by jdurney on July 11, 2013

Digging in … Kildare’s pioneering role in horticultural education 

Wicklow bears the name of being the “Garden County” but when it comes to innovation in horticulture Kildare beats it by the length of a couple of drills. This is one of the perhaps surprising facts to be gleaned by a recently published book on the story of domestic horticulture in Ireland entitled “Rooted in the Soil – a history of cottage gardens and allotments in Ireland since 1750.” The joint authors Jonathan Bell and Mervyn Watson have compiled an attractive history of horticulture which weaves the subject into the larger social trends of the modern era.  In the early 1900s there was an increasing interest in encouraging house-holders to become almost self-sufficient in terms of providing food for their households.  This aspiration was facilitated on the ground by County Committees of Agriculture set up in parallel with the new County Councils elected in 1899. While providing services and advice to the farming industry was a priority for the committees the Kildare County Committee of Agriculture pioneered the concept of horticultural education.

Bell & Watson record that the Kildare County Committee claimed to have appointed the first county horticultural instructor. They quote from a gardening journal of 1907 which noted that since December 1901 Kildare had its own fulltime gardening instructor. The credit for this initiative was given to the redoubtable Stephen J. Brown, a Naas solicitor and councillor who was a tireless promoter of civic initiatives. The report noted that in the person of Stephen J. Brown “ the Kildare Committee of Agriculture is fortunate in possessing a strong and thorough-going educationalist in its chair and one who sees in horticultural education a means whereby the material resources of the people may be increased, rural life made more attractive and the beauty of home surroundings be improved.”  

The pioneering instructor in question – William Tyndall – was to gain national repute for his innovative methods of encouraging the county’s gardeners to adopt the most modern methods of horticulture.  Described as the “senior County Instructor in Ireland” William Tyndall’s first innovation was the establishment of a cottage and garden prize scheme. An amount of over three hundred pounds was made available by the County Committee and to ensure that gardeners in all parts could share in the prize money amounts for prizes were allocated for each of the five electoral divisions in the county as well as for overall county prizes.

The prize-giving scheme led to the formation of a number of horticultural show societies in the county. “Rooted in the Soil” quotes an article written by the aforesaid William Tyndall in a 1908 edition of the “Irish Gardener” journal in which he recorded that “ In 1903 Naas District Horticultural and Industrial Society was formed. Next year a similar society was formed in Athy, and a third at Balyna (Carbury) in 1905 so that including the older society (the North Kildare Cottage Society), the county now possesses four thriving horticultural societies.”

Indeed so successful was the Tyndall approach to popularising domestic gardens that it was used as a model when interest was promoted among city dwellers to cultivate allotments – strips of land on the urban outskirts which could be cultivated for to provide vegetables for their inner city homes. An Irish Times report of 1910 commenting on a horticultural display in Dublin enthused “ we want more of this – the sort of thing which one finds in the country districts catered for by such spirited societies as North Kildare and Naas. “

Closely related to the movement to popularise home growing was the promotion of gardening skills among school children. Again the Kildare County Committee of Agriculture claimed to be pionners in this field through William Tyndall’s practice of giving classes to teachers at a demonstration plot off the Sallins Road outside Naas. From this a prize-giving for school gardens evolved and the local newspapers carry detailed reports of the horticultural inspector’s visits to schools and his comments on the state of their garden plots. The 1907 report of the Kildare committee might as well have been written for 21st century schools when it proclaimed that “Not only is it of vital importance to get county schoolteachers interested in gardening, but a garden, no matter how small, is a most useful addition to a modern school, especially in these days when object lessons from real things and systematic instruction in Nature Study form part of the curriculum of all schools claiming to be efficient and up-to-date.”

The tradition of the school garden lasted well into the 20th century but often depended on the enthusiasms of a green-fingered teacher. However in recent times the value of the school garden has again been recognised and in an admirable scheme the state food agency, Bord Bia, has worked with a number of schools including Scoil and Linbh Iosa in Prosperous to educate the children in the concepts of organic gardening.

“Rooted in the soil” delivers a thorough but readable history with fine illustrations of the role of cottage gardens, allotments, school gardens and horticultural instruction in the life of Ireland’s town and rural dwellers from 1750 to modern times. It is just the kind of book to keep a gardener in touch with the subject over the winter months until the green shoots of spring signal a start to a new outdoor season.

Book reviewed: “Rooted in the Soil – a history of cottage gardens and allotments in Ireland since 1750” by Jonathan Bell and Mervyn Watson and published by Four Courts Press.  Series no: 307.

Wicklow bears the name of being the “Garden County” but when it comes to innovation in horticulture Kildare beats it by the length of a couple of drills, so writes Liam Kenny in his Looking Back series

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