Adventures in Silviculture

Adventures in Silviculture

Once, in a life before horticulture, I spent twelve months selling second hand books from a market stall in Bristol. Eight hours a day, six days a week of sitting on a chair drinking tea and reading. It was blissful and I’d recommend it to any young person thinking of taking a gap-year.

Having so much time to read is liberating; most of us have so few hours spare for literature that we are terrified of wasting them on an imperfect book. We feel we must either read something improving, a proper book, Flaubert in French say, or one that is a guaranteed match to our tastes, the “I only read books about sexy vampires” syndrome. But when reading is all you do, you are free to waste days on books that turn out to be crap. I would read; chick lit and sci-fi, collections of feminist poetry, pamphlets about erotic female wrestlers, I would read the classics and I would read books asking “was Hitler a Satanist?”, but most importantly for the first time ever I read gardening books.

The Author, reading erotic tales of strong thighed wrestlers
Erotic tales of strong thighed wrestlers

Unfortunately now that I’m in the business of knowing stuff about plants I can’t shake my market stall ways. When shopping for gardening books I still buy third-hand volumes, not glossy new high-production hardbacks, even if it means my books are completely taxonomically redundant. I’m stuck in a world where gardening books cost £2.50 not £25.00. Last week however, things changed, I was given a £50 book token, and so finally paid a guilt free visit to the horticulture section of London’s largest bookshop.

Like a drunk in a curry house I was paralysed by choice. I browsed for hours, sweating and sipping pints of Cobra. Who knew there were so many experts on back-yard chicken-farming? Who knew how common a trope the title The *Adjective* Gardener has become. It’s out of control! Waterstones will supply you with pages by; The Thrifty Gardener, The Curious Gardener, The Inquisitive Gardener, The Adventurous Gardener, The Virgin Gardener, The Weekend Gardener, The Bad-Tempered Gardener, The Common Sense Gardener, The Meditative Gardener, The Resilient Gardener, The Conscientious Gardener, The Informed Gardener, The Decadent Gardener and The Quotable Gardener.

The Adventurous Gardener
The Adventurous Gardener

In the end I bought Tall Trees & Small Woods: How to Grow and Tend Them by Dr William Mutch which is proving a solid introduction to practical forestry. It is full of dignified pen and ink drawings of un-glamorous things like vertical notch planting, befitting of an author who was the first president of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. I particularly admired Dr Mutch’s restraint in not titling his book The Coppicing Gardener.

The knowledge and assurance displayed within, as well as the subject matter reminded me of one of my horticultural heroes; Richard St. Barbe Baker, Late Assistant Conservator of Forests in Kenya Colony and the Southern Provinces of Nigeria, and author of the magisterial autobiography I Planted Trees. I found Baker’s book in a second hand bookstall in Camden Lock and have been enchanted by him since.

At the age of 16 Baker left the family home in Hampshire and travelled to Canada, claiming that his great-uncle had once killed a bear with just a shovel and that he fancied doing the same. After three years living as a frontiers man he decided he’d get an education and enrolled on the forestry course at Cambridge. Unfortunately the Great War broke out while he studied, and Richard was duty bound to enlist. His account of the First World War is crisp and to the point, displaying a characteristic reticence to boast of glory or to seek sympathy. At one point in I Planted Trees he writes “I went through all the spring shows of 1915, but this is not the place to talk of them”. Lucky for us! Leaving the gassing of Ypres and the horror of the Western Front out of his autobiography means more space to muse on the practical management of Kenyan pencil wood forests.

Richard St. Barbe Baker
Richard St. Barbe Baker

But it is not just pencil wood that will delight the silvicuturalist reader: the bamboo cloud forests of the Aberdare Range make an appearance, as do the mangrove swamps of Italian Somaliland, the ancient forest of East Germany and the eucalyptus groves of Southern California. The author is touchingly obsessed with woods. In I Planted Trees a dinner with Mussolini warrants a single sentence, chatting to Roosevelt gets two, almost dying of lockjaw contracted from a Mikingili thorn takes five sentences to describe, while near losing a leg in Ceylon takes a barely a page (delirious and unable to speak he writes a note to the doctor: “I am a forester; I need both legs” pointedly drawing a double line under “both”) encountering the Natural Regeneration of Woodland theory of Karl Gayer has its own dedicated chapter.

