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.