Nursery days

Gardeners’ World never includes the sort of activity that occupied two of my summers, do you ever see Monty Don doing dull and repetitive activities? Activities like cutting literally thousands of iris rhizomes.

Cutting iris rhizomes was among the jobs summer casual workers were allowed to perform. The foreman would arrive with the quantity of each variety required to make up the orders received at shows and by post and we would be allowed to cut individual rhizomes from the clumps that grew in the long rows of the nursery fields. Occasionally, the orders would become confused and plants cut from different varieties might end up in the same sack. Without flowers, they looked identical and the foreman would turn puce and mutter expletives as he emptied the now useless plants onto the rubbish heap.

It seemed always a waste that plants that might have sold for up to a pound each – more than we were paid in an hour – should be so casually thrown away. The foreman had no objection to us taking plants from the rubbish heap and forty years later, unknown, unnamed varieties still grow in the gardens of my parents’ and grandparents’ houses.

The cut rhizomes were wrapped in peat and damp newspaper to keep them fresh and put in Jiffy bags to be posted to customers across the country. If the foreman was in a good mood, he might allow you the odd afternoon working in the packing shed rather than out in the fields, but such a privilege was not often extended to casual staff.

Despite our best efforts, sometimes plants would still be not what people ordered, or might not grow as they had expected, or might not grow at all. It seemed odd that people would expect anything horticultural to be so predictable, but if what grew in their garden did not match what appeared in the catalogue, some of them would become very irritable.

The worst customers were those who would arrive at the nursery with their complaint, intent upon imparting a piece of their mind to the nurseryman responsible for the fact that their purple irises were white, or their flag irises were dwarfs, or that the irises they had received had not grown at all. Their mistake was to assume they could outwit a wily old nurseryman.

Standing in the packing shed on a rare afternoon, the foreman spied through the dirty glass a woman crossing the yard from the office, a determined look on her face. “Here comes trouble,” he muttered.

The woman opened the door, “I want to speak to the foreman. I was told I would find him here.”

Without flinching, he said. “I’m terribly sorry, madam, he’s not available this afternoon. May I give him a message?”

If the summers of 1978 and 1979 taught me nothing about plants, they did teach that the way to deal with difficult people was to avoid them.

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