This Blessed Plot
The Guardian, 20 May 2006
The gardens are getting lush. Chelsea Flower Show is here again, and tickets are going for £50 on eBay. Supermarkets are offering three clematis for £10, and in a summer of hosepipe bans, sales of water butts have soared. Someone is planting red and white annuals in the shape of the English flag for the World Cup. What is this British obsession with gardens?
It certainly isn’t a new bug, although it has now reached epidemic status. When the rows of red-brick terraces spread out from the cities in the late nineteenth century, the great joy for clerks and counting-house men was to come home in the evening to a small plot, all their own. In The Diary of A Nobody, Mr Pooter summed up this delight, when he and his wife Carrie moved into The Laurels, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, with ‘a nice little back garden which runs down to the railway’. Soon Pooter had bought a book, planted annuals and ‘ discovered a beautiful spot for growing mustard and cress and radishes’. Then he waited, recording anxiously two days later: ‘mustard-and-cress and radishes not come up yet’. Comic though this is, it contains elements that all gardeners know: the thrill of having a private place, imposing yourself on a small plot, the suspense of waiting, the dream of pleasure and produce, regardless of slugs and smog. This strand has echoed through English writing ever since Chaucer – a clerk himself - expressed the joy of rushing home from work, to rest on a newly turfed bench in a small arbour and see the daisies spreading on the grass. Shakespeare knew that he spoke in terms that even the groundlings could understand in Richard II, when he translated politics into gardening, with courtiers like rampant weeds choking the good plants, and England itself a garden, encircled by the sea.
Chaucer and Pooter shared the town dweller’s pastoral dream, and gardens have special piquancy in an urban society today. Country people were more practical, but from the seventeenth century, cottagers as well as landed gentry took immense pride in their plants. In Goody Cantrey’s garden, in Northamptonshire, on 28 July 1658, a neighbour recorded double and single larkspurs, Sweet Williams, three kinds of spiderwort, four colours of lupin, ‘the great blew, the little blue, the yellow and the white’, purple and white scabious, marigold, London pride and hollyhocks. Among herbs were fennel, for weak eyes, camomile for headaches, white lilies for ‘bile’ and feverfew, against the shaking fever.
But In other countries too workers flooded to the cities, and villagers tilled rich soil. So what makes this garden addiction peculiarly British? Partly it is because we are lucky: the temperate island climate, with its varying seasons, allows most plants to grow and adapting to the different terrains and conditions is part of the challenge. But British gardening also reflects an inveterate acquisitiveness: even Goody Cantrey’s garden is a map of trade and colonisation, with spiderwort brought back from Virginia by the Tradescants, and many earlier plants, like the marigolds and lupins, reaching our shores from Africa and the Mediterranean. The lure of the new plant, the chance to impress your friends, is intense: even potatoes were once glamorous newcomers. But the key, I think, lies in the not in the soil or the plants themselves, but in politics. Ownership of land has been the nub of popular discontent in Britain since the Normans, when much of England and Wales – and large slices of Scotland and Ireland - was handed out piecemeal to henchmen. To own a piece of land gave you a stake in society. And if the garden could be cultivated in the current fashion, it gave you a stake in the culture too, proving you a person of status and taste.
A crucial turning point was the first half of the eighteenth century, and this was the time when the ‘English garden’ came into being. The Act of Union of 1701 created the British nation and the accession of George I in 1714 sealed the Protestant succession. Although the king was German, the leaders of taste were determined that the culture of the new nation would be distinctively ‘British’, taking the best from the Continent and the classical past, but rejecting autocracy and formality, just as we had rejected absolute kingship. The ideal was ‘politeness’, conversation, and easy interchange. In art, informal groups or ‘conversation pieces’ (often set in gardens) were preferred to grand court portraits. In gardening, designers turned their backs on Italianate fountains and grottoes and on the stiff French parterres, long vistas and avenues beloved of Stuart kings. ‘Is there Any Thing more shocking than a stiff regular garden’, cried Batty Langley in 1720. This was the era of ‘The Spectator’, which suggested that it was culture and benevolence, not breeding, which made a gentleman, and suggested too, in Addison’s words, that ‘ a Man might make a pretty Landskip of his own Possessions’. A triple movement followed: first the softening of formality and opening of the garden to the country; then the pictorial, classical, allusive style, fusing the charm of the landscape paintings of Poussin and Claude Lorraine with our misty native contours; and finally the sweeping parkland of Capability Brown and his followers.
This was also the age that saw ‘God save the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ and the radical cry of ‘Liberty and Property!’ An Englishman’s home was his castle, and ‘liberty’ meant owning the plot and forming it as he liked. A century later, Charles Dickens (who was very proud of his own garden and was vice-president of his local Horticultural and Floricultural Society for many years) mocked this stance gently in Great Expectations, where the clerk Mr Wemmick shows Pip his Walworth home with its Gothic windows, drawbridge and gun. At the back ‘so as not to impede the idea of fortifications’, there is a tiny garden, complete with bower, serpentine walk and miniscule ornamental lake, with ‘an island in the middle that might have been our salad for supper’.
