Veteran gardener, writer and former RHS vice-president Fred Whitsey dies, aged 90

Gardening legend Fred Whitsey has died at the age of 90.

Fred Whitsey, who died at the age of 90, on 14 August, was gardening correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph from the paper's inception in 1961 until 1973 and then for the Daily Telegraph for the next 35 years. During this time he never failed to file a column for the publication every weekend covering a vast spectrum of gardening lore concerning plants, garden design and horticultural techniques.
 
No one knew how and when he acquired his horticultural erudition. None of his professional associates saw the large and richly planted garden in which he toiled for nearly 60 years. It was conjured from a piece of abandoned land and if anyone proposed to visit he would say, "I'm afraid it would be far too boring for you". He exhibited once at the Royal Horticultural Society halls, with 80 cultivars of conifers from his garden, and was disappointed by the lack of interest that it aroused. When it came to writing about the exhibits of others, he had no equals. Very few people knew that he was also an accomplished violinist, whose main leisure activity from his teenage years into advanced old age was playing, every week, with a string quartet. 
 
In the news column of the Telegraph he wrote about the RHS Chelsea Flower Show on more than 50 occasions. Here, for nearly half a century he would report on the first day of the great Continental flower shows like the Ghent Floralies. He visited and wrote about the gardens he visited throughout Britain, and from the Baltic to the Algarve, from Brittany to Vienna. He took a special interest in the gardens of Serre de la Madone — Lawrence Johnston's French Riviera garden, and La Mortella on Ischia, created by Lady Walton, wife of the composer Sir William Walton, their friendship resulting from a mutual passion for both gardens and music.
 
Fred Whitsey was born into humble origins on 18 July 1919. In his Who's Who's entry he gave as his education "Outside school hours and continuously ever since". He walked out of school on his 14th birthday never to return, taking as his inspiration a quote from a Victorian poem he had learned there, "I am the master of my fate and captain of my soul".
 
He did various jobs including playing his violin in a juvenile troupe on the variety stage before getting a foothold in journalism in a trade magazine. In the 1930s he was caught up in the Peace Movement. When war came he registered as a conscientious objector, working in Air Raid Rescue and later on the land. This led to a decision to make horticulture his occupation as a journalist. He obtained a junior appointment on the Gardeners' Chronicle, which later became Horticulture Week. From there he moved to sssistant editorship of Popular Gardening, a weekly that was part of the Daily Telegraph's publishing empire. He remained there for 36 years, becoming editor in 1963.
 
His writings brought him the Royal Horticultural Society's Gold Veitch Memorial Medal in 1979, and the society's highest accolade — the Victoria Medal of Honour, limited to 63 current holders — in 1985. He became a vice-president of the society in 1996. His garden articles appeared as anthologies as The Sunday Telegraph Gardening Book, Fred Whitsey's Gardening Calendar and Garden for all Seasons. Nearing 90 years of age he mastered writing using a computer and his great tribute The Garden of Hidcote was published in 2007.
 
He was a founder member and first chairman of the Garden Writers' Guild (now the Garden Media Guild), and enormously supportive of its aims.

He was a trustee of the Jenkyn Place Garden Trust, set up to look after the garden of Jenkyn Place, and when it became obvious that this was not a viable proposition, was instrumental firstly in transforming it into the Coke Trust to aid gardeners, with travel scholarships and attendance at conferences, and secondly for implementing the transfer of these funds, some £1.4m, to the RHS where it is administered by the Bursaries Committee.
 
His quiet demeanour rarely hid his insatiable appetite for information, but in exchange for the extracted secrets from his questioning he would provide an endless stream of anecdotes about gardens and people which always entertained.
 
He is survived by his wife Pat, whom he married on 3 July 1947. 

 

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