Though Baker died in 1982, the organization he set up, The Men of the Trees lives on as The International Tree foundation and has now been responsible for planting tens of millions of trees internationally (or 26 trillion if you believe Wikipedia). He may well have been responsible for planting the very tree that made the paper that was scribbled on by all those Bad Tempered, Virgin, and Adventurous Gardeners, and for that I hope they will join me in raising a toast “to Richard St. Barbe Baker – He planted trees.”


Great Gardeners of History #5 – Sargon of Akkad

Apparently people have been disrespecting horticulture.

I can’t get overly excited about David Cameron’s now infamous litter-picking snub, mainly because as a professional gardener much of my work actually is picking up litter. The RHS on the other hand are exited, they’ve even held a conference – specifically a ‘Horticulture: a career to be proud of conference’. The aim being to re-educate our parliamentary betters, and to instigate policies that will appeal to 18-year-olds – 70% of whom currently think that gardening is not a career to be proud of .

(Again, I have no problem with seven-tenths of 18-year-olds not being proud of gardening. None of them would be proud of a career as Office Manager either. The whole joy being 18 is the unrealistic aspirations )

But I do know a little something about youth culture; I was in the Hackney Riots of 2011 (Tesco’s had its door kicked in and we had to get a takeaway for supper),  I also know a little something about horticulture, I even hold certificates. And I know that the way to reconcile the two is not by holding a teenage road-show emphasising  the diverse job opportunities offered by medlar micro-propagation and tomato grafting . People will discover the weird directions careers in horticulture take once they enter the industry, what we need is someone to help them over the threshold. A gardening ambassador, a horticultural pied-piper so magnetically violent and powerful that the impressionable young cannot fail to idolise him.

We need Sargon

Sargon, the mighty king, king of Agade, am I.
MY mother was a changeling, my father I knew not.
The brother(s) of my father loved the hills.
My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates.
My changeling mother conceived me, in secret she bore me.
She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed
My lid.
She cast me into the river which rose not (over) me,
The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the
drawer of water.
Akki, the drawer of water lifted me out as he dipped his
Akki, the drawer of water, [took me] as his son
(and) reared me.
Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener,
While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me (her) love,
And for four and [ fifty ] years I exercised kingship,
The black-headed [people] I ruled, I gov[erned];
Mighty [moun]tains with chip-axes of bronze I con-
The upper ranges I scaled,
The lower ranges I [trav]ersed,
The sea [lan]ds three times I circled.
Dilmun my [hand] cap[tured],
[To] the great Der I [went up], I [. . . ],
[ . . . ] I altered and [. . .].
Whatever king may come up after me,
[. . .]
Let him r[ule, let him govern] the black-headed

The above boast was found on a fragment of ancient Sumerian tablet, and amounts to a partial biography of the world most successful gardener, the all-conquering Mesopotamian warlord Sargon of Akkad. Born in 2300BC Sargon’s achievements dwarf those  of Brown, Jekyll, Oudolf and Titchmarsh combined.  He founded the great garden city of Babylon, he manoeuvred his armies to subjugate the Hittites, the Urukians and the peoples of Elam, and they rewarded him with fragrant trees of olive, fig, pistachio and pear. Plus he invented megalomania and expansion by conquest. Increasingly these days, lost in monotonous litter-picking,  I find my mind slipping back to ancient Akkad where I am a foot-soldier in Sargon’s horde, impaling crisp-packets like so many Urukian villagers.

However, outside of a few day-dream believers, the idea of the Gardener as all Conquering Demi-God seems to have been lost. It used to crop up in dynastic myths fairly regularly; the Byzantine chronicler Agathias wrote in his Histories:  “the line of Semiramis stopped with Beleous. For a certain fellow named Beletaras, in fact, in charge of the kings orchards and gardens reaped for himself a surprising harvest – The throne.” While An Assyrian chronicle records that king Irra-Imitti crowns as his successor Bel-ibni the gardener. Even Cyrus the Great may have started life as a gardener – Nicolaus of Damascus writes of his early career: “by and by a young lad by the name of Cyrus… comes up to a royal attendant who was in charge of beautifying the royal estate… Cyrus gives himself and he beautified the royal estate and was solicitous about his task”

Cyrus the Gardener

I know that we do actually have a keen gardener as heir apparent, and for some that might make him the obvious choice for the next Gardener King. But Cyrus had crushed the Lydian Empire by the time he was thirty, Charles is 63 and I doubt he even crushes snails – he’s really not going to appeal to a generation raised on video games and internet pornography.

