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A heartfelt plea for labels, archives and the like

I read with interest recently, this news story about the rediscovery of a long lost gardener's notebook at the historic Ickworth House, which has unlocked countless mysteries for the present gardeners - said one:
"It means that we don't have to make blind guesses and can now be really true to how Ickworth was created to be in future work. Any gardener would kill for this kind of information, it's amazing to think it's just been sitting there all these years.'

Acclaimed garden writer Noel Kingsbury also made a recent heartfelt appeal for information, in the journal of the Hardy Plant Society. It seems scarcely believable to keen gardeners that such information does not exist in the public domain and yet all that Noel seeks to collate (for PHD research towards improving the diversity of planting in public space, I believe) is straightforward feedback from amateur gardeners about which herbaceous plants do well in their gardens and why. It seems so simple doesn't it? But this kind of word-of-mouth knowledge is rarely if ever written down, and - despite many good garden blogs - as the knowledge generally rests with the older generation, we don't see it online much either. Gardening books, naturally, are written by experts who delight in nurturing horticultural delicacies and seldom do they feature the kind of adhoc grassroots gardening most of us practice.

Now, the knowledgeable / nerdy (like me) amongst you will know of the extensive field trials done by the Royal Hortcultural Society in their gardens, which often lead to the coveted 'AGM' award being given to the best and most 'gardenworthy' of tested plants. The thing about these trials though, is that they are carried out in one of only a small handful of geographically diverse locations by - and there's the rub - professional gardeners, not mere mortals like you and I with other things on their minds and in their lives: Yes, occasionally even RHS gardens suffer drought, pests and disease but on the whole these trials offer optimum conditions whereas what most of us offer plants is just-about-getting-away-with-it care.

Now, many Abbey Garden-ers this year have had to put up with Nina and I's insistent mantra "Always label your plants!", and behind the scenes with Chris Cavalier and Dorian Moore we have busied ourselves on an expansive database of all our plants and their cultivation, on this very website. It takes a lot of work, but then it holds a lot of information, much of which can be 'automatically' retrieved online in future years of growing. Web site users can wander bed to bed online, looking at what's growing, when it's been harvested and what it looks like.
This doesnt sound like rocket science but believe you me, when you spend as much time as I do looking at other garden websites you realise how few ever get round to as much as a plant list - only this year did the National Trust (an organisation relatively rich in resources) even attempt to begin a nationwide plant survey of their properties, which include iconic influential gardens like Sissinghurst.

As a gardener myself, I know from experience how hard it is to force yourself to find a pen and label when you're out, muddy handed and enjoying the actual physical action of gardening. You always think you'll remember it later and get round to it. You almost never do. Multiply this minor act of human frailty by the number of us active at Abbey Gardens and then add it to all the other gardens in the world and you have a mass amnesia that costs us much shared wisdom.
At least the Ickworth House story shows us that we are not alone!

(One of my favourite Christopher Lloyd stories involves a garden visitor asking him - on his hands and knees weeding - the name of a rare and treasured plant in his borders. Christopher :"Do you have a pen and paper?". Her: "No, but I'll remember it" Him: "You won't. So I'm not telling")

But IMHO the point of labelling and taking note of harvesting dates etc is less to do with making sure people know they're pulling a carrot out and not a parsnip and more to do with the bigger picture:
When I garden anywhere I am blissfully aware of my microcosmic act of communion with a tiny part of the macrocosm of Planet Earth. I love the physical and immediate aspects of soil, roots, tools and seeds, but then I also increasingly realise that the temporal is counterbalanced with a desire to share this experience, contribute to a global ecology, develop networks with like-minded people and organisations, and leave behind a lasting legacy of the trial and error and successes of my lifetime's gardening.
Opening my garden for the National Garden Scheme, giving talks, blogging and projects such as WWTHB? are all part of this ambition.

Moreover, I have a strong belief that what seems like minor ephemera today changes to gold-dust in a hundred year's time - again look at the Ickworth notebook, probably considered a casual aide-memoire by the gardener of the day (who almost certainly had his ranks of careful plant labels removed during the neccessary vandalism of the wartime 'Dig for Victory' campaign that turned all country gardens into allotments). Little did he know that a century later the information within would be the only record of his travails.

Blogs, websites et al can be the gardener's notebooks of our times. Yes, they're harder to update if your hands are muddy and your laptop's back at home. But their advantage is beyond the imaginings of any Victorian gardener: they can connect effortlessly with anyone else who is interested. Over recent years I've had some fascinating conversations with Dorian Moore our web programmer, about the future of the WWW, how the increasing fluidity between sites like Flickr and Google Earth has the potential to create accurate biodiversity maps of unprecedented detail, showing and archiving plant distribution through space and time, something scientists and researchers have attempted and failed to do for centuries. The impact of this in the uncertain, climate-changed future will be immense. It's what the web was made to do and it's up to us to get on with it so that future generations aren't left looking for the notebook behind the garden shed.

Sites like WWTHB? already contribute to social, academic and scientific knowledge about biodiversity and horticultural practices - they are historic documents in the making, without which all of our combined efforts at Abbey Gardens remain part of a local, oral history - fascinating and valuable, but frail and gone when we are.

Topics: [archive] [database] [labelling] [records] [research]

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