Great gardeners of history #2

And so we must leave the Dark Ages, and with them St. Fiacre, crosiers, and the fragrance of unwashed monks, this month’s Great Historical Gardener is already waiting for us some 1200 years away. And he’s sickening fast.

Quickly then! Onwards and Eastwards! Let us hasten through the centuries and across the continent to the Crimean town of Yalta and the year of 1897. O.K? Good, Now lets just pause here by the sea for a moment, to catch our breath and exchange cassocks for waistcoats, before we meander up the hill to meet the second of our gardening greats; a consumptive doctor called Anton Chekhov.


Chekhov moved to Yalta from Moscow in 1897, in the hope that the milder air of the Russian Riviera would help combat his tuberculosis. He built himself a house and then settled down to write and to garden; the two activities that would occupy him until his death seven years later at the age of only 44. It was here that he created what some argue are his greatest works The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters and The Lady With The Dog. Almost no-one argues that his garden was one of his greatest works, good enough to eclipse even The Seagull, but this is just because you can’t withdraw gardens from the library and scribble all over them in green highlighter (to the Putney Library user with the green highlighter – you selfish bastard). Chekhov’s garden is the living growing expression of the horticultural philosophy outlined in his works of literature, a philosophy that is unconsciously shared by all great gardeners; and therefore worth examining in great and mind numbing detail, you lucky readers.

As a Russian Chekhov’s writing is heavily infused with descriptions of the natural world. I think because there is so much nature in Russia that it is impossible for it not to encroach on an author, and to enter all his works. It’s the same principle that drives Irvine Walsh as a Scotsman to write about drugs and Jeffery Archer as a politician to write about horse dung. Chekhov’s writing about nature displays none of the melancholy of Turganev or the swamping grandeur of Tolstoy. In Chekhov’s work nature is not necessarily the saviour of man, but man the guardian of nature. This is a gardener writing before he came to gardening, a man who recognises that humanity and nature are entwined and inseparable. He knows that man can irreversibly and casually ruin a garden (or lake or forest or steppe), but also than man working in close harmony with the earth can create something far more beautiful than the sum of its parts.

Chekhov and Tolstoy chat compost

In A Letter, an unfinished work Chekhov was composing when he died, the author writes ‘the most beautiful and the most rational, powerful, invincible part of nature is the part created by the genius of man, independently from nature’s will’ Quite right Anton! This is not the writing of a Russian disillusioned by mans cruelty and looking to nature for redemption, this is the work of an ambitious and questing garden designer. Chekhov was no smallholding, cabbage growing, good life fantasist. He recognised that in his garden man did not need ‘a small plot’ in which to vegetate, he needs ‘the entire terrestrial globe, the entire nature, unhampered, then he would be able to display all traits and features of his free spirit’

Chekhov in the garden

This is the spirit that drives Chekhov to be ambitious in both his horticultural literature and his garden: a play about an orchard becomes a melodrama set in a 2,500 acre cherry orchard, and a steeply sloping batch of bare Yalta earth becomes a heavenly paradise of native and exotic plants. Chekov gardened with abandon, he planted: 57 types of rose, 159 types of arboreal shrub, he planted 11 camellias and wrote ‘It was a miracle: camellia has blossomed in the ground in my garden- this phenomenon seems to be unknown in Yalta’. He planted 12 types of cherry trees; he planted pears, currents, gooseberries, peach trees, almond trees, apricots, quinces, watermelons, artichokes, asparagus and sunflowers. He planted Irises by the thousand, chrysanthemums and lilies, delighting in each bloom and eagerly anticipating the next. In the last years of his existence Chekov’s garden was his life. It seems a shame that this most noble gardening legacy has been eclipsed by something so tawdry as a literary reputation.

So my gardening pilgrims, give Sissinghurst a miss this year, Versailles can wait. To neon Yalta on the Black Sea – there lies the greatest small garden by the greatest small storywriter the world has ever seen.

