Category Archives: Gardens

The East India Company and the Natural World

22572408Given the single-minded purpose of the East India Company, it is hardly surprising that it should put everything in service of its profits — everything. I am only now learning the full contours of its terrible legacy: the millions dead of famine in Bengal, the industries destroyed, the conflict fomented, the culture and knowledge denigrated, the uprisings horribly put down. Impossible to summarise the damage that transformed Bengal from one of the wealthiest regions to one of the poorest or what that has meant to its people.

Could the colonised natural world have survived such an onslaught untouched?

What I appreciated about many of these stories, is that nature, on the whole, held its own. But not every time.

Frustratingly for me, being fresh and new and autodidacting this subject of Empire and the natural world, the principal theorisation for much of this, and the work that all of these authors are building upon, lies here: Green imperialism : colonial expansion, tropical island Edens and the origins of environmentalism, 1600-1860 by Richard Grove. The strength of this collection lies in the well-researched detail and the breadth of subjects and disciplines represented. Not so useful for a theoretical overview though, so I am looking forward to Grove.

Still, this was enjoyable and I pulled out a few quotes, like this from the intro by Alan Lester, on John Mackenzie who I also have not yet read:

‘Rather than thinking of core and periphery as two interacting but discrete spatial containers, each maintaining its own essential identity, he saw that one of these containers was actually constituted by the other’ (2).

That seems common sense to me, perhaps more in the sense of each acting upon the other…but I’ve never much liked ideas of core and periphery. CLR James is most effective in theorising the intensity of these connections in a different way through his work on the Haitian Revolution and cricket for example. Interesting, though, to think of scale as socially constructed projects:

Like gender, race and class in post-structuralist historical thinking, we might productively think of scales as entities constructed through particular projects with real effects in the world. These are the ‘effects of networked practices’. (12)

Not sure what I can do with that, but interesting.

Deepak Kumar is another among several writers here who seem to me to be forced to state the obvious:

Colonial discourse, it is true, is neither dictated nor possessed entirely by the colonizers. Postcolonial theorists find ample instances of ‘ambivalence’, ‘hybridization’, and ‘mimicry’ within it. (20)

But I loved how the various works in here explored this through diaries, log books, letters. They traced the movements not just of human beings (and some of their words echoing from the past have an unexpected emotive power), but of plants and animals, both from the colonies to London, but also from colony to colony. I sit here in my London room, which is full of cactus because a piece of me will always long for the desert, and I wonder that academics had to ‘discover’ the way that people traded both within and without officially ordered botanical practices in familiar crops and familiar plants, to fill their homes and gardens, their medicine cabinets and their bellies. This in spite of the undeniable fact that ‘official’ botanical knowledge and classification resided in the major city of the colonizing power. Still, it is fascinating to read of the ways New Zealand was landscaped along broad and sweeping lines first practiced in India, and the close trading ties between the two that did not involve the home country at all.

I liked the examination of the roles of men of science, both amateur and professional:

They had a dual mandate, one to serve the state, the other to extend the frontiers of knowledge. The state claimed superiority in terms of structure, power, race and so on. Science claimed superiority or precedence in terms of knowledge and, inter alia, helped the colonial state ‘appropriate’, ‘assimilate’ or ‘dismiss’ other epistemologies. (Deepak Kumar, 28)

It was fascinating how these shifted over time, from a much more respectful position of mutual learning in the early days, yet where knowledge was still appropriated and almost never credited. These early days of botany and medicine are most interesting to me, but so much is lost, not valued thus silenced, despite the vast amount of documentation the company produced. I also wanted to know more of men like Richard Blackwall – a surgeon who turned against the East India Company and joined the Mughals in their struggle against it.

I learned a little, but not enough, of Mughal traditions:

gardens designed to introduce new crops and to provide materia medica for local hopsitals had existed for a long time in both Hindu and Muslim traditions and had spread to Europe in the form of the ‘physic gardens’ and ‘acclimatisation gardens’ that emerged in Italy, Portugal, later Holland, and finally England and France and their colonies (60) In Mughal towns of the period, ‘householder gardens’ were common, along with royal gardens and tomb gardens and the leasing of gardens could provide civic revenue (Anna Winterbottom, 44).

The article closest to what I was expecting was Rohan D’Souza’s ‘Mischievous Rivers and Evil Shoals’, detailing the East India Company’s immense and ultimately wasted efforts in attempting to control the mighty delta in Lower Bengal. A textbook in everything that is wrong with this approach to the world and how we live in it:

Despite the delicate nature of the drainage pattern, colonial rule had, during the course of the nineteenth century, inaugurated a number of projects for road, railway and embankment construction in the region. These modes of transport with their emphasis on permanent all-weather structures and mostly built in unrelenting straight lines marked a sharp break from movement in the earlier era, which was predominantly based on circuitous rough paths and ‘crooked’ routes. The colonial transport network in Bengal, in fact, radiated along the East-West axis, while the region’s natural drainage lines, in contrast, dropped from North to South (139).

