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.
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’.)
I 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.
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?
Remarkably, 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!