Garden pilgrims visiting Yalta

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (or, Physalia – the Brilliant Bionic Boat)

Being a gardener I know a few things about building. I know a patio is built on hardcore and sharp sand. I know a pergola is built on 300mm concrete blocks. And I know that life is built on broken dreams. Dreams of plants unflowered, dreams of crops that never grew, and most hauntingly, dreams of the open sea.

The Plan of Broken Dreams

Like most young men I grew up longing to be a pirate. To race around The Spanish Main, cursing and drinking and loosing thunderous broadsides, is there any better way to live? I spent long hours at university practicing my swigging, my spitting and my swashbuckling, all in preparation for the day when I would take up my graduate position as a Scurvy Nave. But it was not to be, man chooses not his fate and I was powerless to resist the call of the garden. So it is that I have spent these past years leaning on my spade and watching as friend after friend pierces his ear, ties his bandanna and embarks for a life of rape and pillage under hot Caribbean sun.

So thank god that after over 6000 years of civilisation someone has finally designed a sea worthy garden. At last the average Joe Horticulture can chase death, doubloons and dusky maidens across the Seven Seas, and not loose his tender annuals to salt spray. I give you the work of Vincent Callebaut and his magnificent floating garden – Physalia.


A collision between a whale, a jellyfish and a fertile architectural imagination, ladies and gentlemen, this is the future.

Physalia commeth

Physalia will travel around the waterways of Europe with a cargo of scientists busily cleaning H20 and researching in a carbon neutral manner.

Physalia on Thames

An exceptionally interesting and eccentric thinker Callebaut has also designed floating cities for climate change refugees and a metabolic farm for urban agriculture in the shape of a butterfly. In his touring botanical garden there will be four main plating areas; Earth, Air, Water and Fire.

Air Garden

Let Callebaut be our catalyst and take to the oceans! Come ye, you alotmenteers and flower heads, you rakers and pruners! You are free gardeners, and you have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea and an army of 100,000 men. We shall grow fat on the blood of the rich while our fruits grow plump in Physalia’s hold and the waterways of Europe become cleaner and cleaner. For me the world has won back a bit of its magic.

Tea Almighty Ascendant

All of my gardening acquaintances are saturated with tea. If you poke them in the stomach little rivers of tea flow from their eyes and nose, there simply is not enough room in the modern gardener to fit in any more tea; they would certainly pop. This means that some other demographic must be behind the recently reported rise in tea sales, and it seems that the general public are responsible.

Radio 4’s Food Programme yesterday celebrated the leafy infusion’s resurgence in the U.K and Europe by sending a reporter to Malawi to sit in the shade and drink tea. Today I would like to join that brave journalist in paying tribute to Camellia sinesis by exploring what has prompted the return of the tea.

The triumphant return

As everyone knows tea is the yang to coffee’s yin. The two liquids are cosmically entwined, and much like good and evil one cannot exist without the other. This has been hugely harmful to tea sales over the last 30 years, as Evil is so much more exiting than Good. Tea speaks of comfort, reassurance and contentment, coffee whispers of sex, late nights and existentialism. I blame the Parisians; Parisians need coffee and cigarettes almost as much as they need oxygen, they adopted the South American bean as their own and they spun it into the metropolitan myth of berets, black clothes and affairs, thereby making it chic and sexy.

Next time you meet a Parisian tell them that Britain’s first coffee house opened before France’s (1650 and 1675 respectively) and that coffee is a far more British beverage than French, you’ll see them disown their national drink almost instantly. Luckily for tea sales on the continent the only thing more uncool and gauche than Le Rosbif is an American. It is the  sit-com Friends that ultimately claims responsibility for the rise in tea consumption in Paris. Setting the least cool television programme ever produced by the least cool nation on earth in a coffee house has dealt the black bean brew a blow from which it may never recover.


