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Gardening – explaining a British national obsession?

Back in the summer I received a surprise email, from the Almeida Theatre in London, who were staging a play – Albion, in which a garden plays a crucial role. As part of the background to the play, they commissioned me to write a piece for the programme about gardens, as an introduction to people, many of them from overseas, to the whole history of British gardens as part of our national identity. I’m reprinting it here, for the benefit of a non-British audience.
See the review of the play here.

P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; Gardening is very important to the British. It has also a big part of how the rest of the world sees us. Gardening is not just popular as a practical hobby, but also in the form of ‘garden visiting’, a form of leisure activity which is all but unknown elsewhere. This refers not so much to visiting historical gardens, but to visiting contemporary private ones. One measure of this is the scale of the National Garden Scheme, which this year oversaw the opening of around 3,700 private gardens, the ticket money going to charity. Originally an act of noblesse oblige on the part of the rural gentry, garden opening is now an activity which involves the owners of small and town gardens as well. Visiting other people’s gardens gives keen gardeners ideas and something to measure their own efforts against, although to be honest the activity also satisfies a deep sense of curiosity, giving people the chance to, ever so politely, snoop on other peoples’ lives. 

Gardening in Britain has many varied, and deep, roots. The first explanation is perhaps that these isles on Europe’s north Atlantic shore are a very good place to grow things. With a mild climate and rainfall distributed year round, the growing season is long. Plants from a great many lands and climate zones can be grown together, to the extent that gardening visitors from harsher climates are often astonished at seeing juxtapositions in British gardens that would impossible for them at home. This bringing together of the world’s floras gives us another insight into the origin’s of Britain’s gardening obsession. Several centuries of being an imperial power saw plant hunters set of with the explorers, the missionaries, the traders and the plunderers who were all a part of the story of empire. Indeed quite often the role of plant hunter was combined with one or more of these other roles.

Wave after wave of trees, shrubs and perennials arrived on British shores, sometimes first coming to botanical gardens, such as that established at Kew , but more likely in the nurseries that supplied the gardens and greenhouses of the aristocracy. At first the playthings of the wealthy, the very ease with which many plants can be propagated, from seeds, cuttings or simply digging a plant up and splitting it, meant that new introductions could very rapidly find their way down the social scale. A novelty in His Lordship’s garden would very quickly be propagated, at first to provide gifts for other gardening members of ‘society’, but then later as gifts from one head gardener to another, and then to the head gardener’s family, and then the mother of the girl the under-gardener had his eye on, and so on through the village. Nurseries catered for the rising middle classes, while even the urban poor could grow geraniums on their windowsills. 

Whilst one great arm of British gardening has been about plants, another has been about landscape and garden design. Indeed it might be said that perhaps Britain’s greatest contribution to world culture has been the landscape movement of the 18th century. Until then gardens in Europe had been firmly formal and geometric. British landowners however made a break with this tradition, ripping out mile upon mile of clipped hedges, tearing out intricate parterres and inserting bends and curves into formerly straight ponds. The landscape around the country house was made to look as unmanaged as possible, with artfully arranged clumps of trees amidst acres of grass, usually grazed by cattle or sheep. The new landscape was on the one hand rational (the grazing animals produced an income) but at the same time an artistic celebration of a supposedly ‘natural’ landscape. This was no mere practical movement, but a philosophical one as well, with garden making being earnestly discussed in journals, coffee houses and London clubs.

Later developments may have brought back the formal garden in many different guises, but the naturalistic curves and contours of the landscape movement never really went away. A tension between the love of the formal and ordered and the informal and supposedly natural has remained ever since. The 1890s saw this explode into a long-running dispute between two prominent garden makers and commentators, the architecturally-trained Sir Reginald Blomfield and the irascible gardening journalist William Robinson, whose views can be guessed from the title of his 1871 book, The Wild Garden. Both laid claim to their vision of gardens as exemplifying Britishness, Blomfield that terraces, allĂ©es and topiary expressed the country’s architectural tradition, Robinson that sensitivity to nature, to local landscape and wildflowers was more important. Ultimately however it was a turf war between professions: architects versus horticulturalists. 

Another great dispute lay at the heart of the golden age of British gardening, the Victorian era. More than anything this was dominated by a passion for exotica on the part of those wealthy enough to afford greenhouses, the men to manage them, and the coal to fire the boilers to keep them warm. The collecting and display of exotic plants, orchids in particular, became something of a national obsession during the latter half of the 19th century. Fortunes would be spent on rare plants and elaborate glasshouses in which to display them. Members of the aristocracy and the new industrial elite vied with each other to build the finest collections of plants. For the general public there was a spin-off, as city parks departments would lay out elaborate plantings for the summer, mostly using warm-climate plants reared in greenhouses.

However a reaction set in by the end of the century. Just as the Arts and Crafts movement questioned the new industrial society, so many gardeners began to react against the artificiality and exoticism of sub-tropical summer planting reared in hothouses, instead promoting the supposedly simple plants grown by country people, hardy annuals and herbs which could be sown out of doors in spring and perennials which came back year after year with no effort. Thus was born the cottage garden movement and a whole new phase of garden making. In many ways this became the core of the British garden ideal. Images of country gardens, often featuring colourful flowers against a backdrop of clipped hedges and topiary (which had now made a come-back) were reproduced in the books and magazines and on the packaging of the merchandise that bound the empire’s far-flung servants to a particular sense of what it meant to be British.

During the early 20thcentury, a great final phase of plant hunting brought hardy plants rather than exotica to British gardens, as the incredible bio-diversity of the Sino-Himalayan region’s rhododendrons, magnolias and camellias were discovered and brought home, again primarily to the estates of the elite. In the end though something more important happened – a healing of the formal-informal rift. Garden makers began to bring together cottage garden insouciance with clipped geometry. Gardens such as Hidcote in Gloucestershire (actually made by an Anglophile American) and Sissinghurst in Sussex (created by the aristocratic duo of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West) used frameworks of hedges to contain exuberant perennials and annuals; voluptuous abundance balanced with ascetic discipline. This Arts and Crafts garden style dominates the most popular British gardens, and has been widely emulated internationally, its intimacy, order and sense of historical roots proving an immensely satisfying and pleasurable part of the national psyche.







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