The river won, but the decades of struggle, and the resources used by engineers is sobering, as is their despair or resignation. Yet the real tragedy is in the human cost of flooding and famine as older, more flexible methods of navigation, cultivation and agriculture working with the changing river are lost or no longer possible. I don’t know that there is enough rage in this book for me.

One consolation was an entire chapter on the rafflesia arnoldii, the largest flower in the world and proof of a true ‘Malaysian encounter’ when sited by a tourist, also known as a corpse flower for its smell of rotting flesh and parasitic nature:

h1dkeUB Rafflesia-arnoldii


In 1819 Robert Brown was Secretary of the Linnaean Society, and it was his task to identify the flower, and he faced a conundrum. Should he name the flower for Raffles, who oversaw the expedition and was well known in scientific circles in London, or Arnold, who had been the chief naturalist, and the first white man to see the flower on the expedition? Brown spent the next eighteen months confirming whether or not it was a botanical novelty and contemplating it’s official classification (Barnard, 160).

This encapsulates so much of early botany — carried out for profit, subject to strict hierarchy and structured by racism, still partaking of adventure and a scientific excitement (on Arnold’s part) not fully tainted by the colonial enterprise of which it was part. Arnold would not survive to see the final classification.

My favourite Raffles is still this one, and I can’t help but think of Arnold as Bunny. But that is absolutely doing my favourite dynamic duo a disservice.




Snowdrop Days

The best thing that can be said about February is that it is full of snowdrops.

Snowdrop Days, Chelsea Physic Garden

I love the name. I grew up loving them as simply a wonderful exquisite thing that grew in a country far away, loved them without ever having seen them because mum loved them. Now I am lucky enough to see them every year, gladdening the end of winter alongside the crocuses and anticipating the great drifts of daffodils and tulip flames that are coming soon.

Snowdrop Days, Chelsea Physic Garden

Snowdrop Days, Chelsea Physic Garden

I have also been reading so much about the Chelsea Physic Garden:

This walled Garden was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful  Society of Apothecaries for its apprentices to study the medicinal qualities of plants and it became one of the most important centres of botany and plant exchange in the world.

Though I am as interested in its tangled history with greed and empire as with the love of plants, and the hope of easing the human condition through their medicinal properties.

Snowdrop Days, Chelsea Physic Garden

So I was pretty excited about snowdrop days at the garden. The rest of the garden looks as any English garden does at the end of winter, bare ground and spindly twigs and battered perennials waiting to spring back to life.

It highlights the beauty of the flowers brave enough to emerge in all of their variety:

Snowdrop Days, Chelsea Physic Garden

Snowdrop Days, Chelsea Physic Garden

And the ways of putting them on display.

Snowdrop Days, Chelsea Physic Garden

It was bitter cold, wind biting, hands frozen around the camera. Yet these beauties are not natural to this island, come originally from Turkey and Southern Europe where 19 varieties grow wild. As another transplant from a warmer clime, I marvel at them…though perhaps the hills and mountains they grew on stretched higher than mine.

They were first recorded growing in London in the early 1600s, but probably that the Romans brought them, naturalised them here. The gift of an earlier empire. Now there are over a 1000 cultivars, a myriad of variations to celebrate.

In 2012 the most expensive Galanthus bulb sold for £275. Somehow missing the point of the flower’s beauty and the way that it indiscriminately makes almost every park and garden more beautiful for everyone and anyone. These are my first snowdrop sighting of the year in the graveyard of Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s in Limehouse:

Snowdrops, St Anne's

And my love for snowdrops doesn’t diminish my love for other early bulbs — I missed crocuses! But I loved these tiny lilies:

Snowdrop Days, Chelsea Physic Garden

Snowdrop Days, Chelsea Physic Garden

And this tiny plant:

Snowdrop Days, Chelsea Physic Garden

I’ve realised writing this that I was terribly slack about getting the various cultivar’s names…the product, I think, of not having a garden to plant anything in forcing me to enjoy flowers simply for what they are.

Snowdrop days only run until Sunday, so if you are going to go (and it’s £9.50 mind), go now.


Walpole: The Sole and First Prime Minister

6208944A government is formed when a bunch of men sit around in a room and figure out exactly how everything is going to work, and who is going to do what, and they write it all down as something everyone can read.

Being raised in America, that little nugget has sat unquestioned in my head since I can remember. If I had thought about it, I would have questioned it. But I didn’t.

This book was a bit soporific, quite supportive of its subject and forgiving to the aristocracy. But reading about Walpole (1676-1745) and his twenty year reign at the head of government (1721 to 1742ish) has been good, if only to understand a bit better the early period of Empire, and how a government not entirely dependent on the whims and fancies of a spoiled human being was wrestled slowly and haltingly into life. Hill argues that monarchs needed money, didn’t want to bother raising it, didn’t want one guy in charge of money who might challenge them one day, and so…

By the accident of an historical situation in which insecure monarchs resolved to entrust the Treasury to a committee rather than an individual, the office of First Lord was able to begin its evolution in that of Prime Minister in the hands of one of the ablest politicians of the eighteenth century (1-2).

