I had, when I studied horticulture back in the 1970’s, the good fortune to be exposed to the last generation of a great gardening tradition. At the New York Botanical Garden, where I was a student, there were still a number of elderly gardeners who had been trained on great private estates in Europe. They were, often, less innovative than the best of their younger American trained colleagues, but they had a mastery of gardening as a craft that far exceeded anything you will find today.
My mentor at the Botanical Garden, for instance, the former director of horticulture, T. H. Everett, had worked his way through a traditional apprenticeship on estates before enrolling at a three-year educational program at Kew. As an apprentice, Everett had had to master, through endless repetition, a vast range of practical techniques. This resulted in a sort of muscle memory that cannot be acquired through books or lectures. Everett’s teachers had bequeathed to him hundreds of years-worth of practical experience. When, late in life, Everett wrote his ten-volume Encyclopedia of Horticulture, an astonishing amount of the text derived from his own personal experience.
This sort of craftsmanship died with the end of the apprenticeship system in the years that followed World War II. You can get a flavor of it, however, by watching a new movie, Portrait of a Garden, by Dutch filmmaker Rosie Stapel. Available through iTunes, this film takes the viewer at a meditative pace through a year in the oldest “kitchen garden” in the Netherlands, part of an estate that dates back to 1630.
The owner of the estate, Daan van der Have, works in the garden with 85-year-old pruning master Jan Freriks, pinching and snipping and planting according to systems perfected over centuries of observation and practice — in the case of the pruning of a black mulberry tree, the techniques date to the reign of Louis XIV.
The time frame of these two master gardeners is very different from that of modern practitioners. In the case of a two ranks of pear trees that flank an arbor, they have pruned meticulously for 15 years by the time when the movie was shot, fostering what will one day become a perfect tunnel. One might think that two elderly men, with death impending, would be in a hurry to get results. But these two work within a tradition that is timeless. Watching them, one recognizes what we, in our hurry, have lost.