02.03.2015
Bliss of the English Country Garden
Spring is nearing - and the garden beckons

Mercifully, it is soon Spring and my mind is turning to the garden, although frankly I’m not much of a gardener. Yes, I have grown lots of herbs to use in my skincare products: thank goodness they do rather well with very little interference. But wouldn’t it be extraordinary to be a good gardener? To understand how to create those fabulous vistas, get the colour palette right, make sure that each season is filled the the glories that the English country garden has to offer?

The English are obsessed with gardens – apparently something like £3.9billion is spend annually in the UK on gardens. We love flowers but sales of vegetable seeds and plants are now outstripping the pretty bits. Food is back in the garden. And that is, of course, what gardens were first made for – being useful.  Ordinary people did their bit to assist nature with sufficient food production and, alongside, they discovered that plants also offered some handy medical benefits.  It’s impossible to say how far back gardening goes – maybe Paleolithic hunter-gatherers were helping nature along 200,000 years ago – who knows? A huge leap in time and we know for sure that 11,000 years ago the Mayans were growing maize in Central America and halfway across the world in the Jordan Valley were cultivating figs.  There is plenty of evidence too of pleasure gardens in Mesopotamia (now known as Iraq and Syria) 5,000 years ago, in a little later in Persia and Egypt and, of course China and Japan.

But I’m straying from these shores.  No doubt, the Ancient Brits and whoever was here before them, were beavering away in similar fashion.  Then 2,000 years ago along came the Romans with all their useful habits of sturdy engineering, house-building and record-keeping.  Those records reveal very clearly that there were formal gardens here in England that the rich used to flaunt their wealth, power and good taste. They loved their kitchen gardens too, planted full of useful herbs – rosemary, basil, mint and thyme among the imports, and vegetables such as garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, cabbages, peas, celery, turnips, radishes, and asparagus, which makes you wonder what on earth the pre-Romans were munching.

Once the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxons took over and there are those who say they didn’t much care for gardening but they must have had some interest because in the British Library is the most extraordinary 10th-century herbal, the ‘Lacnunga’ (Remedies), that describes nearly two hundred herbs. That interest persisted, getting stronger and stronger over the next couple of centuries, and medicinal matters became far more sophisticated.

The prime practitioners were religious orders such as those at Glastonbury - monks and nuns who healed the sick, created the first hospitals, cared for the old and infirm.  They developed an extensive and sophisticated knowledge of plants and their various powers. And, perhaps most importantly, they had the literary skills to read texts from abroad, ancient Greek, Arabic, Italian, and to write it all down. As a result of all this literacy, knowledge spread rapidly as did the organisation of gardens and what was grown in them.  Medieval herb reference books still exist, and are still held to be useful by many modern herbalists.

As any watcher of ‘Wolf Hall’ knows only too well, those troublesome Tudors and their Reformation changed all that. Out went the monasteries, and in came fancy Italian-influenced designs – knot gardens, bowers, raised walks. Helpful herbs and veg were back in the province of the peasant who tried desperately to hang on to a scrap of land in a country where now the rich and powerful were fencing in common land for their own luxurious purposes – parklands and personal hunting grounds. And maybe it was at this point that the modern idea of the English country garden, the cottage garden, was born.

None of this changed fundamentally from then on: formality, design and extravagant vistas were the name of the game in one form or another. The Stuarts took to French style, the Georgian favoured ‘classical’ buildings set in informal ‘natural’ landscapes, dug mostly by Irish labourers; and the Victorians, with their social conscience starting to chip in, rather liked public gardens and lots of colourful bedding plants.  They also built greenhouses, imported fabulous amounts of new stock from across their massive empire and made gardening the hobby of anyone who had a little backyard.

Gardens, over the centuries, have been organised, crafted, cut, coiffed and cudgelled, with astonishingly beautiful results.  Throughout Britain there are gardens that illustrate our passion for creating green, growing, glowing spaces.  Of course, over the years, there have been many styles across the nation’s gardens, and each, like their owners and creators, has a distinct personality.  But the abiding favourite is still the English cottage garden, in a direct line from the peasantry of old.  It is practical, for sure, providing food and medicine, but above all it is a place of refuge and tranquility where folk can create their own dream, with all the mystical charm and romance that is bred in the English soul.  It has an extraordinary power over us, and, oh, what would I give to be able to create such a place - starting this Spring!

 

   

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