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