Now I’ve been offering free guidance to the horticultural world on this blog for years now, long enough to realise that no-one ever takes any notice of my advice. So I’m not going to end with a list of practical steps for hooking adolescents on Mesopotamian warlords and their associated hobbies. I’m not, for example,  going to endorse a gore-soaked Sargon of Akkad computer game, or even a leaked Sargon sex-tape. I’m just going to suggest that maybe all of us in the gardening world alter the way we talk about our subject a little bit. If all the bloggers, authors, broadcasters and enthusiasts focused a tiny bit less on sustainability and wildlife gardening, and a tiny bit more on the subjugation of nature to man’s will and the opportunities for conquering the known world, we might find a few more teenagers listing horticulture as a career to be proud of.

Sargon of Akkad

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

Drunken Gardeners of History

Man, in his 6million year history has only really produced four great inventions – art, God, fermentation and the gardening blog.  Three to help us forget the universe’s lonely enormity, one to teach us cheap, fun ideas for small plots and to bang on about carrots.

My series Great Gardeners Of History has already fondled the divine and caressed the Muses, and I’m buggered if I’m writing The Great Carrots Of History, so today, ladies and gentlemen – Drunk Gardeners Of History.

Disclaimer. This post differs from the rest of the series in that it does not focus on one individual, but gathers a broad handful of the factual and the fictional. It also forms part of a wider campaign to get gardeners reclassified as ‘Land Sailors’. More information here.   

First some facts. I have created a scientific process for measuring how strong an association particular jobs have with drink. Using a web based pub review site ( I have entered various professions, and measured how many pubs they lend their name to. Gardeners birth a staggering 59 boozers (and this is by no means an exhaustive database). In contrast Bricklayers only have 46 pubs named in their honour and shepherds a puritan 44. And sailors? Sailors only have 43.

Can this be true? Are gardeners really 37% more drunk than the Jolly Jack Tars, famous the world over for their riotous drinking and enthusiastic brawling? Well not necessarily, critics might point out that sailors have a well known song referencing their drunkenness, and that it has an infinite number of verses. They would no doubt say that gardeners have no song at all about their inebriation, thus proving that Sailors are the greater wastrels. To those critics I say Ah! Signore. We have Mozart on our side. (Please watch the first 2 mins of this clip from The Marriage of Figaro for evidence( Feel free to watch the whole clip if you like it))

 As Mozart and Da Ponte knew well, drunken horticulturalists are just as dangerous and compelling as mutinous rum swilling pirate crews, and as fitting a subject for art and literature. Ernest Hemmingway began one of the stories in his first published work:  ‘On the four lire Peduzzi had earned by spading the hotel garden he got quite drunk’. He published this 27 years before The Old Man and The Sea, proving beyond all possible argument that half-cut gardeners held more sway over the imagination of young Ernest than the wide and open ocean. The  grandfather of all drunkards was Dionysus, also the Greek god of agriculture, though his wild and naked bacchanal seems to have been unfairly appropriated by the sailors (the greatest density of prostitutes over recorded was aboard a ship moored in Portsmouth Harbour) leaving the gardener with more of a solitary slumping stupor. Finally Noah planted and tended vineyards just so that he could get sloshed and expose himself, and he turned out to be a great sailor.

The Garden King

Art, myth, song, and archive all play from the same sheet, witness this extract from an employment contract between George Washington and a gardener named  Philip Bater…

 Articles of Agreement made this twelveth day of April Anno Domini one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven, by and between George Washington Esqr. of the Parish of Truro, in the County of Fairfax, State of Virginia, on the one part, and Philip Bater, Gardner,… [who] hereafter, mentioned, doth promise and agree to serve the sd. George Washington, for the term of one year, as a Gardner, and that he will, during said time, conduct himself soberly,… and that he will not, at any time, suffer himself to be disguised with liquor, except on the times hereafter mentioned.

