Gardening, as an idea, has always seemed like a great way to spend time. What could be more fulfilling than to transform a barren plot of ground into a landscape bursting with brightly colored flowers and rows of nutritious vegetables?
The reality, though, is that gardening, even for fun, is hard work. Of course, the world’s great gardens have battalions of worker bees: I once stayed at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, where Vita Sackville--West created one of England’s supreme 20th-century gardens. Her compartmentalized Sissinghurst design was based on the English cottage garden tradition, with patches of strong “sunset” colors juxtaposed with such monochromatic plots as the “White Garden.”
Rudyard Kipling said, “Our England is a garden,” and, as if to bolster his claim, libraries overflow with books that portray the grand gardens created by Britain’s landed gentry. There are studies of Tudor and Stuart gardens, Victorian gardens, and gardens under the National Trust; the Prince of Wales has written several books about organic gardening at his estate, Highgrove. Perhaps the best overview of the more than 3,000 British gardens open to the public today is Ursula Buchan’s The English Garden (2006).
What Margaret Willes tells here is a very different story, one that illuminates the historic social and horticultural ramifications of gardening. For the British working class, tilling the soil was more of a necessity than a spectator sport.
Willes is a former publisher at the National Trust who previously wrote The Making of the English Gardener: Plants, Books, and Inspiration, 1560-1660 (2011). She decided to write this volume because the firsthand accounts she had researched showed garden history in Britain to be “rather like an iceberg,” in that gardens of the rich and famous submerged the labor of ordinary gardeners. Her inspiration came from an essay on recreational gardening that argued,
Little has been written about the history of popular gardening in Britain. Historians of the garden have been dazzled by the rare and the beautiful. Whole forests have been felled . . . for books describing . . . prestigious gardens attached predominantly to the nation’s stately homes.
Her research into the 16th and 17th centuries reveals that gardening flourished among all levels of society, and she has delved into such primary sources as churchwardens’ books, which give a glimpse of the gardening and husbandry undertaken by villagers. One 1677 account exclaimed that there was “scarce an ingenious citizen that by his confinement to a shop . . . [is] denied the priviledge of having a real garden.” Willes writes that limitations regarding space and time made gardening a difficult pursuit for the working class, but somehow it happened. Land allotments were made available, and families of miners and factory workers often worked together, out of necessity, to put food on the table.
Ballads, folk songs, and proverbs also relate the role that herbal medicine played in everyday life. In rural areas, “Providing physic for the family and the community was a domestic matter.” In cities, however, a medical profession emerged to take charge of such provisions, with the “gentlemen” class taking up posts as doctors, apothecaries, and surgeons. The herb-gatherers were invariably women, but the medicine-givers in cities were always men.
Beginning in the late 16th century, market gardening became a vital part of Britain’s towns and cities. In years when urban populations grew enormously, disease spread rapidly and with great devastation. London grew at a phenomenal rate in the 17th and 18th centuries, even with the Great Plague and Great Fire of the 1660s. Willes writes that, to keep people alive, “a ring of market gardens formed around the capital.” Food was funneled into such venues as Covent Garden, and by the late 17th century, urbanites were offered a wide range of vegetables, fruits, and salads: “Dainty salads, cucumbers and asparagus, and soft fruit were the luxury of the rich,” Willes writes, “while root vegetables and cabbages, apples and pears were the diet of the poor.”
Willes also describes the increasing professionalization of gardening with the rise of prosperity. A Society of Gardeners was founded in London in 1724 by a group of nurserymen who had a botanical interest in naming plants accurately. The word “florist” began to be used, and by the early 18th century, societies of florists sponsored exhibitions where gardeners competed for such prizes as a silver tablespoon or cash.
With industrialization and urban sprawl, pollution became a problem for city gardeners. Sea coal was burned as fuel, and a 1629 gardening book describes the “unwholesome ayre” in London, “where there is so much smoake [that] neither herbe nor tree will long prosper.” In the 19th century, Nottingham had the greatest number of working-class gardeners outside of London: In 1844, Rural Life in England described “upwards of 5,000 gardens, the bulk of which are occupied by the working class.” Some belonged to substantial tradesmen and wealthier residents, but “the great mass are those of the mechanics.”
Willes also includes a fascinating chapter on “Revolutions in Taste.” In the mid and late 19th century, seeds for flowering plants and vegetables were both cheaper and easier to obtain than they had been previously. New postal and railway systems greatly increased access to such seeds, and cottage gardening—plots of flowers, vegetables, and herbs—became even more popular.
Britain’s involvement in the Great War not only sent a generation of men off to battle, but, as Willes writes, “Every bit of spare land was commandeered: undeveloped building sites, front and back gardens of empty houses, corners of parks and commons, golf courses and tennis courts.” After the war, gardening was portrayed as an antidote to such “dangerous radical views” as Bolshevism. Future prime minister Neville Chamberlain wrote in 1920 that “every spadeful of manure dug in, every fruit tree planted” converted potential revolutionaries into citizens. A popular slogan of the time was “Beautiful gardens make happy homes.”
During World War II, Britain’s gardeners continued to focus on producing homegrown food; but after the war, a majority of the British population happily returned to gardening, not only out of necessity but also for recreation. Television shows and popular cookbooks attracted new audiences, and by the late 1960s, it was estimated that 80 percent of British households had gardens.
Margaret Willes makes a convincing case that gardening’s legacy has been a historic reflection of British character, not confined to the pastoral idylls of the landed gentry. In the end, she endorses the idea that gardening is “the true popular art of the country—we do not sing, or dance, we garden.”
Amy Henderson is a museum curator and cultural historian in Washington.