William Heath Robinson and KRG Browne. Bodleian Library
KRG Browne, William Heath Robinson’s long-time co-conspirator, is the first to admit that while he can “easily distinguish the scent of violets from that of a glue factory,” he and Mr Heath Robinson have not hitherto been known as “really first class gardeners”.
Freed from the responsibility of actually giving out any official advice, the suggestions Browne makes and Heath Robinson illustrates are genuinely useful – for a certain kind of garden, at least.
How to Make a Garden Grow was originally published in 1938 and remains as important today as it was then. Indeed, at the time, Browne claimed “the fact that neither Mr Heath Robinson nor myself has ever grown any of the flowers or vegetables mentioned in the work will not, we hope, detract from its education value or its usefulness as a fly swatter.”
He is, of course, correct. Sage observations distinguish between a horse chestnut and a chestnut horse, warn against growing more than a modest rock garden in a windowbox and advise the hiring of a danceband vocalist to deter garden pests such as the cloth-eared nutjar, the greater whey-faced piefinch or Peabody’s Puffin.
Of course some advice is, like that voiced in all the best gardening books, controversial. The rose suggestions, for example, Lady Bilch Overspoon, General Quacklingham and O.J. Featheringstonehamptonhaugh, would not complement each other in the modern garden and are, as everyone knows, prone to blackspot.
On the other hand, Mr Heath Robinson’s cat-scaring gadget looks perfectly sensible, and nightly slug-hunts will be much enlivened by my obtaining a tortoise to accompany me. His device to re-use bathwater on the garden is elegant, bang up to date and, as Browne points out “so simple a child can make it…who has the necessary piepery, bellowage and mechanical turn of mind.”
This book will delight anyone who has ever missed the first signs of spring. Mr Heath Robinson’s Daff-Indicator gives notice of the first blooms, by setting off a second-hand concertina via a loudspeaker, so all may attend and admire.
“A vegetable that one has personally tended, with loving hand and unremitting care…must obviously have a stronger claim on the affections than one which is merely delivered at the back door by an oafish youth on a bicycle,” claims Browne. Never were truer words written and I was particularly keen to discover any new pearls of wisdom in the kitchen gardening section.
Much is to be gleaned. Having read this book I shall now, for example, never devote my entire plot to cucumber. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to put my butternut squash into corsets to keep their shape or use a pogo stick to plant bulbs – and as for pollination via trained-butterfly, I can only assume it never caught on because of the War. I was particularly taken by the thrifty tip of substituting a scarecrow with a an octogenarian uncle in reduced circumstances.
This is a book for gardeners both experienced and novice, and for anyone with outside spaces they feel could be used more efficiently. I intend to install a cocktail fountain in my back garden next summer, and while the gnome ash tray wouldn’t be of much use chez moi, the sundial ale-vat will go down a treat on the allotment next season…
How to Make a Garden Grow is republished by the Bodleian Library at £9.99