George Washington doth agree to allow him (the sd. Philip)… four Dollars at Christmas, with which he may be drunk 4 days and 4 nights; two Dollars at Easter to effect the same purpose; two Dollars also at Whitsontide, to be drunk two days; also A Dram in the morning, and a drink of Grog at Dinner or at Noon.

So there you have it Gardeners have grog rations and licensed drunkenness, they are the saliors of the land, and they should be treated as such. That is why I hereby promise that when, one day in the distant future, I am in charge of large public garden, my staff shall be given a tot of rum to start the day and flogged brutally if they shirk on the weeding.

Dead Mans Chest

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

Great Gardeners of History #1

The Early Middle Ages are widely reviled in gardening circles (I have found out at great cost). Spiteful criticism by rent-a-gob garden polemicists of the 1300’s has lead to an ill-thought-out, but almost universally swallowed consensus, that this was a period barren of any insightful design, lazy in hard landscaping, and slapdash in its planting. Curmudgeonly critic Petrarch sums up the establishments entrenched ideology best when he says:

Each famous author gardener of antiquity whom I recover places a new offence and another cause of dishonour to the charge of earlier generations, who, not satisfied with their own disgraceful barrenness, permitted the fruit of other minds, and the writings gardens that their ancestors had produced by toil and application, to perish through insufferable neglect. Although they had nothing of their own to hand down to those who were to come after, they robbed posterity of its ancestral heritage.

Not so Mr P, not so. Today I am strapping on my revisionist armour and sallying forth to pull the Dark Ages and their accompanying ancestral heritage out of the compost bin. So without further ado I bring you the stinking, naked and well rotted, St Fiacre, Patron Saint of Gardeners.

Well Rotted - St Fiacre

That’s right the patron saint of gardeners is not Percy Thrower. It is an Irish monk born circa 595A.D. The Hibernian Monks are most famous for protecting Christianity and western learning from the rampaging barbarian tribes that toured Europe after the fall of Rome, and for drunkenness. They are less famous for their protection of tasteful gardening from the thuggish pagans (who liked playing football and having barbecues in their gardens). St Fiacre was one of those roguish Irish charmers, endowed with the wealth of the worlds gardening knowledge. Like any moderately talented Irishman Fiacre realised that the Emerald Isle is far to small to effectively propagate ambition. Unlike the modern day Irishman he did not flee to London, Sydney or New York, but went to France, to an area of woodland near the Nore River. Here he built a simple cell to live in, and started to do some serious gardening: he grew herbs, he grew vegetables, he grew fruit and he grew magic ivy, he also grew marrows to gigantic sizes and made them into chutney to serve in his hospice. As a kitchen gardener he was superb, as a show gardener he was better than average (bronze medal standard), but it was for his garden clearance ability that he was sainted, told by the local bishop he could have all the land he could clear in a day he simply walked around with his crosier uprooting trees and thundering through brambles like a huge great tonsured flail mower. Here is gardener of huge talent ambition and diversity willing to travel the world in the services of gardens, insufferable neglect this is not.

The monastic strain

‘So what!’ I hear you cry ‘One swallow does not make a summer’ ‘I’ve studied for RHS level 2, I know my syllabus, Dark Age gardens are “squat, bulbous, boggy, choleretic, and aesthetically bankrupt”. Boggy they may be, but it is from this unappealing bog that today’s garden movement springs. Lovers of antiquity such as Petrarch can delight in gardens, but they will never be a part of a garden in the way that St Fiacre was. For the gardeners of antiquity, their high medieval followers and their renaissance offspring to be in a garden is great – to be a gardener is to be uncultured poor and servile. It is with the separate historical strand of monasticism that we see the garden interacted with and the physical connection celebrated in a way that anyone with an allotment will recognise.

So all you small holders, allotmenteers and grow-your-owners, the next time a stranger at a dinner party tries to spend an entire evening talking to you about Gardens The Dark Ages, please to not guffaw derisively in their face, for I am talking about your forefathers.