Old fashioned gardening wisdom

Old fashioned gardening wisdom is just as relevant today as it was decades and even centuries ago.

I live in a cottage that they started to build in 1847.  Coming out from the UK, Thomas Hamlyn built this cottage and set up a farm around it where he grew his own produce from the mid to late 1800s, and now ironically, 168 years later I am trying to do the same, on a much smaller scale.  At a recent open garden, an ancestor of the Hamlyn family gave me some research she had done about Thomas, and the fact he was a keen gardener.  He was a member of a member of the Mt Barker Agricultural and Horticultural Society and in the 1860s he exhibited a range of fruits, vegetables, grains and livestock in the annual shows.  In those days there was no local football league so he and his sons regularly participated in ploughing matches in Mt Barker and the surrounding districts.  Some of the home grown goods that Thomas exhibited in annual shows included apples which won first prize in 1867 and onions which won second prize in 1862.  He also grew and entered other things such as fodder for stock, wheat, oats, potatoes and mangold wurzel (today called mangel-wurzel).  I grew this giant member of the beetroot family in my patch this year for the first time.

After hearing this, I realised that while I aspire and strive to live the ‘River Cottage’ life, almost as if it’s a new thing, Thomas Hamlyn was living it when his house was first built over 160 years ago.  He was an organic gardener and farmer, as all gardeners and farmers were organic.  They grew what was seasonal and fresh, with low food miles, because that was all there was.  I can’t imagine there would have been the same obsession with perfection which many of us have when it comes to choosing fruits and vegetables.  Recently there has been a worldwide movement praising the ugly fruits and vegetables, of which hundreds of thousands of tonnes are discarded each year in the name of quality control.  Today we get excited about farmers markets and local food swaps and back then that is all they had.

Now I don’t want to lose all the mod cons and go back to a horse and cart, however there are a lot of old fashioned remedies for pests and disease issues which are just as effective and relevant today as they were over 170 years ago.

Adding organic matter to the soil in the form of aged animal manures and compost was part of life in the old days.  Mixed farming practices would have seen all the household’s food scraps thrown out to the fowls or pigs, and then their manure was used to feed the crops and trees.  In the process the soil was improved and the worms fed.


These amazing survivors are the bane of many gardeners’ lives.  If weeds came up between Thomas’s vegies I think he would have hoed them out, or possibly pulled them out by hand.  Many people remember their grandma simply making herself a cup of tea in the morning and walking outside to pour the remaining boiling water on any weeds in her driveway or paths.  This is still very effective.  Or she may have made up a spray of vinegar and water and burnt the above ground foliage of the weed that way.  Tough weeds may have needed several treatments but she would have son in the end.


While the cottage garden style popular a hundred plus years ago has seen several resurgences, today many gardeners have a much more minimalistic style with a lot less diversity of plants.  The cottage garden has lots of different plants and always seemed to have something in flower in it.  Having flowers all year round brings pollinators and beneficial insects all year round.  This then helps your garden remains healthy with the good bugs dealing with your bad bugs, so there are less pest insect problems which occur with plantings which are almost a monoculture.  Crop rotation and growing small amounts of a number of different vegies rather than a monoculture crop also meant that pest problems were reduced.


The pests that do occur can often be managed in a holistic way.  For example, letting chooks free range under apples, cherries, pear and quince trees is very effective in managing codling moth and pear and cherry slug, as the fowls eat the insect pests when they are in the larval form at ground level.  Other old fashioned insect remedies include using a solution of soapy water squirted on the pest.  This causes them to desiccate and die, and while it is quite effective care needs to be taken not to squirt beneficial insects which it will also kill.  Similarly, homemade garlic, chilli and oil sprays can also work but care must be taken when using them as they do not distinguish between good bugs and bad bugs and can kill them both if not applied with care.  An old fashioned fungicide recipe is made using bicarb soda and a detergent as a wetting agent.  This kills off fungal spores such as powdery mildew and black spot on roses.  Another homemade remedy for powdery mildew is milk diluted one part milk to 10 parts water.  While these remedies are effective there is now a commercial organic fungicide based on potassium bicarbonate which is more effective.