The Grow Write Guild’s fourth prompt is to write about our gardening mentors or muses.
It would be obvious for me to write about Henry Mitchell, the late Washington Post garden writer for whom this blog is named. But I think I should actually write about the fellow who piqued my interest in gardening in the first place: Geoff Hamilton.
In late 1994 and early 1995, I lived and worked in London. I didn’t have a television in my flat. On the weekends, I explored the rest of Great Britain. One night in Salisbury, after a long day of hiking around Avebury, I returned to my room at the B&B and switched on the telly to see if I could catch up with what my work friends were talking about.
Coronation Street wasn’t on at the time, I suppose, but Cottage Gardens was. I must have come to the program as a lesser-of-two-evils option, because I had no real interest in gardening at the time. Geoff Hamilton turned that around.
Geoff (may I call you Geoff, Mr. Hamilton?) revealed to me during the episode of Cottage Gardens that gardening could be a bit more than a row of boxwoods as a foundation planting or a pot of rangy tomatoes in the backyard. I liked him tremendously. He was charismatic in an avuncular, everyday-man sense; a helpful neighbor showing you the ropes.
He promoted organic gardening before it became trendy, emphasizing the value of composting. He showed his audience how to garden economically–an attractive prospect to a broke, freshly-minted university graduate who likes to do things herself. I found him and his program so enchanting that a week or two later I spied his book, Geoff Hamilton’s Cottage Gardens, in a bookstore and snapped up a copy. Geoff began to teach me the language of gardening (“what do you mean by a “border”?), and particularly botanical Latin. I couldn’t tell a Pelargonium from a Polemonium. But his friendly tone and practical advice, both in his writing and on his program, encouraged me to stick with it.
I met plants I’d never seen at home in the US and learned ideas I’d never considered. Growing vegetables in the flower garden? Apple trees as a fence? That I could step over? I can grow a rose from a cutting? What’s a courgette? or an aubergine? (Americans: That’s zucchini and eggplant, respectively.)
I watched his show faithfully each weekend when I traveled, and read his book cover to cover and back again. When I came back to the US, I was determined to launch a cottage garden in my first apartment. I wasn’t terribly successful in my attempt to grow Canterbury bells (Campanula medium) on my not-quite-a-real-windowsill, but the Ageratum did surprisingly well.
I began to experiment, to read further, and to collect gardening books. Barbara Damrosch was my next mentor, and her Garden Primer helped me begin to appreciate the differences in climate, day length and light intensity, and other factors that I would need to translate from Cottage Gardens in order to make the dream garden I had mentally planted come to fruition (once I had a plot of earth to call my own).
Geoff Hamilton passed away in 1996. I still draw inspiration from Cottage Gardens (the book). I’d love to get a DVD copy of the series that first engaged me with gardening. I can’t find the series episodes on YouTube, but there are plenty of videos featuring Geoff in his role as master mentor. This one is fine representative; I love even now how shocked I feel when I see him rip up those gorgeous flowers to prepare the bed for the next season, and his tip about how to choose plants at the garden center is good advice for both novice gardeners, and ones who should know better than to buy the big show-offs on the first table in the door.
Here’s is Hamilton’s obituary from The Independent.