Down to Earth
Updated: Mar 18, 2020
Homely tales of Denham’s gardening history
Spring is on the way. So this month, we’re focussing on Denham’s gardening history, beginning here with some fond memories. Later in the month in a “long read” we’ll be exploring the history of the village’s more extensive gardens and its allotments dating back to the 19th century.
Despite the widely accepted view that home-grown fruits and vegetables taste better than those bought in a plastic bag, apparently few of us in Denham currently have “kitchen gardens” or orchards large enough to grow enough for our families, let alone enough to preserve. But that wasn’t always the case.
Many Denham residents have fond memories of their vegetable gardens tucked behind houses and walls. A helpful planning guide was often The Farmer’s Almanac or long-established traditions which included “planting by the signs” of the moon to ensure the best and healthiest crops for harvesting. Potatoes, turnips and carrots were dug and hauled to a deep pit and covered to prevent freezing. With planning, when the last of the preserved vegetables had been depleted, those in the garden would be ready for harvesting, then continuing the cycle by preserving the excess.
Christine remembers: “We had a good size garden which my father loved, he had an allotment too, and we always had plenty of fresh vegetables. I can remember helping to carry buckets of vegetable peelings for pig food across the recreation ground to Hazeldene in Cheapside Lane where my uncle and aunt (my mom’s sister) lived. We were always rewarded at some point with a joint of pork from the pigs they raised. My mother had a larder full of preserves in clip-top/rubber seal Kilner jars as well as the jam she made from blackcurrants, strawberries, and raspberries.”
Stanley Hoffman, whose family lived in “The Homestead” (now Ashbys) writes “ …due to possible consequences, I never ventured into the strawberry bed in one of my raids on the garden. To me as a child our garden seemed to be huge—nearly a hundred yards from the back door to the stream (Misbourne River) which marked its southern boundary. And there were pear trees and plum trees, black and red currant bushes, and a Worcester apple tree.”
Jessie too has memories of their garden. “In addition to a vegetable patch, we also had raspberries, loganberries and black current bushes. I made lots of jam”, she recalls “…and of course, I wore a pinnie (apron or pinafore) when preserving foods, cooking and baking in our family home in Denham Green. However, it was only when I was younger and living with my parents in New Denham that we also had an “allotment” at the bottom of our gardens next to the Oxford Road.
Many years ago, as can be noted in some old photographs, more often than not, women wore an apron as well as a cloth cap covering hair and head when cooking. “Yes, I wore a pinnie when I was cooking,” writes Val. “Over the years, we enlarged the garden and we also had an apple orchard. We kept the large number of apples in the garage and if we were lucky, we had enough to last until Christmas.”
Although often grown in orchards, fruit trees were also part of the hedgerows that became the borders of gardens or even the boundaries of fields. Historical maps of Denham often include areas where orchards were prevalent, as were spaces for allotment gardens and even designated areas for growing watercress.
Watercress is a rapidly growing, aquatic or semi-aquatic, nutritious leafy vegetable which grew in profusion in the River Misbourne, the chalk river running through Denham. As an ancient superfood, watercress was prized for soups and sandwiches.
Herbs have long been grown in the “Knot Garden”, a major legacy of Tudor garden design, now obsolete in all but show gardens. Knots were usually small and had various height levels, making the hedges of herbs the feature. Herbs are useful now as they were decades ago, to enhance or add flavour or provide a garnish, rather than being a dish in their own right. For convenience, today’s gardeners are likely to position the herb garden close to the kitchen and Julia of Weller’s Mead has done just that since moving into Denham.
Before the Second World War (after the war is another story), men—fathers, brothers, gardeners—were responsible for gardening. Ann’s husband Bernard grew vegetables – potatoes, peas, runner beans, lettuce, and beetroot in their large garden. “For a time, the headmaster at The Denham Infant School sometimes had the boys dig his garden in the afternoons instead of lessons. At 6:00 am in the morning, he would walk across to our farmland with a basket and collect mushrooms (what cheek!) My mother was too kind and frightened to say anything!”
Stanley Hoffman also noted in his 1995 book, Morning Shows the Day that “Fungi once proliferated in the woodlands which surrounded our village—and we soon learned to distinguish the true mushroom from the poisonous toadstool; the mushroom with its black gills was known to be good to eat, but all kinds of dire results were expected if you foolishly ate a puffball.”
Nowadays, advice is ubiquitous through radio and television programmes, gardening magazines, websites with their blogs and podcasts, and specialized books. Many vegetables and herbs are not difficult to grow, and the benefits can enrich our lives in countless ways. Some trends are very useful and practical. For 38 years, Julia tended her vegetable garden from the ground up—"two years ago I invested in raised garden beds, so I didn’t have to give up gardening and fresh vegetables and soft fruits. The change has been wonderful.”
For those less likely to grow their own, scrumping (still a criminal offence on private land and not to be encouraged - though the last reported prosecution is understood to have been in 1829) blackberries and plums seems to be alive and well on the Pyghtle, near the golf course, behind the church yard, and in hedgerows along area parks.
If you’ve a gardening story to tell we’d love to hear from you. Email email@example.com.
* Stories from interviews with local residents in September and October 2019 and an extract from Morning Shows the Day - The Making of a Priest by Stanley Hoffman published by Minerva Press, 1995. Copyright Stanley Hoffman