Great Gardeners of History/Chelsea #4

Let us away from Chelsea, that foul and feckless temple to Mammon, away from esurient financiers and hoggish merchants, away from all corporate Champagne and amalgamated sponsorship. This week join me in simpler times; come and meet the next great gardener of history – founder of the first botanical garden, creator of the herbaria and the finest plant collector since Theophrastus. Let’s lose ourselves in his scholarly Eden, marvel at his Jerusalem artichokes and gasp as he conjures sunflowers before our under-stimulated European eyes. Let’s stick fingers in our ears and for these moments ignore the shadow of his patron, deep-pocketed and long-knifed Cosimo I die Medici – we know there’s no place for bankers in gardening.

In 1543 Luca Ghini created the world first botanical garden at the University of Pisa. After the Middle-Ages’ one and half millennia of horticultural stagnation, he removed plants from the pages of the illuminated manuscript and placed them where they belonged and have remained ever since, in the ground. Natural intellect, flair and Medici money combined to leave us a legacy that we all enjoy today.

Luca Ghini

Before Ghini started his garden, horticulture was in a sorry state. The ancient Greeks and Romans had undertaken intensive studies of their native flora, and recorded their findings in magnificent books, such as Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica. These pagan savants gifted their learning and illustrations to their Christian progeny, who spent 1500 years slavishly copying copies of copies (more to curtail monastic masturbation that for a love of learning) until all diagrams resembled either blobs with leaves or leaves with blobs.

Cosimo I dei Medici

But a good Renaissance will do wonders for a peoples’ self confidence, and by the 16th century, Western Europe, having already challenged the ancients in sculpture, music and architecture, finally got around to the greatest art – gardening. Ghini was our standard bearer. Such was his confidence that shortly after founding the garden he wrote to a correspondent:

of horminum I have two species, cultivated and wild. I am sending you both plants dried and glued to cardboard. It does not matter that Dioscorides mentions only one because in many other cases he does not mention all the species that could be described. I think my dear sir, that you yourself have observed many more Tithymala, ranunculi, polygonata, and so on, than are enumerated by Dioscorides. In my own garden I have three species of hastula regia besides the one described by Dioscorides.

It does not matter what Dioscorides thought! Shocking yet brilliant – stuff Copernicus and his bloody sun – this is the real scientific revelation of the 1540’s. Ghini quickly gathered a circle of apprentices, wowed by his empirical approach and his insistence that plants should be viewed in their natural state. Soon these new creations, “botanical gardens”, spread to Pisa, Florence, Padua and Venice, and from there to the rest of the world.  Wikipedia tells me there are nearly 2000 registered today.

In the1540’s extravagant mercantile wealth and gardening came together to create something of self evident benefit to horticulture and to mankind. Without botanical gardens hundreds of thousands of people’s appreciation of the natural world, and even of life itself, would be hugely diminished – naysayers may scoff, but I’m sure in 500 years time they will say the same thing about pink flying gardens.

Pink flying garden

Taking back the Suburbs

In an entertaining piece of midweek filler the Evening Standard’s ‘Voice of Youth’, Rosamund Urwin, recently outed certain of her friends as having matured faster than others. Apparently over recent dinners Rosamund and her young, sparkly, drunken girls of summer  have stared in bewilderment at their dour, prematurely middle-aged acquaintances and wondered ‘how these fun sponges morphed into our parents and predict that they’ll soon be no-shows if the meal clashes with Gardeners’ Question Time.’

Oh the indignation! Gardening as by word for past-it! Well brace yourself Rosamund, I’m afraid that as newly minted Dalstonite, and an avid spectator of people and flowers, I can tell you that gardens are now considered cool. Pop-up-gardens are even cooler. Permaculture gardens are practically the coolest, beaten only by pop-up-roof-top-permaculture gardens, which are impossibly tautologically cool. All us unemployable bloggers Out East know dirt is where it’s at. The only people who think gardening is still stuck in the 1970’s are Laurie Taylor from Thinking Allowed  (see last week’s program) and the rest of the country; and they’re wrong – it’s actually stuck in the 1820’s.*

I suspect that the whiff of the naff that Rosamund detects lingering around gardening comes not from the superannuated, but from the suburban. My dear, bearded, tattooed and pieced twin brother, fresh from life in the squat as he is, will happily spend hours talking about growing pak choi or coppicing hazel, yet accuses his housemates of being ‘bourgeoisie provincials’ if they even mention spreading lawn seed or putting the sprinklers on.

As a jobbing gardener this revulsion to suburban gardens has a particular impact on me. The nature of my game means a large portion of my time is spent in the suburbs – for there be gardens. Yet on arriving at a garden for the first time client will often say to me “I don’t want it looking suburban”. So I find myself stood in an 8m x 25m rectangular garden, shed in one corner, three sides in larch panel fencing, with neighbouring houses just removed enough to qualify as detached peering from the sidelines, wondering how on earth to use a planting budget of £200 to disguise it as a penthouse roof garden.

That’s why I have decided to break with tradition and give some gardening tips. This week 5 hints on Urbanising the Suburbs.

1)      Community gardens are big in the city right now. Give your garden the community feel by converting the entire space to raised beds. For extra authenticity after the first summer make sure you never carry out any maintenance ever again.

2)      Pots, pots, pots, pots, pots. It’s all about container growing, and don’t think that means putting a few pansies around the bottom of your Cordeline australis. In the last few months I have seen a semi-mature holm oak and a grove of silver birch growing on balconies, think big!

3)      Nothing says suburban like a barbeque. Why not build a tandoori oven? For extra points get local members of the long-term unemployed to do the actual construction work as an ‘empowerment exercise’.

4)      If you must use a sprinkler ditch the plastic Hoselock and go for a Conmoto outdoor shower. The lawn will love it and friends who drop by unannounced will assume it’s part of your extra-room-for-natural-living-masterplan.

Urban Living

5)      Pop-up is in. Pop-up bars and restaurants have been sweeping the capital lately. Short term venues that do the biz for a few months and then disappear. This season I will be making pop-up borders, areas of the garden that burst into vibrant life for a season and then disappear leaving no trace of their existence. Rosamund’s dour friends and the terminally suburban will probably refer to them as bedding, but remember, it’s a pop-up horticultural event.

I hope this helps.

*I know gardening is stuck in the 1820’s because this week I have been reading a 200 year old edition of The Literary Gazette, and Journal of the Belles Lettres in search of the Garden Report and Kalender columns . Years ago in a smoky pub in Hampshire a wizened old gardener told me the secret of charming moles by the light of a full moon, and I was hoping unearth more semi-mythical garden lore.  Unfortunately what I found could have been printed in any of last weekend’s broadsheet gardening columns. “Soil preparation is key, watering is to be undertaken whole heartedly or not at all”. Though interestingly it seems even then gardeners were paid “less by three or four shillings a week than what is paid to common Labourers.”’


“Slovenly gardeners leave their Dahlias, Marvel of Perus, Nasturtiums, and the like, for days and weeks after they are frost bitten. The gardener pleads want of time, doing something else… These are slovenly excuses, quite inadmissible… Slovenliness is the unpardonable sin of gardening: a sloven among gardeners ranks with an coward among soldiers and sailors.” – take note permacultural gardeners, we all know what happens to cowardly soldiers.