This broadening of the base of power and decision-making was a step in the right direction, particularly interesting as it began to center power in the House of Commons. But it didn’t go too far, of course, as they weren’t very common at all.

Conscious of their power in the new permanent setting of Paliament, these men legislated for the benefit of their own class in the firm conviction that what was best for them was best for the country as a whole (7).

The continuance of a ministry irrespective of the person of the monarch was a logical step as the importance of Parliament gradually increased in the eighteenth century and ministers’ power base shifted towards the House of Commons (144).

Funny that Walpole hated and repudiated the slur of being called prime minister, as did those who followed him down to Pitt. Even so, they were at the top, and it was still a system based entirely on patronage — you could argue the same is still true today, just a little more subtle. A little.

The famed, and at the time much-publicised ‘corruption’ by which Walpole sought to assist his parliamentary majority was in fact no more than the use of classic methods of patronage management raised to a new standard of perfection by a master manipulator (9).

Hill says that, but he does later on note a business venture with Josiah Burchett, Secretary of the Admiralty, which involved smuggling wine from Holland using an Admiralty launch…

There is also, of course, the old boys club at play — the Kit-Kat Club to be exact, the place to see and be seen and to get anywhere in whig society. For men (and socially for women), being a whig meant being ‘a socially close-knit group in face of a strong Tory majority in the nation as a whole’ (39). Interesting, there’s no way to get a sense here of just how divided people in the top ranks were.

He also notes the connections to the new and burgeoning business of empire and trade: ‘Whig political fortunes became inextricably mixed up with the fortunes of the commercial community’ (26). But of course, the Tories must have been too, or they would have been drowned by whig wealth and have disappeared long ago as a force of conservatism.

Anyway, beyond the major jolt to my common-sense conceptions of how government forms, there are some interesting tidbits about society, like this on the role of women and money in building influence:

In 1707, Walpole took two months off in Norfolk to conclude the lengthy negotiations for a financial settlement in connection with the marriage of his sister Susan (47).

Two months.

The burden of having to shelter his other sister Dolly is also often mentioned, through the whole of her spinsterhood and ill-fated love affair with Townshend before his wife died and they could be married. Then there is this little misogynist dig, which probably says more about the author than anyone:

Despite the existence of a regular mistress and perhaps others of her kind George was devoted to his wife Caroline, a woman of ability who liked to pose as an intellectual and enjoyed the conversation of intelligent men (145).

God how women pose.

I’m a bit obsessive about gardens and food chains, and was fascinated to see how country estates in this period still supported their owners in town with meat and produce — until their needs outgrew it. Walpole certainly seems to have never gone hungry:

More than ever the estate in Norfolk was ransacked to provide culinary delicacies for the more lavish entertainment now possible; but the new needs exceeded the capacities of Houghton, and from now on the usual London retail markets provided most of the large quantities of food and wine essential to the furtherance of any political career (41).

And this goes perfectly with my rant about gardens of pure evil like Stowe, created by Walpole’s gadfly, Lord Cobham (barely mentioned in this book, despite his epic gardening battle to belittle and mock his enemy):

By the standards now prevailing among wealthy landowners, Houghton was a small and old-fashioned residence. New mansions were springing up around Norfolk and the whole of Britain…If Walpole were to rise higher, as he confidently expected, he would need visible evidence of success in the form of a house and park which could vie with the greatest… the existing building…must be pulled down completely to make way for a residence in the fashionable Palladian style…[and] a vast park landscaped by the fashionable garden designer Charles Bridgeman…The village of Walpole’s boyhood would have to go, for it was not in keeping with the new style and must be re-erected a mile further away (106).

And what a garden it was:


Trade plays almost no role in the telling of this story — which I found a curious snobbery really. Particularly anything to do with the colonies and slave trading. The arena for this book is almost entirely that of Europe. My god there were a lot of wars were being fought by England, maneuvering to ensure a balance of power and restraints against Catholicism! I forgot that of course William III involved us more in Dutch affairs,  and how much time the Georges spent continuing to work and manoeuvre as the Prince of Hanover while still the Prince of Wales.

It seems a bit mad now, a lot of the book is taken up with it, and I couldn’t bring myself to care. Nor does Hill bring alive the religious tensions between the Dissenters and Church of England and Catholics, the fact that Jacobites were still in the country muttering and the pretender still holding court in France. The continuous murmurs of rebellion all seem very unexciting.

Of course, in this lack of excitement trade can’t be forgotten completely. There’s the South Sea Company bubble, its crash and the government subsidy of the stock (we never learn I guess — or we do, apparently Walpole’s sinking fund to reduce debt was copied by the US congress in the early 1800s, and being considered by Obama).

1713_Asiento_contractThere is one mention of the Asiento, ‘the profitable concession for slaving and general trade given to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht and regretted in Madrid ever since’ (154).

There’s a note that Walpole reduced land tax in 1737, the resulting sizeable government deficit to be made good by a salt tax. The good old policy of protecting landed wealth at the expense of everyone else.

