San Diego Floral Association
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Profiles in Horticultural History By Nancy Carol Carter
George P. Hall
Reprinted from: September/October 2010, Volume 101, Number 5
By Nancy Carol Carter
Home vegetable growers in early America suffered no shortage of instructional garden books. Initially these were English imports, but enterprising American writers soon were adapting the accepted wisdom on growing beans and all manner of other food plants to horticultural conditions in the United States.
The Kitchen Gardener’s Instructor was published in New York in 1836 and The Vegetable Garden, A Complete Guide appeared in 1852. The latter title was updated in more than 30 subsequent editions. Ida Dandridge Bennett, best known for books on flower gardens, contributed her thoughts on vegetables in 1908 and the Burpee Seed Company distributed Vegetables for the Home Garden in 1912.
The special growing conditions in California were belatedly addressed by Edward James Wickson in The California Vegetable in Garden and Field, A Manual of Practice, published in 1897 in San Francisco.
Fourteen years later, the first vegetable gardening book for Southern California was published in San Diego, by the bombastic, idealistic and often cranky horticulturist, George P. Hall. Members of the San Diego Floral Association learned that Hall was working on a gardening book at their January 1911 meeting. It would be based on his past writings, including columns from the San Diego Union and California Garden. “The need for such a book, dealing with conditions as they exist in Southern California, has long been felt,” reported California Garden.
In September 1911, Hall’s new book, Garden Helps, was available for purchase through the San Diego Floral Association and at several local nurseries for 75 cents per copy. The work was printed in San Diego as a soft cover book of 120 pages. This book is hard to find now. The San Diego History Center (formerly the Historical Society) has a copy and just two other major California libraries list it within their collections. Other copies are at the University of Chicago, New York Public Library, National Agriculture Library and the Library of Congress. The latter has an electronic version of Garden Helps which can be read online or downloaded.
Hall’s introduction to Garden Helps refers to the “boundless stores of Nature” in California and suggests that the parched lands at the southern end of the state might fulfill the Old Testament prophecy of a desert that blossoms as the rose. This grandiose opening is followed by practical information on topics like soil, irrigation, cultivation, propagation, pests, and fertilizers. More than 50 different vegetables are individually discussed, and shorter sections delve into herbs and ornamental plants. The book includes a “Calendar of Operations” with a month-to-month guide on planting and garden upkeep. While notable as a first Southern California garden book, this self-published work probably had limited distribution.
By the time Hall’s groundbreaking book on gardening in Southern California was published, he was a well known character in San Diego. During the Civil War, he served with the 2nd Nebraska Cavalry which quelled an Indian uprising in the Dakota Territory, rather than encountering rebel troops. Unfortunately, very few facts are available about Hall’s horticulture work and training before he relocated to San Diego around 1891.
Hall became a member of the San Diego chapter of the Civil War veterans group, the Grand Army of the Republic. He also was employed as the horticultural commissioner for San Diego County, and served as president of the California State Board of Horticulture Commissioners.
The State Board of Horticulture educated growers on how to improve their crops and successfully market them. Hall made his mark by developing the lemon industry in California. He had strong ideas about the proper way to prune lemon trees and how they should be protected from pests. He was an effective commissioner, although he was once taken to task by the Los Angeles Times for professing faith in water witching, or dowsing, as a means of finding ground water.
San Diegans knew Hall as an outspoken commentator on civic affairs. His frequent letters to the editor were always long and often strident. Hall advocated planting projects to beautify streets and called for the establishment of parks throughout San Diego. He castigated city officials for neglecting trees already established in public places.
Hall jumped into the controversy regarding the city’s failure to make improvements to City Park (later renamed Balboa Park). In an 1898 issue of the San Diego Union, he described the 1,400 acre park as “a scab, a miserable unsightly desert.” When the city did adopt a park improvement plan in 1902, Hall called the idea of developing the entire park “preposterous” and strenuously objected to hiring an outside landscape architect.
Later, as the 1915 Panama-California Exposition was being planned for Balboa Park, he suggested the erection of permanent buildings, including a horticultural hall. He also wanted to see lakes, a natural stadium and a crystal building with tree lined avenues radiating from it.
Hall spoke at public meetings and wrote extensively about his heartfelt endorsement of the Little Landers Colony established in San Diego County at San Ysidro. This back-to-the-land movement advocated intensive farming on affordable plots of land as a means of independence for those “mired in industrial slavery.” The slogan “A Little Land and a Living” encapsulated a belief that, with the correct agricultural methods and cooperative marketing of produce, economic independence could be achieved on just one or two acres of land.
In 1908, Hall became the agricultural advisor of the Little Landers settlement and later the president of Little Landers Incorporated. Colony founder William E. Smythe said that Hall’s “was the first hoe to strike the ground,” when new settlers arrived. Perhaps it was his early work with the inexperienced farmers at the colony that encouraged Hall to bring his vegetable-growing knowledge together into a book. In the face of many problems, Hall remained zealous about the ideals underlying the Little Landers movement, but died the year before the terrible flood of 1916 killed some settlers, destroyed farms and precipitated an end to the Little Landers experiment in San Diego.
George P. Hall
Horticulturist, Little Lander, and author of the first Southern California garden book on vegetables.
Born: April 22, 1841 | Died: May 12, 1915
Dig deeper with:
Elite Printing, 1911. Available online www.loc.gov.
Lawrence B. Lee, “The Little Landers Colony of San Ysidero,” Journal of San Diego History, 21, no. 1 (Winter 1975).
Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.