Catherine StewartI win the Allan Seale Award! But who was Allan Seale?

Last night I won the Allan Seale Media Award 2015 from the Nursery and Garden Industry. It’s a prestigious award and a great honour but, although Allan’s name means a lot to me, I’d like to explain for those who don’t remember him who he was and what he did for gardening way back when. So I did some online research and was amazed to come up with…almost nothing.

How is that one of the first people to bring gardening to Australian television on ‘In Your Garden‘ from 1968 to 1987, author 22 books, write for years for the Australian Women’s Weekly and Sunday Telegraph, train nursery staff, teach at Sydney Uni, host yearly tours, and touch the lives of a million gardeners doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia page? He even received an MBE back in 1980, the first Australian to be honoured for services to gardening.

Allan Seale

Allan Seale 1919-2001

I’m sure that there’s stuff out there in print, but online it’s an Allan Seale desert, except for some copies of his books for sale and a couple of YouTube clips. (And yes, I also tried searching by spelling his name incorrectly as ‘Alan’.)

Books by Allan SealeI did find some online opinion accusing him of always promoting heavy-handed and systemic chemical pesticide solutions when gardening problems arose. Although this was still common in the 1970s and 1980s, and Allan was a man of his time, I still have his ‘Allan Seale – Garden Doctor‘ book (2nd ed) from 1991 which begins:

“Everyone should have the pleasure of happy, healthy plants; this can be done without turning your garden into a chemical warfare area….

The discovery of a few insect pests in the garden does not mean that all your plants are doomed to devastation. It could be quite the reverse, merely suggesting that the garden is supporting a healthy balance of nature.”

so I wonder whether these critics have read what he actually wrote and thought.

He even released his own record, featuring an eclectic mix of tunes.

Allan Seale's album 'Music to Grow Plants By'

Allan Seale’s album ‘Music to Grow Plants By’

My mother was a great Allan Seale fan. In a time when many of Australia’s gardening books were still coming from cool-climate Britain, he was my mother’s ‘go-to guy’ for all things gardening, because he understood Sydney and coastal gardening conditions. I remember her joy on discovering in one his books the reason why her prized Acanthus mollis plants were starting took so terrible in early summer. They weren’t diseased or dying – they were summer deciduous in our warm climate, something never mentioned in her English gardening books.

To re-familiarise myself with Allan, I decided to watch a video episode of ‘In Your Garden‘, filmed 31 years ago in November 1984, to remind myself what he was like on-screen. Does he stand the test of time?

IN YOUR GARDEN titleRemarkably, Allan’s show is like a breath of fresh ‘gardening TV’ air. There’s no antics, no plinky-plonk atmospheric music while watching close-ups of plants waving gently in the breeze, no 2-3 minute segments for reduced attention spans, no ‘presenter-ese’ style of delivery of walking towards the camera with hands waving about while talking with raised voice and strange emphases. His much lampooned whistling ‘s’ is barely noticeable, so I suspect that it looms large in people’s memory more from his merciless mimics (sibilant pun intended) than reality.

Instead, it’s like your darling grandad has come to look over your early summer vegie patch and explain to you quietly and authoritatively what to do next. I was entranced and would have liked much more than the 15 minutes that these two YouTube clips provide. I learned useful and most interesting things about vegetable gardening which, if you read my blogs regularly, you’ll know is quite miraculous as I dislike growing food and try and dissuade people from even trying it.

In the space of 15 short minutes, I learned how to: easily remove stones from where you want to plant carrots; tell if a plant has died from fusarium wilt; use flax (Phormium) leaves to tie up your tomatoes; about the best tools for weeding; how to tell if your carrots are ready to harvest; give your slow-growing beetroot salt(!) to give it a kick along; pull (not cut) laterals off your tomatoes to encourage bigger fruit; heel up your sweet corn; get lettuce seedlings out of a punnet without damaging the roots and then plant them; and when to cover your tomatoes with a paper bag to protect them from fruit fly.

Oh yes, this man was genius. See for yourself.

[Allan Seale, 11 September 11, 1919 – 16 February 2001, grew up and lived in Sydney’s northern suburb of Beecroft, where he developed an early interest in both Australian and exotic plants. By twenty he was being consulted by Sydney’s gardening clientele. Although this early career was interrupted by WW2 service, it took him to tropical areas which greatly broadened his plant knowledge. Post-war he developed a cut-flower and nursery business and then spent 20 years working for Yates during which he travelled extensively, learning about growing conditions and plant problems around Australia and training nursery and garden centre staff. From 1965 to 1977 he wrote about gardening for Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph, in the Women’s Weekly magazine for more than 25 years, and also 22 books on everything from indoor plants to Australian plants to vegetable gardening. His last book ‘New Life for Old Gardens’ was published in 2000 . Allan filmed ‘In Your Garden’ for ABC television from 1968 to 1987, had a weekly talkback show on ABC radio and taught in the University of Sydney’s Horticulture faculty. Allan Seale was awarded an MBE in 1980 for services to gardening. (Source – cover notes on ‘Allan Seale’s Garden Doctor’, 2nd ed. 1991)]

And if there are any budding horticultural biographers out there looking for worthy subject, it’s Allan Seale.

