Dales Plants and Gardens 1900-1960: project methodology
- Written by Sally Reckert
‘Dales Plants and Gardens 1900-1960’ is a volunteer-run oral history project, which began in October 2007. They are recording people's memories of food plants gathered and grown during the first half of the 20th century in Swaledale, Arkengarthdale and Wensleydale.
Volunteer Sally Reckert writes about the methodology that they have developed for the project to research and record the small gardens and allotments.
‘Dales Plants and Gardens 1900-1960' is a volunteer-run oral history project, which began in October 2007. We are talking with a generation of people born before 1960 to record their memories of food plants gathered and grown by their parents in the northern Yorkshire dales of Swaledale, Arkengarthdale and Wensleydale, collectively known as the Three Dales. [For more information about each of the Three Dales, please view the individual records by clicking on the live links]
The gardens that are being recalled are small domestic gardens and allotments belonging to workers such as quarrymen and farm hands.
The North Yorkshire Dales are primarily given over to hill farming. Traditions and working life in this pastoral economy are essentially conservative. Hand-in-hand with livestock farming runs a strong tradition of non-conformism. Most of our interviewees only had electricity and running water installed in the late 1950s.
A strong tradition of self-reliance and a culture of ‘talking a good story' have given us many fascinating and humbling interviews. They are worth listening to not only for the insights they offer into how food was produced, but also for what they tell us of the character of the Dales and their people.
Why are we running this project?
Two museums, the Richmondshire Museum in Swaledale and the Dales Countryside Museum in Wensleydale, have publicly accessible land attached to them. As a volunteer gardener with both I suggested we use the land for displays of local gardens in the early 20th century.
There is no standard ‘dales garden' due to variations in climate, terrain, culture and economic tradition. The main criterion for a cottager's garden in the northern dales was that it ‘had to earn its keep'. People on very low incomes had to feed their families from what they could produce, in harsh growing conditions.
With the current pressure on food prices, a good source of information and practicable techniques is to ask a generation that still remembers how people on very low wages and without access to markets managed to grow their own food. And so we set out to ask questions.
Recruiting interviewer and interviewees
A feasibility study was run in October, 2007 , with the subsidiary aim of recruiting volunteer interviewers. Displays of old garden tools, archive photographs, nursery catalogues and questionnaires were put on in museums and Yorkshire Dales National Park tourist information centres.
Success in recruiting interviewers also brought interviewees, as they all knew someone to interview.
1960 was chosen as the last year by which interviewees had been born for several reasons:
- Supermarkets had begun to change people's expectations of what fresh fruit and vegetables should look like, and by then it seemed cheaper to buy than grow.
- With electricity came televisions, and time previously spent growing produce was given over to this type of leisure pursuit.
- The availability of plants in plastic flowerpots, promoted by advertising, meant incomers could fill their gardens with immediate colour, brought with them from their local and urban garden centres. Aesthetics demanded flowers not vegetables.
Making the recordings public
With advice from the Oral History Society we learned how to interview people, adapting their technique to one of focused interviews set within more general conversations. If we were going to use the gardening stories to create gardens we needed to focus questions to elicit specific answers about food plants and how to grow them.
An Excel database was set up to capture results, and the recordings themselves are being stored for public use. Curators and archivists said that they would like to have the recordings, but had no time or money to process them.
The Dales Countryside Museum  holds joint copyright with me, and will deal with requests to use the information on the recordings. The North Yorkshire County Records Office, through Unnetie , will also hold a copy of the recordings for public use.
Some of the interview data may be found on the Parks & Gardens UK database by searching on North Yorks Dales Cottage Gardens, Swaledale, North Yorks Dales Cottage Gardens, Wensleydale or North Yorks Dales Cottage Gardens, Arkengarthdale.
We recorded the conversations on a Marantz PMD660 machine using a solid-state flashcard with an external lavaliere microphone. Recordings are in PCM WAV format. Each recording was downloaded through free software (iTunes) on to a read-only CD.
Following guidelines developed by the Parks & Gardens UK team we have created interview summaries to accompany each CD. Not only are recordings kept in multiple copies but also on different sites, and as further security they have been backed up to a separate hard disk.
As well as gathering information, interviews were used to generate good will. People have enjoyed sharing their memories. The building of good relationships between interviewer and interviewee means we are able to ask further questions, and have been loaned precious personal photographs, garden notebooks and recipe books, and been given the names of more interviewees.
The people interviewed about their gardens
So far we have interviewed 35 people. Our interviewees are the sons and daughters of threshers, shepherds, dry-stone wallers, road lengthsmen, miners, cowmen, pig-killers, market gardeners, gamekeepers, estate gardeners, quarrymen, tenant farmers, army camp workers from Lower Swaledale, and German PoWs who worked on farms and stayed on after World War 2.