I’ll end this potpourri of Walpolian facts from a long (but the shortest of all of them by far I believe) dry biography with what might be the most interesting: the end of his career was spent settled into 10 Downing Street, ‘donated by the King for the use of the Treasury and its First Lord’ (183).

The end of Walpole, the beginning of a protest destination for the ages.



A Hatred of Gardens

Stowe is a garden to make you hate gardens. It is, in fact, everything that is wrong with the gardens of the 18th Century. It is is not alone in this, but it pioneered much of the wrongness.

I was never going to visit it, far less write about it, but loving gardens, and programs about gardens, I was watching the BBC and there it was. The program made me angry enough to write. At length.

It opens up describing Stowe looming over the village of Buckingham. It’s so vast it can feel like a small country. 250 acres. The tree expert, who alone of everyone on this series of programs I like, stands in a lovely grassy valley and describes the 24,000 tons of topsoil removed to form gardener Capability Brown’s Grecian Valley.

24,000 tons of topsoil.

At one point he climbs one of the admittedly great and wondrous trees, and from its height everything looks small. The scale is huge, dotted with trees that look like shrubs. Dotted with ridiculous neoclassical follies and massive palladian architecture, like this:


The program argues that this garden embodies a set of political ideals, that this is a garden of ideas, the political manifesto of Lord Cobham.

So on the one hand, which is plausible in some ways, they argue that it is a rejection of Versailles, and with it the absolutist tyranny of Louis XIV and the French taste. They were challenging the power of England’s monarch at the time to be sure (though not in the way that the roundheads did). These gardens are not tightly confined and controlled, but simulate a natural landscape. This is in fact, the first appearance of Bridgeman’s slightly sinuous stream — the slightly sinuous stream that departs from the rigid geometries of French fashion and was about to transform western gardens after Queen Caroline poached him to design the Serpentine in London.

But really now, can we call this a relaxation of our control over nature?


It is an intensely manipulated pretense at nature, it copies her lines and curves, but sweet jesus is it manicured. Small areas are left to be ‘wild’ and you can see the difference, with grasses and wildflowers (‘weeds’ as such gardeners like to call them). With bees buzzing and butterflies and perhaps some wildlife…don’t talk to me about massive lawns and the poor blokes who had to trim them before lawn mowers. Or after.

Is this any kind of definition of the liberation of nature? Nature freed from the stranglehold of history? The removing of  the corset? Have they never walked through meadows and fallow fields and wilderness?

There’s a kind of hypocrisy here, a way of describing this land as something it is not, and I don’t think it’s just to distinguish it from what came before. They’re laying claim to a positive association with freedom and nature that it doesn’t deserve. A dangerous one, I feel, when we desperately need to find better ways to live on the earth. This luxuriously self-centered simulation is hardly it.

But really I was more upset about the other kinds of politics. The statement that this house and garden sets the tone for the Whig party, becomes its intellectual beacon, its political and personal morality, because what does that actually mean?

A morality that reconstructs nature at immense expense to be of a nature more to its liking. That eats up the land of neighbouring families to create an estate far larger than any family could possibly need. That is used as nothing more than a foundation for a showy display of wealth and arrogance and tastelessness by its owner, much of it in a fit of pique at his former party leader.

Hardly things to celebrate.

Its haha (a cleverly concealed wall that keeps livestock and wildlife out of the manicured ‘natural’ space without causing a break in the view) is supposed to symbolise an opening up to a new world, epitomising Englishmen’s new confidence.

This confidence and its connection to the brutal establishment of empire is not what writer Andrea Wulf discusses, as she walks beside the temple of the worthies and says that this is her favourite part of the garden because it shows that gardens can be more than gardens. They can be political.

By political I suppose she means arenas for exercises  of spleen in the petty infighting between aristocrats on the same side of larger arguments over religion and monarchical succession — and god knows where their money came from, we don’t get told. Apart from that heiress Cobham married, but who knows how many of the 24,000 tons of topsoil her dowry paid for.

Back to the ‘political’ though, what happened was Lord Cobham (whig) fell out with Sir Walpole (also a whig, busy shaping the emerging role of Prime Minister and getting some flack for that). Walpole stripped Cobham of his regiment, so Cobham turned his whole massive garden into a very private political protest. For his friends and admirers.

He divided it into two gardens, virtue and vice, creating a narrative as you walk through it. First the temple of ancient virtue, the Elysian fields, the Styx, and on the other side of it, the temple of British worthies: Drake, Raleigh, William III (being a whig and all), Elizabeth and etc.


On the opposite side? The garden of vice. Presided over by Venus — a woman, of course. Temptress. Goddess of love. Everything here is mocking Walpole & his young mistress, murals and all.

Really, it’s a monument to Walpole, he must have pleased.

What could not have pleased him was the building of the ‘temple of friendship’ to be the headquarters for ‘Cobham’s Cubs’, the young and ambitious whigs who would lead the revolt against the aging Walpole. Among them William Pitt and George Granville.

