History of Gardening: First Gardening Book
The knowledge gained from a botanic garden cannot be disseminated without gardening books or other publications. The first real British gardening book was published in the early years of the reign of Charles I. This was John Parkinson’s book described not only the natural history of many rare flowers ‘useful for physic or admiral for beauty’, but also kitchen gardens and orchards. It showed a remarkable first-hand knowledge of the plants and their cultivation.
During the period of the Civil War and Cromwell’s Commonwealth, gardening progressed, for though initially the horticultural activities of a number of prominent Royalists ceased, others retired from the Court and politics to the country and cultivated their gardens. Such a one was Sir Thomas Hanmer, who also kept a garden book which is full of historical and practical interest. The great Roundhead, General Fairfax, maintained a celebrated garden at Nunappleton in Yorkshire.
In Cromwell’s latter years, two distinguished French gardeners, the Mol-lets, who were later to take a part in introducing the French style that came with the Restoration, were working in the London parks. And gardening enthusiasts such as John Evelyn, who retired to the Continent during those troubled times, learned a great deal from the French and Dutch, then the most horticulturally advanced people in the world.
Following the restoration of Charles II, progress continued. ‘I may affirm that there is now, 1691, ten times as much gardening about London as there was in 1660. … In the time of Charles 11 gardening was much improved and became common,’ wrote John Aubrey.
It was at this time that the long and distinguished history of the gardens at Woburn Abbey began. The first Duke of Bedford entertained on an elaborate scale, and he and his large retinue needed a high production of food. Field, the head gardener, filled the walls with a wide range of apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums and cherries. Me grew oranges, lemons, myrtles and aloes, which stood on the terrace in summer, and in the autumn were carried into the orangery, which was heated by a small stove. He maintained a bowling green, and kept the green arbours clipped; he filled the borders with polyanthus and gillyflowers, and raised marigolds, nasturtiums and clover, not all as flowering plants, but for pickling to make winter salads. And he saw to it that the wide gravel paths were kept in first-rate condition, always fresh and dry for the perambulations of the family and its multitudinous guests. He also made suitable arrangements to deal with the sightseers who, even at this early stage, flocked to see the place.
Much of the garden labour at this time was casual and only seasonally employed, women being engaged for.
Contemporary pictures give a good idea of the tools used in gardening. John Evelyn, for instance, made a careful drawing of those in use in his garden. They were very similar to those used in Victorian times. Fork, hoe, rake, riddle and barrow changed but little in design in the years between these two periods, apart from alterations to suit a substitution of materials, such as steel for wrought iron, although spades long continued to be iron shod. For centuries, at least as far back as Roman times, the timber of ash has provided the best handles for gardening tools.
In 1681 Field of Woburn became a partner in a new firm of nurserymen, which, looking to the expanding interest in gardening, began operations on a large scale with a hundred acres of good land at Brompton Park. The most active member of the firm was George London, gardener to Bishop Compton at Fulham and a specialist in the introduction of new trees and shrubs. The firm was joined by a younger man, Henry Wise, and within a year or two, the older partners having died or retired, London and Wise on their own became the most important nursery firm in the British Isles. Often working with the architect concerned, they laid out the great formal gardens that spread round the many new mansions being built, supplied the plants that they grew at Brompton, and often maintained them. London travelled round to visit his clients, but Wise usually stayed at Brompton. This was a closely organized business, with high standards of technique in rearing and moving plants, particularly the evergreens and other trees for the avenues that became so fashionable in the days of William and Mary. It was estimated in 1705 that the nursery stock was worth over £•10,000. The firm of London and Wise was undoubtedly the first to bring the methods of ‘big business’ into horticulture. It probably also cut into the export trade of the Dutch, who normally supplied large numbers of evergreens and other trees, particularly limes.
During the early Georgian days, probably the most important development was the gardeners’ skill in cultivating the new plants introduced from the ‘Indies’ (a vague term covering a wide area), North America, and even China.
Conspicuous horticulturists at this time were members of the rapidly growing professional classes, particularly the successful physicians. They were busy men, and their often unknown working gardeners were responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of their novel and untried plants.
During the 18th century a great leap for-ward was taken in British horticultural literature and illustration, the latter having been of poor quality before this time. Philip Miller, who was a Scot, though born in England, became the greatest scientific gardener of his day, and from 1722, when he was given charge of the Apothecaries Garden at Chelsea, until his retirement, he was the outstanding figure in British gardening. In 1735 he published his Gardener’s Dictionary, which ran into numerous editions and was for decades the standard encyclopedia of gardening. In 1787 William Curtis founded and edited The Botanical Magazine; or, flower garden displayed, which has continued to this day to publish good coloured drawings of garden plants, accompanied by descriptions. The early success of this publication led to the appearance on the market of a number of rivals. None lasted long, though some contained beautiful drawings.
The effect of smoke pollution on plants had been noticed as far back as 1691, when the evergreens of Lord Devonshire’s London garden were remarked upon as being ‘smutty from smoke’. In 1722 Thomas Fairchild published The City Gardener, the first book to deal with urban gardening, which showed that by this time the major problem to be combated was the smoke from coal fires in London, and the fumes from the new factories in the provinces.