The Soothing Pleasures of “The Victorian Kitchen Garden,” a Vintage BBC Docuseries

Some time this past spring, I had my annual realization that if I wanted to plant a garden this year I should have got started weeks, maybe months, earlier. Then I set about my annual task of Googling how to make a garden happen. A few days later, clearing out my hundreds of open browser tabs of horticultural-advice forums, I paused over an open Web page that I hadn’t noticed: a grainy upload on the mysterious and vaguely European video-hosting Web site Dailymotion. “The Victorian Kitchen Garden – S01 – E01 – The Beginning,” it said. Curious, I pressed play, and a gentle wave of clarinet arpeggios sounded from my laptop speakers, and a mist-veiled greenhouse appeared on the screen. My breathing slowed, my jaw unclenched.

After watching several episodes in a row, sinking deeper into relaxation with each passing half hour, I paused to confirm that the show was real and not a coping mechanism conjured by my subconscious to soothe my then-acute anxieties about the then-new coronavirus pandemic. “The Victorian Kitchen Garden,” it turned out, was not only real—a documentary miniseries produced, in 1987, for BBC2—but had been something of a sensation at the time of its release. It follows a master gardener, Harry Dodson, through his yearlong attempt to revive the long-fallow walled garden of Chilton Lodge, a country estate in Berkshire, using entirely Victorian-era plants, tools, and methods. Each of the series’ thirteen parts (an introductory episode, and then one for each calendar month, January through December) is narrated, on- and offscreen, by Peter Thoday, a mustachioed horticulturist whose elbow-patched tweeds and air of perpetual wonderment harmonize wonderfully with Dodson, a plainspoken sixty-something man with cheeks as pink as rhubarb, who drops his “H”s and works the soil in a shirt and tie.

The two men unhurriedly introduce viewers to the particularities of Victorian horticulture—much of it drawn from “The Beeton Book of Garden Management,” a companion to the enduringly popular “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management,” the author of which Thoday persistently, and endearingly, miscalls “Mr. Beeton.” The grand experiment begins on a frigid January morning, as Dodson and his hardy assistant, Allison (“recently qualified in fruit culture,” Thoday informs us), dive into resurfacing the garden’s original gravel paths, pruning apple trees, and planting boxwood to line the rows. As the months unfold, from one episode to the next, Thoday and Dodson wander and converse, marvelling at peaches and tut-tutting at wilted, overwintered broccoli. As he narrates the progress of the garden, Thoday offers historical asides and rambling side journeys to illustrate the exquisite ecosystem of flora, weather, manmade structure, and labor that went into Victorian horticulture: warmth-giving garden walls containing hidden furnaces, seed catalogues spanning hundreds of pages, and the game-changing “patent India-rubber hose,” which liberated gardeners from the literal burden of the watering can.

Dodson’s role isn’t just to run the throwback garden—he also provides a human portal to the heyday of such an operation. Born into a family of manor-house gardeners, Dodson came of age before the rise of industrial agriculture and the postwar dissolution of the British servant class. He’s a font of wisdom both practical (“When pruning the fig trees, you should always start at the bottom,” he says while pruning the fig tree from the bottom, adding, “If that sap is allowed to fall onto your hands or your arms, and is allowed to dry there, it causes great irritation”) and managerial: during the strawberry harvest, he explains, the foreman would tell the gardeners to whistle—if they fell silent, he would know that they were eating instead of picking. He demonstrates how to make a mousetrap “out of two bricks and a simple ’azelnut,” and how to use an old “cucumber glass, designed by an old gentleman in the eighteen-hundreds,” to keep the vegetable growing straight. The strawberry harvest, in the July episode, set up what was, for me, the series’ most unexpectedly poignant moment: to keep hungry blackbirds and pigeons away, Dodson employs sheets of decidedly un-Victorian plastic, for which Thoday gently chides him. Dodson says that, back in his day, they had the best bird deterrent around: people, dozens of them, at work in the garden at all hours. A half century later, it’s just Dodson and his assistant, two lonely bodies, and the camera crew that follows them.

Perhaps inevitably, “The Victorian Kitchen Garden” romanticizes the era it looks back on, wrapping the rigid and vast class divisions of the period in a gauze of wistfulness. Although the grounds of a Victorian great house may be the domain of its head gardener, the show makes it abundantly clear that its fruits are for the pleasure of his employer. The garden’s intricate network of steam pipes and glasshouses, extraordinary as they are, existed to satisfy the tastes of the wealthy for the fruits of warmer climes—“for the wealthy gentleman, it was a matter of pride to have a melon on his table throughout the year,” Thoday explains in one episode. When, several months later, the garden’s melons are ready to harvest—vines trellised across the ceiling of a glasshouse, the heavy fruits cradled beneath in soft nets—Dodson explains that he must not allow them to become overripe and, consequently, lose their elegant stems. “No self-respecting grower or gardener would go and have such a melon placed on his employer’s table,” he says, with a little shake of the head. By the time the show aired, the garden was Dodson’s own—after serving as Chilton Lodge’s head gardener for thirty years, the property’s owner deeded the garden to him. Dodson died in 2005; in his obituary, in the Independent, he is quoted saying, of the garden, “Only three of us were in charge here in the last hundred-odd years, and I have done the longest.”

Since my first, accidental encounter with “The Victorian Kitchen Garden,” the show has been a regular companion for me—a calm background presence as I cook or straighten up or, in a dismal contrast to the goings on onscreen, prune my sad little potted orange tree and de-sucker the tomato plants growing on my Brooklyn balcony. As a serene display of domestic competence, “The Victorian Kitchen Garden” is of a type with a show like “The Great British Bake Off”—but even that famously tender program has an element of competition. In “The Victorian Kitchen Garden,” there are no face-offs, no judgments, no losers. Even the slugs who get at Dodson’s lettuce are worthy of affection. “That’s the chappies that does the harm!” he cries, upon discovering the little slimers, his voice rosy with delight. Part of the show’s appeal, too, comes from the idiosyncrasies of streaming: after much dithering, I finally ordered a DVD of the series, which is on its way across the Atlantic. But, in the meantime, the only way I’ve found to watch the series is on Dailymotion, where the episodes are inexplicably tagged as “Crime TV” and the uploads are patchy and imperfect. I watched enraptured, in the March episode, as Dodson went looking for period-appropriate cardoon seeds—and then the video distorted and froze. April was nowhere to be found online, so I jumped forward to May: Dodson in a sweater vest, instructing a team of young assistants as they shuffle in unison across the garden beds to pack down the new soil. Somehow these glitches only heighten the show’s soothing effect, its sense of bridging space and time. I’m here, in the present, in a ravaged America, watching two men in England, thirty years in the past, who are tending a garden more than a century old—very gently, and with great care, coaxing it back to life.

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