The house is now an elite public school (remodeled by Clough Williams-Ellis, creator of Portmeirion! The village from The Prisoner! The only fun fact in this whole damn post). At several points the camera pans across a sea of sulky white public school children, and the headmaster states that new generations are being shaped by the garden.

I should have thought that was the last thing we wanted to have happen.

I don’t think they will be charmed by the admittedly lovely sinuous stream, the wonderful trees, the reflections of the one plain bridge that is quite beautiful. This landscape has a beauty to it, I can’t deny it. But its long sweeps are meant to display an ostentatious power, a huge scale of mastery over land, a reclaiming of some inborn right to rule coming down from the ancient Greeks, but with none of their dangerous agonising over democracy.

Sadly, this garden became a model one as well. The picture that heads this post could be Stowe, but it’s not. It is of Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, visited once with family where I loved the view of the bridge — I love those damn bridges and their reflections, I cannot help myself:

Kedleston Hall

But I sat aghast at the size and scale of everything else, built directly on a foundation of plunder from India. Lord Curzon’s buildings and gardens don’t loom over the local village, because they obliterated it. The entire thing, people’s homes for generations, was moved a mile away, leaving only the parish church in awkward conurbation with the main building.

Walpole himself engaged in the battle of the gardens at Houghton Hall — and also engaged in removing the local village.4519

They had to do something to one-up Cobham I imagine, he certainly made it difficult.

These are no longer places to live in and to love, they are monuments to greed and a lust for power that was allowed to expand unchecked over people’s homes and common lands. This is true of the gardens as much as the cold marbles and imposing statues and chill echoing vastness of the buildings.

The plural form of such places? A hatred of gardens.


The Pioneers of Gardening and Empire

Miles Hadfield (1957)  London: William Clowes and Sons Ltd

A highly personal account and set of opinions of famous early gardens and gardeners, designers, plant hunters, breeders and writers — a nice wide range of the people who have shaped how the UK thinks about gardens and the plants available to fill them. It serves as a good introduction in some ways, and I don’t regret the pound spent on rescuing it from an outside box at Haye-on-Wye. It is quite a superficial account, however, and its immense admiration of the aristocracy and support of England’s ambitions and practices of empire are just so problematic — it was first published in 1957. Yet very instructive of a certain mindset, so I almost gave this three stars.

On empire: This is a story of white men exploring lands which to them are unknown, backed up by either the threat or the actual presence of troops. From when I was little, the idea of traveling, seeing things you had never seen before, learning about plants and animals always seemed so wonderful and it is only in learning about how this happened in reality that I gave it up as a dream. Such explorations (at least those of the western world since Columbus really) have been in the context of conquest, with scientific inquiry dependent upon and furthering the project of empire. Thus curiosity about the world and a love of knowledge sit with more or less ease alongside a project of death and domination depending on the person involved. There is almost no respect for local knowledge described here, particularly grievous in countries like China and India with long histories of scholarly investigation of the natural world (which are noted, then ignored completely), but grievous anywhere where local survival has always depended on a deep knowledge of local plants and their properties. In an immensity of arrogance and assumption of anglo superiority that I still find staggering, everything must be learned anew, documented and studied by Europeans, and seeds obtained by any means necessary for profit back in the UK. Thus Hadfield is able to write:

Maximowizc, Hance and their friends for long worked under impossibly restrictive conditions. Most of China was in a wild, lawless state at the mercy of petty chieftains. The inefficient central government, instead of carrying out the terms of its treaties with the European trading states, was awkward and obstructive. At last Britain and France sent an army. The Chinese forces collapsed and in 1860 a new treaty was made. Maximowizc and Hance must have been overjoyed at the terms. Foreigners were now to be allowed much greater freedom of movement in the interior. The European consular services were strengthened. Religious missions were permitted to increase their work and members, while an organisation, the Imperial Maritime Customs, was set up under an Englishman, Sir Robert Hart. All this meant that more men would come into China who could be pressed into service as collectors — apart from others who might collect and botanise independently’ (185).

At last Britain and France sent an army? What? They are well into their project of conquest, and Hadfield is here referring to the 2nd Opium War, fought by Britain to force the Chinese government to legalise opium, promote the exportation of ‘coolie’ labour and force open the entire country to British trade. An undertaking that makes me literally shake with anger, and gives context for an ‘awkward’ and ‘obstructive’ government. There are a few stories such as that of collector and missionary-botanist was Father Jean Andre Soulié, who apparently ‘helped by high cheek-bones’ was able to travel disguised as a native, tricking all those gullible people thirsting for European blood in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Right. He was killed by Tibetens during an uprising. Interestingly, he is also the introducer of the Buddleia davidii or butterfly bush, that is beautiful and wonderful for butterflies and bees, but has since become an invasive species which you can see lodged everywhere in UK buildings and along railroad tracks as it thrives on lime and sends mortar crumbling into dust. There is a fact sheet on the history of its invasion here.

There is not a thought in this book for ecosystems, or the dangers of introducing foreign species into new environments. I suppose that is a new ‘discovery’ Europeans have made.