23 November update:  Many thanks to Elwyn Swane, who knew Allan, for this extra information:

Hi Catherine, I taped an interview with Allan a couple of years before his death and did a story on him for the Sunday Telegraph when I was writing the garden column. The paper wasn’t interested and I had to do a new article! And when he died they took a couple of paragraphs from my article.
I will try and find the tapes because Allan spoke of the wreck he was when he came back from WW2 and the disaster he had growing Sweet Pea – they commanded 1/6 (one shilling and six pence) which was an absolute fortune and Allan thought it would be a good way to make some quick money but sadly rain wiped out his first crop and he was left with nothing. As part of his recuperation the War and before he worked for Yates he worked for a cultivator (rotary hoe) company and travelled the state. Even in that interview (can’t remember what year) he could tell me the average rainfall of any region in NSW and what the soil type was like! He talked of his childhood without his dad and how he corrected the botanical name on the picture of an Australian plant hanging in the hallway of the school! The headmaster dared argue with him, but Allan proved himself correct!!
A typical family Sunday was spent walking the district after lunch to admire the large gardens and seasonal displays of annuals.
I put the question “what was the single biggest change he had seen in gardening”? and he replied “Victor lawnmower”. It meant people did not have to spend hours behind a barrel mower, mowing dead straight lines first one way then the other. It changed how people gardened. Because they could mow more quickly and easily the lawn area got larger the annual borders got smaller and annuals gave way to the planting of more shrubs and perennials and vegie gardens went the way of button up boots because now people had more leisure time for outings. The sale of vegetable and annual flower seed slumped at Yates and Allan correctly made them continue to trial new varieties hoping the vegie garden would take hold again. Which it did and Yates were grateful Allan had been so insistent.
I always remember at the end when I thanked him for his time I said “one more question Allan” – “What in your opinion makes a good garden”? He never hesitated and said “if the owner likes it, then it’s a good garden”.
Allan, along with others, also judged the SMH garden competition every year.
You might find the cartoon calendar that Pickering did of TV presenters, the one of Allan is priceless!!
Some years back Monsanto took about 20 or so HMA types to the Daintree to see how they were rejuvenating the areas that had been growing guinea grass for cattle pasture and turning it back to rainforest. We were all in the Flecker Botanical Gardens and puzzled by a plant (can’t remember what) but not one of us knew it and up walked Allan and straight away “that’s a nice specimen of such and such”. I never knew him not to know the name of a plant!
Cheers Elwyn

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

24 thoughts on “I win the Allan Seale Award! But who was Allan Seale?

  1. I won an Allan Seale award at Tafe a few years ago and had the same issue, great to know finally some proper info on someone who was obviously such an important figure for Australian horticulture!

  2. Oh dear, I am showing my age. I not only remember Alan but “The Australian Women’s Weekly Gardening Book”, 1971, was the second of my gardening books…and his name was spelt Allan on the cover! [The Yates Garden Guide was the first] I loved it and still have cause to consult it from time to time. He certainly inspired my early gardening efforts. Congratulations on achieving your award.

    • Thank you Suzanne. And yes, Allan with a double ‘L’ is the correct spelling which you will find on all his books although it’s often mis-spelled as ‘Alan’. I’m sure he responded to both! He was an inspiration and source of wisdom to so many gardeners.

  3. Congratulations on your well deserved award Catherine !
    I often quote Allan’s comment to Elwyn when asked about what makes a good garden.
    Elizabeth Swane

  4. Congratulations on the award, Catherine. Perhaps you could tell us a little more about it?
    Thanks for sharing the Allan Seale clips. They clearly demonstrate that it’s not only possible, but preferable to make a gardening show without the manic hand gestures and Pythonesque delivery.

  5. Congratulations on the award – well deserved. What a blast from the past! Loved the quiet pace of the vision without the loud music and wham bam thank you ma’am type dialogue of some modern gardening shows. I met Allan a few times when I was working at the AWW in the early 80s – lovely man. I seem to remember he had a cat called ‘Blackie’ that would make occasional appearances either in his TV ads or the gardening show. Cute. On a gardening matter, noticed that the garden beds weren’t raised … are today’s raised ones just for aesthetic purposes? And on a final note, can someone erect his statue in the Botanical Gardens? cheers

    • Thanks Ambra. Yes, I remember Blackie too! Unfortunately the only video clips I could find of Allan are not filmed in his home garden, so no cat. He was a treasure. At least now if someone goes looking for information about him online, they can find something on GardenDrum.

  6. My congratulations also Catherine as this is a very worthy award!
    As a media personality, (yes you are-I actually just read an old AILDM magazine where you wrote about your first country estate,,,!), you are in great company with Mr Seale!
    I was so pleased to read something more about the lifetime achievements of Allan Seale other than my collection of re-cycled books purchased so cheaply from the Op-shops!
    My parents were great fans and also hobby gardeners of the 60-90’s-who knew I had the ‘gene’ all these years later?
    Allan was a pioneer in Australian gardening history.
    Thanks for the memory!

    Cheers Clare Bell
    PS: I still have that old AILDM magazine for your archives…!

    • Haha yes I remember that story called ‘Just Managing’ and the continuation ‘Still Just Managing’ about the place we bought in the country. Ten years later it’s about to go on the market, so maybe I’ll write a sequel called ‘Under New Management’ if and when we sell it!

  7. Congratulations on the award Catherine. To see Allan’s name pop up here was a treat. I remember him well from my 1970s & 80s childhood from TV and from thumbing through old Womens Weeklies of my late Mum. Subconciously it was probably Allan, my mother and my grandmother who most contributed to my early appreciation of gardening which continues to this day.

    Owner – Gardenworx Toowoomba.

    • Thanks Paul. Yes, I think the fact that so many people remember Allan well means he imprinted something ‘gardeny’ on a lot of young brains. I wonder if subsequent gardening media have had the same effect?

  8. Congratulations Catherine! Allan Seale is my grandfather. I was just thinking of him today and had to type his name into google to watch a few youtube clips. I loved reading all about him and refreshing my memory all over again. I cant thankyou enough for writing this. I am so proud of him

    • Thanks Kate. It’s an honour to win any award, but one with Allan’s name was a double delight. He was a legend. In all my investigations about Allan, talking to people who knew him, he was always described as a lovely, generous and astonishingly knowledgeable man.

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