A picture of Hitler and friends from a 1938 English Homes
and Gardens magazine.
I was very small. My father, the Rev Lapsley, had the
morning free from tending the flock, and was labouring in the
garden. He dug a spade into the ground beside a green plant,
loosened the earth, and pulled a cluster of pink, oval
vegetables up from the soil.
I regarded the hole he had left with both surprise and
"But Dad, why does God hide potatoes in holes?
" A student of the Book of Revelation will smile knowingly
and murmur: "Damn deep question." The more practical citizen
may observe: "I don't think this kid was born with the
Living in the country's most beautiful small township, I am
surrounded by gardeners. Front lawns and verandas in
Arrowtown are bordered with carefully tended masses of
colourful blooms. Behind these cottages and houses, lined up
in orderly ranks, are respectful rows of carrots, lettuce and
cauliflower. Living amid this splendour minus the gardening
gene, I feel a little left out, perhaps like the patient in
the old story about the asylum inmate and the gardener. The
inmate spotted the agriculturalist tending his plants on the
far side of the sanity fence.
"What's that you're putting on your strawberries?
" the inmate asked.
"Cow manure," the gardener replied.
"You must be crackers," said the patient. "In here we have
them with cream."
I've only had one brush with serious gardening. It began when
my former partner and I visited Sissinghurst Castle, where
1930s writer Vita Sackville-West created one of England's
most famous gardens. Visits to castles and grand estates make
us forget our place in life and dream. I was taken by the
stone tower that the aristocrat poet and novelist had
purloined for her writing room. Why, with my own writing
tower, I could pound out a thousand words a day, no problem.
The female of the species made a different take on
Sissinghurst. Soon after we arrived home, the delivery trucks
began arriving. They bore peonies, tulips, lilies and
But mainly rose bushes - roses by the hundred. The snag was
that each required a planting hole be dug, and each hole
required a bloke with mattock and spade to slug away at soil
spiced heavily with river stones. I was a chain gang of one.
A neighbour inquired, not that politely but with
justification, whether we were intent on botanical gardens.
I'm not totally useless in the garden, just moderately. I've
learnt a few of the basics - rose bush holesmanship
obviously, but also that the difference between a plant and a
weed is that the plant pulls out easily, that you tread
warily around people who talk about their compost boxes, and
there's no economy in growing cabbages when you can get them
for $3 each at the supermarket.
People see an innate virtue in gardening, so they make
assumptions about gardeners that are sometimes over-kind. It
is then we should remember that Joseph Stalin, too, loved to
potter in his glasshouse, and could be tiresomely insistent
that people sample his lemons.
When Napoleon was exiled to St Helena after the carnage of
Waterloo, he took up gardening.
He also gave small presents to several children who helped
him out. One gift from a general, more aptly nicknamed The
Little Corporal than we realise, was a small wagon pulled by
four live mice.
The venerable English magazine, Homes and Gardens, wishes it
could bury its November 1938 issue.
Published shortly after Adolf Hitler occupied Austria, it
carried an admiring lifestyle article titled: "Hitler's
Mountain Home - a visit to Haus Wachenfeld".
"There is nothing pretentious about the Fuhrer's little
estate," the magazine reported, noting he liked to decorate
its halls with flowers from his gardens.
Its writer observed that Hitler enjoyed relaxing on his
terrace from which "a chain of drowsy lakes is seen far
below, with ancient shrine-chapels hidden in ferny folds of
"When State Affairs are over the Squire himself, attended by
some of his guests, will stroll through the woods into
hamlets above and below," we read. "It is then the little
ones are invited to the house. Coffee, cake, fruits, and
sweets are laid for them on trestle tables in the grassy
orchards. Then Frauen Goring and Goebbels, in dainty Bavarian
dress, arrange dances and folk songs, while the bolder
spirits are given joy rides in Herr Hitler's private
There are some pretty dodgy garden folk too. Not all are
saints of the soil.
• John Lapsley is an Arrowtown writer.