This is primarily a story of men, and where women enter into it, it is in their role as assistants. Jane Webb for example, an early pioneer of Science Fiction and author of The Mummy, is described thus: ‘Indeed, Jane Webb, the high-spirited girl, disappears to become Mrs. Loudon, the most capable assistant of Mr Loudon… (162)’ though it does go on to acknowledge her work as a writer on popular gardening. Still. She was at least his equal.

And finally, an insight into some of the fine class distinctions of gardening. On the one hand this is almost entirely a tale of self-made men, capable and energetic, born into the working-classes (and so many of them Scottish!) and working their way up through gardening to positions of wealth and distinction. Thus, while much print is spent admiring their noble patrons, the fact remains that the pioneers themselves were hardly noble. And yet, there is this, on recent developments in gardening:

William Kent, Launcelot Brown and Humphry Repton, we can feel certain, were turning in their graves, their spirits distraught by the lack of taste shown by the Victorian gardener.

For one thing, the pendulum again swung right over to the other side: colour, and garish colour at that, came into full favour once more. While the study of nature–and, of course, plants–on scientific lines progressed by leaps and bounds, “nature” is the sense understood by all the gardeners from Kent to Loudon went right out of fashion. First of all we must blame the new school of practical gardeners; these men were exceedingly skillful at cultivating plants. And next we must accuse the greenhouse…Their cost fell considerably, and a whole new class of society–and a class with neither tradition nor very refined tastes–could now own them.

He goes on to rail against the ‘bedding out’ of plants, their strange and extravagant results and etc.

As someone with a hatred of empire, as a woman, and as a member of a class with neither tradition nor refined taste, I won’t write more about the content, but there is lot more to think through here in terms of how class, gender, race, nation and empire intersect all in the context of plants and gardening.  And in spite of it, I retain my love of plants themselves and all their wonders, and my joy in botanic gardens. So here is an incredible flowering tree mentioned in the book, along with the race to bring it to the UK and successfully get it to flower: the Amherstia nobilis, or Pride of Burma:

Amherstia Nobilis - Mumbai Jan 2010

A short bio of the author Miles Hadfield, of a family of property fallen on hard times and the founder of the Garden History Society and its first President, can be read here. The book is also a good starting list for the key figures in the history of British gardens for further investigation, so here it is:

  • Henry Lord Danvers founds the Oxford University Botanical Garden 1621
  • John Godyer: Early botanist, with Thomas Johnson – updated Gerard’s Herball 1633
  • The Tradescants: Their Ark in South Lambeth opens in 1628, early plant hunters
  • John Parkinson: Introduced (?) idea of gardening for beauty with Paradisi in Sole Parasisus Terrestris in 1629
  • André Le Nôtre – French–and this author doesn’t much care for many of the French–but very influential as the designer of the formal gardens of Versaille
  • Phillip Miller – Head gardener and rescuer of a failing Chelsea Physick Garden, opened by the Apothecaries Company (1673)
  • William Kent – with Lord Burlington propagator of the ideal of the Palladian Villa and move from ‘garden to landscape’ as best seen at Stowe 1713-ish, inventor of the ha ha, laid out Kew Gardens
  • Lancelot Brown, aka Capability Brown – head gardener at Stowe (also Blenheim Palace) and transformer of multiple gardens into landscapes through his own garden design business started 1749
  • Humphrey Repton – third great landscape designer, worked with John Nash, wrote Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. thankfully brought back ‘cottage’ flower gardens as well as introducing ‘ornamental cottages’
  • William Jackson Hooker – great figure in ‘history of scientific gardening’, head gardener of Kew beginning in 1842, ensured Kew botanists on many major expeditions of conquest around the world
  • David Douglas – Explored North American Pacific Coast, numerous dubious adventures involving Native Americans a little upset about his activities
  • John Claudius Loudon – from Cambuslang! pioneered the modern agricultural college, made the interesting decision to undertake a foreign tour through Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, produced Encyclopaedia of Gardening updating Miller’s Dictionary and launched The Gardener’s Magazine. Improved and designed Kensington Gardens.
  • Jane (Webb) Loudon – Writer of The Mummy (1829) and numerous books and articles on gardening, popularising gardening
  • Joseph Paxton – gardener at Chatsworth, builder of greenhouses leading to his design of Crystal Palace.

South London Botanical Institute

Amazing that South London has a botanical institute, I had never heard of it until perusing the tours for Open House London — a pretty exciting weekend that I should have booked up far in advance. A brief description from the SLBI website:

indexFounded in 1910 by a keen botanist, Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912), the aims of the Institute have remained almost unchanged in 100 years. Hume’s lasting contribution has been to provide an environment where those interested in plants, be they amateur or professional, may meet and develop their knowledge of plants.

