Pen Pals No More

The Ingwersen’s Birch Farm nursery staff 1979. David Watling is 3rd from left. Allen Bush is 5th from right.

I’m not much of a pack rat, but I have saved old letters from the past thirty-five years.

Gardeners, who it seems seldom had a boring day, dominate the files. Among them are letters from Christopher Lloyd and Elizabeth Lawrence, but I especially enjoyed rereading my letters from David Watling. This is not a name that would pop-up on anyone’s list of big-name gardeners, but he was a tremendous influence along my garden path, as much as Lloyd and Lawrence.

I hadn’t thought about David Watling for a while until I heard from my friend Janet Chubb that he had died this past summer, aged 77. He was buried in the St Botolph’s Church cemetery in Limpenhoe, Norfolk. My last letter from David was in 1999. I hadn’t seen him since I returned from England to the United States, in 1979.

I worked for David at Ingwersen’s Birch Farm Nursery in the summer of 1979. I had spent the previous nine months as an International Trainee at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where I’d become smitten with alpines. (I met Janet Chubb at Kew, and she later worked at Ingwersen’s.) I had dreams of opening a nursery but needed more propagation experience. The Ingwersens—Will and his half-brother, Paul—welcomed me.

Birch Farm Nursery was celebrating its 50th anniversary in 1979, and I made history. I was their first American hire and the nursery’s only colonial amusement. I was paid a meager £20 per week and was sent out each day to weed, pot-up plants, and occasionally to wait on customers. Lady Amherst of Hackney, a keen gardener, once looked at me, with an odd expression, and told me, with her posh accent, that I had, “the most peculiar Sussex accent I have ever heard.” To which I responded courteously, “Thank you, ma’am.”

It was a wonderful summer.

Perhaps best of all, David Watling, the nursery manager and a lover of old American Studebakers, was my boss. Because of his fondness for those cars, David must have figured that Americans can’t be all bad.

At times curmudgeonly, and other times sweet, he was smart, affable—when he wanted to be—and a fine plantsman.  He taught me how to pay attention and how to stick cuttings. During one exercise, Rosa ‘Pom Pom de Paris,’ the miniature, thorny rose shredded my hands. (I wouldn’t have dared ask beforehand for a pair of gloves.)

I was left to wonder whether I was up to the task or too dumb to know the difference. The twinkle in his eye was an unexpected giveaway.  I knew, unequivocally, that I was being given the go-ahead. Maybe someday I could be a propagator and a gardener like David Watling.

David left Ingwersen’s to work at a nursery in Northhampton and retired to the village of Limpenhoe in his native Norfolk. He moved the little cedar greenhouse, and all of the rare cacti, one last time. It had followed him wherever he moved.

By all estimates, he was a private man, but the twenty years of letters formed a progressive conversation. David would keep me up to date on my mates from the nursery—Ray, Old Mike, David Mac, David Williams, Lynton, Sue and Martin.

I don’t get many letters anymore. Aunt Betsy sends a Christmas letter. My daughter prefers to text. My son can barely write in longhand; cursive was an afterthought in elementary school.

My saved letters are often written with remarkable penmanship but some are barely decipherable. They are full of meaningful moments, gleaned from the passage of months or years gone by. Social media, on the other hand, is the high-tech version of sitting around the potbelly stove all day, every day at the country store. Maybe more like sitting around potbelly stoves at 800 country stores. You don’t miss much. But there’s not much to miss.


  1. “You don’t miss much. But there’s not much to miss.” A perfect analogy of today’s society.

    I find that I struggle to actually write anything more than a cheque anymore. It is sad really. I have pages from my Grandmother’s diary of days that she spent coming to my wedding. They are lovely to reread, and with her beautiful penmenship, lovely to look at.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with Lisa’s comment, my grandmother had lovely handwriting, poetry to read and to look at. The flow of the letters expressed the emotion she was giving to the words.

    The one thing I took from the article was how time escapes us. You don’t release how much time has lapsed until its to late. I worked at Kew too, in fact in the alpine nurseries like you did, but starting in 1994. Tony Hall was my mentor and inspiration, a great plantsman but one who walked on the edge of social etiquette. I think many would call him other things but he strove for perfection. I’ve often thought of writing to say hello, but your post has inspired me to change thought into action. Thank you.

  3. Unlike the other commenters, I was blessed with a grandmother with a nearly undecipherable handwriting… It took me years to learn how to read her Christmas letters, and as she has aged her writing has become even harder to read. Yet, somehow, it’s always worth the effort to read whatever she writes! (Mind you, these days she has my cousin type up the Christmas letter and print it in bulk, adding only the greeting and a few final sentences by hand for each recipient.)

    But letters… The other day I pulled down a medieval French romance from my book case, and inbetween the pages were the pages of a letter never sent. An 8-page letter that I took the time to write by hand, clearly re-writing it several times, as there were no corrections in the writing, and yet not sent. I must have written it in 2004, judging by its contents and the recipient… I have other books where I keep letters received; in my Complete Shakespeare is the last letter from my Grandfather before he died – as well as several other letters from less distinguished people – and I have many other books that contain a similar mix of letters and Christmas cards. Some are more interesting than the books that harbour them…

    We should all write more letters. After all, receiving an email is nice, but it is nowhere near the excitement of opening a letter and browsing through the pages, reading the very hand that wrote the words.

  4. My mother still has this amazing penmanship…she writes perfectly!
    Time certainly does escape us. I remember seeing my mother’s handwriting as a young boy in letters and notes and being amazed. Now that I am older I don’t see such letters or notes by her anymore. And she’s on social media!!!

  5. A very sensitive, moving remembrance of David – I really regret that I didn’t
    speak to him before he died – we kept in touch by phone and Christmas card
    (not by letter!) he always made some dry comment!

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