So tea sales are on the rise in Paris and we can pinpoint why, but they are also rising in the U.K. Radio 4 claims that this is down to the new breed of tea enthusiast rushing around to get their high end Camellia kicks. This is nonsense, the gourmet tea market is certainly growing but it has such little impact on overall sales that it is effectively non-existent. In order for there to have seen a significant rise in overall consumption the general public must have been buying more tea. The reason for this shift in consumer habits is of course, xenophobia.

Xenophobia, racist scare scaremongering and a political shift to the right wing is the traditional European response to periods of crises. Economies start tanking, France gets Sarkozy, Italy welcomes back Berlusconi; we get David Cameron, Nick Griffin and good Honest British Cuppa. It’s a traditional drink for the traditionally minded. However, deep in the hearts of even the least forward thinking bigot there must be doubts over whether they can really extinguish the threat of multiculturalism just by drinking tea, some might even have realised that much of the tea they drink comes from India and China; the very economies that threaten to come over here and devour our women. Well chin up Little Englander I have good news! They grow tea in Cornwall.

Tregothnan estate in the sunny southwest has been producing tea on a commercial scale for a number of years. Apparently the climate is very similar to Darjeeling and they harvest around a ton a year. You’d think that Karl Marx would be happy that the proletariat can now grow their own hardy Camillia sinensis cultivars in back gardens across the land, and that they no longer have to rely on the bourgeoisie industrialists to supply their caffeine fix, but actually Karl only ever drunk herbal lemon infusions and frequently claimed that ‘all proper tea is theft’.

Karl Marx

The World’s 11th Most Deadly Plant

The young don’t like gardening, and I’m not surprised when information leaked from the Internet informs me that privet is now considered the world’s 11th most deadly plant. This ludicrous terror scare gives yet more ammunition to cool trendsetters who argue that the plant kingdom is the wimp’s kingdom, and that gardeners are the wimpy bodyguards of the wimp’s kingdom. I’m quite happy living in a nice safe world – like most readers here I’d usually take a cup of tea over a syringe full of heroin, and a stroll in the park over a bit of base jumping, but I’m an aberration against the world of cool, and I’m afraid as someone who reads gardening blogs, you are too. Safe is out, ludicrous risk is where it’s at in 2010. In order to get the young to like gardening we need to sex it up, we need to show off the dangerous side of the green-fingered way of life: we need to make it cool.

The world's least captivating killer

But how does one go about convincing the over stimulated and prematurely cynical youth of today that gardening is actually a radical life-affirming image-defining statement? (Cool people don’t have hobbies, they have statements)  One way to do it would be to focus on the plants, however I’ve been looking out of my window at the worlds 11th most deadly plant for half an hour now, and it hasn’t done anything edgy at all. Plants can be dangerous of course; in the village I grew up in there is an old man whose brain has been parasitically infiltrated by a colony of Dahlias, all he can think and talk about is Dahlias. No doubt those flowers will eventually kill him, and it is a tragic tale, but it is not one that suits a heavy rock backing track and fast cut camera switches to good-looking guys with spiky hair, so we can’t use it as a cool converter.

If the plants are out then that just leaves the people. It is up to us, the gardening faithful, to show the world what gardeners are really like. Paul Debois recently published 43 Gardeners’ Hands, a moving collection of photographs of gardeners hands that examined what it meant to be a gardener in the pre-cool days, all nurture and earthliness and the value of hard work. I suggest the follow up be 43 Gardeners’ Scars where well known gardeners show of their most X-treme disfigurements and tell a little back-story something like ‘This is my black big toenail. Me and a bunch of mates had been gardening for like, 48 hours without stopping or sleeping or eating, it was getting pretty wild and I dropped a paving stone on my foot’. Then all we need to do is make a video of all the most beautiful and nubile in the gardening world cavorting around the allotment, pushing each other in the pond and pruning in their underpants because they don’t give a fig about you or your values, sell it to a mobile phone company to use as their new zeitgeisty advert and gardening is cool. Sorted.

Please get in touch with me if you have any interesting gardening scars or you would like to cavort naked around an allotment with me.