It seemed to me quite quintessentially British, this place. The white middle classes thronged, generations of them — I suffered a little class anxiety but I am always made happy seeing grandparents out for the day with their grandchildren I confess. There was tea, and I had some quite nice cake that I took away wrapped up in a napkin that involved zucchini and cream cheese frosting. There was a lovely garden, despite the time of year, with an offering of a number of well marked flowers and herbs. My love of plants has never yet led me into an herbarium, but I discovered their massive collection of beautifully pressed plants, preserved for study in rows of custom built containers, and frozen now and again to ensure there are no insects feasting on them like aged cheddar. They also had a lovely library with the most wonderful books lining the walls, and treasures in these giant old herbals lying open on the table.

First, The Gardener’s Dictionary: containing the best and newest methods of cultivating and improving the kitchen, fruit, flower garden, and nursery, as also for performing the practical parts of agriculture, including the management of vineyards, with the methods of making and preserving wine, according to the present practice of the most skilful vignerons in the several wine countries in Europe, together with directions for propagating and improving, from real practice and experience, all sorts of timber trees .


Put together by Phillip Miller, curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, the first version was published in 1731. It was a foundational book in forming the knowledge, practice and taste of gardening, or so it is said by the wonderful University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, where you can see all of it .

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One of the other books was entirely London plants, a beautifully illustrated financial disaster: The Flora Londinensis [electronic resource] : or plates and descriptions of such plants as grow wild in the environs of London: with Their Places of Growth, and Times of Flowering; their several Names according to Linnaeus and other Authors: with A particular Description of each Plant in Latin and English. To which are Added, Their several Uses in Medicine, Agriculture, Rural Oeconomy, and other Arts. By William Curtis, Demonstrator of Botany to the Company of Apothecaries. Again, based in Chelsea.


A wonderful description of the book and its publishing can be found here. The pictures are exquisite, as is the book.


Financial disaster came because the book proved expensive to publish and not a big seller. The public was not interested in local flora, desiring pictures of the bizarre and the exotic instead.

Hume, the founder of the South London Botanical Institute, knew all about the ‘exotic’, having been a collector of flora and fauna in India for many years — as well as playing a prominent role in the Indian civil service, and having served in military actions during the rebellion of 1857. Despite the way it feels so rooted here in South London soil, this building and its collections are intertwined with notions and practices of Empire — even if in some ways a return to more familiar plants. The Open House London description is here, notes written by Judy Marshall, Council Member of the Institute in 2006. An extract:

His natural history collections from India were legendary, with the bird and animal collections being presented to the British Museum Natural History as it was then called. Back in England, with help from his friends, he immediately started collecting British plants. These collections form the nucleus of the Institute herbarium. He also designed the herbarium cabinets. The library was started with books owned by him. The garden was to be used partly to grow alien species missing from the herbarium. We do not know whether there was an original conservatory: the present one replaced the existing one, riddled with dry rot, in 1990. This was made possible with a grant from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust. The Institute was cared for by resident curators.

It is interesting to speculate on why such a very distinguished and energetic man as Hume should have spent his final years, then aged over 80, pursuing such an unusual aim. According to the original Memorandum of Association, ‘The sole object for which the Institute is established is to promote, encourage and facilitate, amongst the residents of south London, the study of botany exclusively’.

I wonder what it meant to him to return to his own country, specialise in its own plants in a way that the explorations in service of empire demanded abroad. Hume’s history in India seems to be one of liberal action pushing democracy and improvement as far as the framework of empire would go, founding free schools and promoting agricultural improvements. Not radical enough to challenge the empire itself, he did enough to earn himself a demotion and eventual dismissal. So I like him. He also went on to help form the Indian National Congress…there are a number of interesting talks to be found on his role in India and his ornithological and botanical interests here. It somehow all came to rest in this place, on Norwood Road.

This is an interesting place to think through some of London’s connections to Empire, our natural love of, and curiosity about, the incredible world we live in, and how it can be structured and appropriated by imperialism and exploitation. The role of botany and cataloguing and scientific exploration in conquest as well as furthering human knowledge. The corresponding influence of a role as civil servant and political figure in the pursuit of natural history and collecting. The study of botany and the collection of plants are irrevocably tangled in these imperial histories, even when not as tied to such a career as that of Allen Octavian Hume. There is so much more to explore here, and there is a little more here.


Permaculture in Urban Farming: An LA Experiment

Once upon a time I was lucky enough to move into a house with a small and completely overgrown garden. So my then-partner and I decided we would reclaim it and try to grow as much of our own food as possible. Just to learn what that would take.

We grew some delicious vegetables — and if you know me that will make you laugh — but I deeply enjoyed them after they were cooked. We also had loquats and kumquats and pomegranates. We had fresh eggs from the chickens we also raised up there in the Forgotten Edge, perched between Echo Park and Chinatown. But what we managed to grow? I’m afraid it was nowhere near enough to sustain us and this is partly why (apart from size, as of course that does matter).

Grocery stores have brutally erased the agricultural seasons for us, so you have to relearn a lot (which also means your diet and your cooking repertoire have to completely change). You can’t plant seeds all at once, rather you have to do it in waves, so as to have a continuous harvest. Preparation of the ground is key: digging deep, breaking up clay (of which we had tons and it sucked but it sure as hell was better than caliche), adding what you can to improve its lightness along with your organic fertilizer which should come as much as possible from your own compost pile.

