Old-Age Advice And Gardening In The 1950s

By Nikki Tilley | November 12, 2020
Image by Nikki Tilley
by Nikki Tilley
November 12, 2020

I’m not sure what it is exactly, but there’s something about 1950 that strikes a chord in me – and I wasn’t even around yet. Heck, I even wrote an article on creating a 1950’s garden – at least how I’d like to anyway. Perhaps, it’s knowing that 50 has special meaning to me this year as I hit the half a century mark. UGH! Whatever it is, when I had the chance to thumb through a vintage Better Homes & Gardens magazine from, you guessed it, 1950, I was excited!

Surely, anything from long ago must pique your interest. For example, have you ever wondered how that gardening advice from back in the day, like nana’s magic cure for pesky weeds or grandpa’s secret fertilizer, holds up today? Well, I happen to love these quirky tidbits of info, true or not. So, as I scanned this vintage find and other similar resources to see what, if any, old-age advice on gardening from that time was available, I literally felt like a kid in a candy store.

1950’s Gardening Throwback

Gardening has been around a long time, though maybe not in the way we now look at it. Still, the general process of gardening hasn’t really changed much over the centuries. You sow seed or plant something, give it water, feed it, care for it, and it grows. The same can be said of curiosity”¦ once that seed or idea is sown, feed it with info and let it blossom. Who knows how it will turn out, but isn’t the journey still fun?

What I discovered about gardening in the 1950s was basically this, which I think still holds true today: people wanted simpler things with less chaos. What does that mean? There was a lot going on back then, as there usually is in every time period. Gardening in the 1950s was influenced by various events and changes. Other than the popular Victory Gardens brought about from rationing and vegetable gardening during the World Wars, I don’t think many people really knew what landscapes were for.

Unlike today, plant options were limited but as I looked through old images, including old family photos, many budding gardeners seemed to have a fascination with big, showy plants and flowers – like hydrangeas and roses. Lawns were kept perfectly manicured. Chemicals for maintaining lush green grass and pest control were popular. Boy, if they could see mine, I think they’d scream. No chemicals here and no perfect lawn either!

1950’s Garden Advice and Info

Here’s some other interesting things that I found, including old-age advice and tips:

  • Buying new plants – Checking that plants are of top quality will ensure healthier growth and overall success. (Still true.) But what are some other things to look for? This is advice given at the time: lowest limbs on fruit trees should be 18-24 inches (46-60 cm.) from ground for easy harvesting, top grade roses have three or more strong canes, young evergreen foliage should be cool and moist, annual foliage should be medium to dark green and bushy with few blooms, and perennials should be compact with no more than 3 inches (7.6 cm.) of top growth and white, plump roots (Still sounds good to me.). One thing that’s definitely changed – the prices! As much I shop for plants”¦ to get 50 to 100 bulbs for a buck or two? Sign me up, please!
  • Lawn – Well, as previous mentioned, longing for the “perfect” lawn was just as commonplace then as it is to most people now, though I’m not one of them. BUT did you know that in 1950 the lawn of choice was Zoysia japonica? Zoysia grass isn’t a favorite of everyone, but has somehow managed to withstand the test of time in many places. Got too much weed killer or 2,4-D in the soil? Add some manure or compost to eat it up. Also, apparently a combo of tar wash (whatever that is) and benzene hexachloride (insecticide) could help sanitize the soil, help control wireworms and nematodes, as well as scale and aphids when applied in winter. Hmmm.
  • Nip it in the bud – In 1950, Maleic hydrazide (MH), a growth inhibitor, was used to delay growth without harming plants and believed to be an effective method for delaying bloom and avoiding frost damage when sprayed on flowering plants earlier in the season. And while on the topic of “nipping,” WHEN should you prune flowering shrubs or trees? Most of us are aware that many are pruned after blooming, but others can get by with cutting back earlier, prior to bloom. How do you know which to prune and when? Heed this advice: Those that bloom early in the season, such as azaleas, flowering quince, lilac, and forsythia, should all get pruned AFTER they’ve finished blooming. Late flowering varieties that generally bloom in summer, like butterfly bush, hydrangea, roses, weigela or rose of Sharon, can safely be cut back in late winter to early spring.
What to cut back and when
  • Things to do in March – As I flipped through the March issue, the 1950’s garden tips for everyone during this time was to treat seeds with protectant, plant roses, plant trees and shrubs, feed houseplants, and prune trees and late flowering shrubs. The best time to transplant magnolia trees? In full bloom, of course. In the South, gardeners should mulch with oak leaves and then cover with pine straw for a neat appearance (neat is highly overrated). Southwest gardeners should spray new peony shoots with Bordeaux mixture as they appear, repeating each week to control blight. Use same spray solution on lilacs every two weeks until bloom. Those is the Central and Eastern regions should prune newly planted roses back to about 3 inches (7.6 cm.) above ground and mound soil over stubs. Remove soil when shoots are about ½ inch long. And in the Pacific Northwest and Western region of the country, freeze parsley seeds in refrigerator three days prior to sowing. Keep ants from citrus trees by using poison baits (again with the chemicals), stating it’s “easier to control ants than the scale they spread.” Now that one’s a head scratcher.
  • Miscellaneous tidbits – Wipe tools off after using to remove grass clippings and soil. This helps prevent rust. Also, use tools only as they’re meant to be used – no pruning shears for nail pulling (well, duh!). What plants take the most time and work per square inch? Orchids and golf greens, of course (is that a reference to the perfect lawn again?). What four things to you need for a garden? A boundary to enclose the garden, a patio to connect the garden and home, an open central area and some garden paths. And, finally, the top five roses of 1950: Condesa de Sastago, Etoile de Hollande, Picture, Roslyn, and Caledonia.
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