I have found it fascinating to explore how gardeners have changed their attitudes towards the many creatures that share our gardens with us
Looking for clues
At Wisley Library, the staff and volunteers are assessing our collections in readiness for the move to Gardiners’ House. Checking a recent donation, I saw a copy of Amateur Gardening (25 April 1959). Looking to find evidence of how we regard animals in terms of friend or foe, and whether, in the intervening years, they've had a chance to migrate from the ‘out’ to the ‘in’ crowd. I scoured the small ads pages which were punctuated with depressingly familiar promises to destroy moles and kill any number of invertebrates.
Depressing early history
Then I came across an article in the body of the magazine – ‘The Conquest of Pests and Diseases’ by Henry Gordon. Mentioning the misfortune of the previous generation having to grapple with 'nicotine, cyanide and arsenates’ he then extolls the virtues of DDT, ‘a major landmark in insecticide development, a safe chemical which would control a remarkable range of pests, some of which had never been satisfactorily controlled before.’ The efficacy of DDT, the article explains, has been eclipsed only by the advent of even more impressive newcomers to the chemical armoury. Lindane and dieldrin ‘equally safe, but specific against different pests, have been generally adopted in private gardens.’ A terrifying thought now we have the benefit of hindsight and years of research.
This piece was no doubt written in good faith - does that make it even more disturbing? Apart from anything else, was it appropriate to make gardeners the end-users of such an array of toxic chemicals - did no-one have misgivings? Luckily someone did and spoke up. Three years later Rachel Carson published ‘Silent Spring’ (1962). It’s a devastating read now, goodness knows how it felt at the time.
So have things changed?
A couple of current chemical controversies spring to mind (and the debate around DDT continues), but the issues are at least openly discussed in the horticultural press and online. Our libraries have an ever increasing range of material on producing crops using organic methods, as well as bee keeping and creating wildlife gardens. Well known personalities, batting for biodiversity, encourage us to see gardens as habitats and the RHS has just published a new edition of Chris Baines’ Companion to Wildlife Gardening.
Live and let live
I’m giving the last word to one of my conservation heroes, a man who sees the master builder in a wasp, beauty in a black rat:
‘You don’t have to like the creatures that come in from the cold but you don’t have to kill them either.’
Chris Packham, Wild Side of Town (2015)
More about RHS Libraries
Exhibitions and events
The libraries hold exhibitions of photography, botanical art and more, along with talks and courses.
As well as books and periodicals, discover, art, photos and archives. Open to all.
Our libraries can help with your academic research and provide access to digital resources too. RHS members can borrow from the thousands of gardening books held in the RHS Libraries.