Without electricity and running water women's work in the home was a full-time job in itself. They also tended the hens, cared for their sick and elderly neighbours, managed the dairy and creamery if the family farm had cows, and - together with children - worked as seasonal labour, haymaking, harvesting and potato picking. (Listen to Marry Rutter's oral history here)
Children learned to grow and prepare food by working alongside their parents, usually their fathers in the garden and their mothers in the house. In school holidays they were often in service to relations on farms in other parts of the dale. In Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, some of the National Schools had their own allotments where boys learned to garden while girls learned domestic skills.
In some areas, such as parts of Wensleydale, there is little tradition of gardening, as any reasonable land is used for grazing and haymaking. Meadows rich in wildflowers were the gardens for these interviewees.
Questions about the home
We asked interviewees about their childhood homes: layout, utilities, number of residents, and occupation of the householder. These questions are significant, because if a house is too small or crowded to store produce, what happens to gluts of fruit and vegetables? (More often than not, any excess was shared fresh with neighbours.) (Listen to Myra's sister, DG's oral history here)
Questions about the gardens
We asked our interviewees to draw sketches of the gardens they remembered. This had several benefits: interviewees relaxed while drawing, which aided memory recall, and they usually talked through the garden as they drew, leaving the interviewer to note future lines of investigation.
The sketches show where fruits, vegetables and flowers were grown but not the exact size of plots or numbers of rows. Sometimes we were loaned - or could take - photographs of the garden.
Not all cottages had gardens, so allotments and neighbours' land were used. The rocky landscape meant homes, such as those in Muker (Swaledale), perch on their small plot with no room for a garden. Other hamlets, such as Satron (Swaledale), are in permanent shade for six winter weeks.
Good land has always been at a premium in the upper reaches of the Three Dales, and it went to grazing and hay before gardens. Lower down the dales, farm labourers were given tied cottages with land to grow fruit and vegetables to supplement their low agricultural wage.
In Richmond and some villages, council housing was built from the 1930s onwards, with land back and front for gardens. Allotments exist in small numbers and in odd corners.
Questions - plants and how they were grown
People have found it easier to remember how their parents gardened than the cultivar names of what they grew. Cabbages and potatoes were common, but tomatoes were a very rare treat, only for those families who had a greenhouse.
From the age that they could walk, our interviewees followed, played and then worked alongside their parents in the garden and home. One interviewee remembered being sent out to scythe thistle in the home field, at five years old.
Horse, cow and hen manure were all to be had for the garden, but many interviewees remember, as children, going with their fathers out on to the moors to collect sheep dung to be turned into precious liquid manure. The dung was wrapped in cloth and weighted down in a water butt, to be stirred regularly as the washing was hung out.
Verification and cross-checking
Once we had gathered a few interviews, two researchers from the Parks & Gardens UK group came to advise us on how to verify, cross-reference and - as far as possible - corroborate what we had been told.
Memories are fallible, and with little evidence in the way of seed packets, catalogues, photographs, invoices, diaries or extant gardens, it has been difficult to verify some of what we've been told.
However, we do have some hard evidence, such as National School records for school allotments, two loaned notebooks showing vegetable names and year-on-year crop rotation.
We have also been given some seed packets, and a photograph of a poster for show onions from a local seed company  , now a housing estate. (Seeds used for prize-winning vegetables are as conservative as the gardeners that grow them, and the same cultivar names exist today.)
We have also been able to verify some gardening techniques by actually doing them in front of interviewees. The St John's Centre  in Catterick Garrison, Swaledale has a garden where we work with Alzheimer's patients, who can't remember what they had for lunch but can remember what happened in their childhood.
As we garden we're watched, and told how to ridge up potatoes and shown how to ‘scrattle' under the surface of the soil to see whether tubers are ready for lifting.
The growing season is short - three months are usual, four if lucky. Families who relied on produce from the garden ate fresh food week by week, with April, May and the beginning of June being the ‘hungry' months, when the last of the winter's potatoes and cabbages were exhausted, and summer peas, beans and soft fruits had not yet cropped.
The gardens of working people in the North Yorkshire dales of Swaledale, Arkengarthdale and Wensleydale are ephemeral. There are no formal plans, magazine articles and books about them. Few photographs, diaries or recipe books survive.
The gardens themselves have either disappeared under tarmac or been filled with plants as ubiquitous as a high street of chain stores.
This project is neither an elegy to the past nor driven by nostalgia for a cottage-garden look; it is wholly practical. From it public gardens are being created, and older people are being credited for the gardening knowledge they can pass on to younger generations.
Through this article, I hope to inspire others to discover more about their local plants and how they were grown. I am a gardener and I wanted to learn what worked and why in the place where I live.
For more and more people, growing food is no longer a leisure fad. It is, once again, essential for feeding themselves and their families. To grow our own food, we not only need modern science, we also need to listen to a generation which can tell us how local food was grown in the past, before that generation and its knowledge are lost to us.
For more information about the Dales Plants and Gardens 1900-1960 project, contact Sally Reckert.
To read more about what people grew in their gardens in the North Yorkshire Dales, please click here.
Endnotes and sources
3) The Unnetie Project is a searchable online archive of digital images showing life in the rural and urban communities of North Yorkshire in the 19th and 20th centuries.