But in Britain, when folk like Wemmick start having ornamental lakes, it is time for men of taste to move on. Snobbery winds like bindweed through British gardening. In 1625, Francis Bacon, whose famous essay opens ‘God first planted a garden: it is the greatest of human pleasures’, dismissed popular knot gardens and topiary with a sneer. ‘They be but toys’, he wrote, ‘you may see as good sights many times in tarts’. We find such sneers in every age. Yet the followers of fashion met with put-downs too, one of the best coming from Dr Johnson, when a Lincolnshire lady showed him a grotto she had been making: ‘Would it not be a pretty cool habitation in summer, Mr Johnson?’ she asked. ‘I think it would, Madam,’ replied he, ‘for a toad’.
Popularity spells doom. When Sir Charles Isham brought some fashionable gnomen-figuren from German to decorate his rockery at Lamport Hall in 1867, he thought them tremendously chic: a hundred years later gnomes were banned from Chelsea flower show, along with ‘fairies or any similar creatures, actual or mythical for use as garden ornaments.’ Similarly, as soon as the hoi polloi copied the brilliant annuals that adorned the terraces of Victorian mansions, they were dropped in disdain by the rich and relegated to municipal bedding. When hybrid roses and floribundas became the staple of suburban front gardens, there was a rush to find authentic ‘old’ roses to replace them. It takes courage to defy such trends. Only someone of the standing of the late Christopher Lloyd could be brave enough to dig up damask and bourbon roses and replace them with fiery, vulgar dahlias and cannas. Lloyd met with gasps, mutterings and dismay – but there was nothing wrong with colour, he declared stoutly. And now we all have ‘hot’ beds and are planting dahlias again.
Class and competition, the bones of British society, root quickly in the garden. There has always been a terrific amount of keeping up with the Joneses. And if we have to have the new, we may only pretend to knowledge, a pose caught by A.P. Herbert in Punch in1932:
‘The anaemia’s are wonderful, ‘I said.
My companion gave me a doubtful glance, but said nothing. We walked on
beside a herbaceous border. ‘ And those arthritis,’ I sad, pointing to a clutch
of scarlet blooms. ‘Always so divine at this time of the year.’
Again the dubious glance, and again no utterance except an appreciative
Now, it seems, we are all gardeners. The sheer increase in numbers since the first garden centres opened in the 1970s has been dramatic, particularly after the arrival of container plants, which make it so much easier to grow things successfully. Garden centres have now outrun home improvement superstores in popularity: it’s easier to get your shelves from IKEA than make them yourself, and anyway the garden can be an ‘outside room’ complete with lighting, heating, barbecue. But in one way, home improvement and gardens are now synonymous: estate agents reckon a good garden can add 10 per cent to the value of a house.
Garden visiting is also on the increase. Gardens top the National Trust’s list of most-visited sites, while the Eden Project has drawn millions of people to Cornwall, encouraging an interest in bio-diversity which links gardening to our deep concern about ecology. At the other end of the scale, the National Garden Scheme has been opening of private gardens for charity since 1927. This year their famous Yellow Book lists 3,500 gardens, county by county: castles and cottages, Japanese gravel, Victorian kitchen gardens, allotments and schoolyards. Over five hundred will be open for the first time and I don’t think the increase is due to the success of the large schemes like the Eden Project, but simply to the owners’ excited realisation that everyone may enjoy a garden on which care has been lavished, however small, and that if others can do it, so can they.
For a hundred years, gardening magazines have flourished, but now no weekend paper is complete without a garden page. On television, gardening programmes take up more and more space in the schedules, from history to make-overs, and presenters like Alan Titchmarsh and Monty Don are household names. The best programmes are enabling, but the downside can be that a garden lovingly tended for years may suddenly feel shabby, or that viewers feel that instead of fostering small plants, growing slowly, year by year, they should rush out, buy huge shrubs and get it all done in an instant.
Chelsea is the perfect place to take the measure of our attitude to gardening, a blend of sentiment, horticultural passion and big business, where every kind of outside space is represented, from the wildlife habitat to shimmering steel and concrete water features. The constant exposure and talk of new plants, new designs and new products inevitably fuels that old British tendency to one-upmanship and snobbery, see nowhere more strongly than in a big garden centre on a Saturday, where everyone peers suspiciously into each others trolleys. Yet although gardening is competitive it is also immensely sociable: like football, it opens conversations everywhere. Friends swap seeds and cuttings, old allotment holders give advice (and warnings) to new hands, pensioners take coach tours to Wisley. Horticultural societies and shows, which began two hundred years ago, still display prize marrows, giant leeks and perfect chrysanthemums. And the Royal Horticultural Society - born at a meeting in Hatchards bookshop, Piccadilly in 1804 - still rules the clubs, while Chelsea is the queen of all shows. Rather disconcertingly, a recent article by the editor of the new Oxford Companion to Gardens revealed that foreign garden designers consider British gardening conservative, with no new styles emerging for a hundred years. Nonsense. Go to Chelsea and ask any gardener, and they will say, with the certainly of fans for their home team, that British gardening reigns supreme.