening. And, if you share the same enthusiasm, I suspect you too are most captivated by the small ads - strange potions, long banned; tools from long-lost British companies; cunning methods of pest control. "I wonder why they don't make the Ooja-watsit Slug Enticer anymore," you muse as you turn the pages.
The American magazine, Horticulture, is celebrating its 110th birthday with a free download on its website of its 1904 (yes, I know) editions.
They're great fun to browse. It's a time when you could order 2x2x4 crates of holly for Christmas ($5 a case) and when, tantalisingly unexplained, an ongoing strike in glass factories in Belgium, threatened the supply of greenhouse glass, giving rise to the recommendation to obtain only the "best Pennsylvania makes". (Please tell me you find this sort of thing fascinating too...)
And then, what do you find in the December 10th pages? Random Thoughts from Abroad - a trip in August 1903 to the exotic shores of Britain. After nine days across the Atlantic, landing in Liverpool, the writer rushed headlong for the public gardens of Scotland.
First, Kelvin Grove Park, within the city limits of Glasgow:
I was much struck on entering the grounds to observe the stunted and stumpy growth; also the sparse foliage of trees and shrubs within the park.
Oh, dear. Neglect, perhaps? Lack of expertise?
On closer inspection the cause was clear, the foliage being thickly covered with soot vomited from an endless number of tall manufacturing chimnies (sic) that surround Glasgow...: to these can be added numberless dwelling-house chimnies belching forth the same sooty deposit resulting from the combustion of soft coal.
It's not something we often manage to factor into our imaginations, is it, the overwhelming pollution that industrial areas were subject to? I know that asphidistras were useful for their resistance to the fumes in gaslit houses, but the all-pervading sootiness of life in some cities is not something I've really contemplated in relation to plants.
Journeying on to Edinburgh, the writer, K Finlayson, finds the gardens looking much better, contributing no doubt to the ever-present competition that exists between Glasgow and Auld Reeky. He describes a display of violas the size of pansies in Princes Street Gardens:
Three rows of different colours, white, yellow and blue, extending the whole length of the garden. They were planted in rows in their respective colours in front of a large serpentine, so-called, shrubbery border banked up against the railway bed for the purpose of screening the locomotives from view as they traverse the garden. The length of this border being nearly, if not fully, a quarter of a mile, was again instrumental in helping to make the scene impressive and beautiful.
So, while much has improved, some things have been lost. It's rare to find this sort of display today and, given that I took no photos of a long and magnificent border but rather concentrated on the grass when visiting Edinburgh in 2010, I think I'm on safe ground in suggesting that nothing like this is laid out there these days. (Do comment below if you think I'm wrong.)
However, there were displays that brightened the dour stone of the Scott Memorial:
And the Floral Clock at the station end of Princes Street Gardens is always worth checking out, the design each year based on a topical anniversary or theme:
In fact, it's slightly surprising that Mr Finlayson didn't comment, as it began ticking in June 1903, would have been brand-new when he visited and was the first of its kind in the world. Perhaps our guide disapproved of such fripperies, or perhaps the planting - a geometrical pattern each year until 1928 - wasn't to his taste. I suspect, however, that he missed it, leaving by a different exit, still dazzled by that quarter-mile border.