We aimed for all organic but it was rough, and involved things like wiping down each individual plant to get rid of aphids and other pests. We bought ladybugs, but did not have a garden they seemed to enjoy sticking around in. That required more thought and work and planting. We had to water; to do it efficiently required putting in a drip system or a way to collect rainwater, and treat and reuse gray water, which we investigated but never managed to do. We didn’t have money even for the drip system all at once, so watering regularly was one more thing (though adding mulch reduced that burden). We had to fertilize regularly. We had to tie up our tomatoes and our cucumbers, and insulate our squash from the ground. We had to rotate crops as we constantly planted new ones. Planting certain combinations — like the famous triad of squash, corn, and beans — helps ensure each variety grows better than they would alone and puts them at less risk of pest infestation, so we planned that into our rotations. And every day we had to be out there weeding, watering, tending, planting. Every. Day.

All of it required planning and thought and work and more planning. It was joy and pain all mixed together, even if we didn’t do it all that well and I discovered I’m lazier than I thought. I remember reading something in the middle of this that referred to subsistence farmers as unskilled labour, and I almost threw the book across the room. The ability to survive on what you grow on the land is knowledge passed down from generation to generation. To try and relearn it all through books that are never specific to the land you are working? I just wonder when we will awaken to the tragedy of what we have already lost, and what we continue to lose.

I started reading  Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison during this grand attempt, the only textbook I’ve ever loved. I’ll acknowledge that for the present I’m far too busy, and very happily so, to reattempt such a labour intensive project for now. But permaculture as a way of being in the world has stuck with me. In it’s most concrete sense it is an approach to planning and implementing sustainability, creating systems that provide for their own needs and recycle their waste. It has very practical rules to live by. In a quote from Bill Mollison:

“Permaculture turned very rapidly into a system of design so that everything you put in had a multiple purpose and was in the right place to carry out its job. It’s a peculiar thing to say that you put the tree there to give shade; every tree gives shade; so that’s not a unique characteristic of this tree you put there, to give shade, but if it also gives you something like oranges or dates as well, that’s good, and also has an excess of oranges to feed your pig . . . then it’s doing three things. And I always say that everything you place should do at least three things.”

But more philosophically, it is entirely about getting to know your place: finding out where the sunlight spends most of its time in summer and winter, where the cold air collects, where the soil changes and moisture collects. It’s about acknowledging all of your assets, seeing how you — and everything around you — fit together, work together, improve or help each other. You can only live this way by constantly working to see the world around you holistically, deepening how you understand it. You no longer see just a chicken, but what a chicken eats, how it lives, what it produces as the picture above shows. This requires deep reflection on experience, in preparation for acting, building, creating, before reflecting again in a perfect popular education spiral.


Clearly I haven’t even scratched the permaculture surface here; I’ve just read a book or two and talked to some people and tried to implement some principles, so find out for yourself and explore! I’m particularly excited about urban permaculture, so read more here. I’ll leave you with an awesome design I look forward to one day building, as I’ve already mentioned spirals once and I surely love them:


herb spiral
It reminds me of this from my own hometown:

and the house I grew up, built of adobe by my parents and called at different times ‘mud house’ and ‘nautilus house’. This stuff runs deep.



Agua Caliente

A rare place I’ve never been before…well, on this side of town not so rare, but I had no idea it was even here! We drove out for a post lunch walk through a beautiful November day…a stroll really, it’s an idyllic oasis formed by a spring in the desert, expanded and planted around by palm trees, the water is full of ducks and the banks full of picnicking bbqing families, you get one overview shot because it’s not very exciting:

Me, I rather prefer striking out into the non-idyllic wilderness. I prefer wildlife with teeth or tusks or scales…but I do like my family mostly. There was a time when their dawdling ways would have had me raging with impatience, but now I just do my best to amuse myself while also dawdling along at their pace. Turtles help, look how cool these guys are

So I dawdled on, had I not been, I would have completely missed the crazy butterfly sex going on by the side of the path

We can all be glad we’re not butterflies, as life should be crazier than that. The chollas were beautiful:

If you’re ever lost and hungry in the desert you can eat the flower petals, but I don’t know about the fruits actually! They don’t look at all tasty, not like las tunas off of prickly pears, or saguaro fruits, those are lovely.  I found a rare species of cholla skeleton come to life in the form of a duck rearing its head through the dead grasses

(Imagination helps to amuse yourself, but probably not others). This is what chollas look like when they die, they’re extraordinary, I miss them. AND THEN my dad was attacked by an elderly and deceptively innocent docent for asking one too many questions about why the upper pools had been drained and left dry, or maybe it was before the cholla duck? Or was it the elusive cholla duck that attacked? I don’t know, it all happened so fast, but he was left sprawled on the cracked clay bed of what was once another small oasis

Dad’s a great sport I have to say. I didn’t think he was going to do it. It was still rather damp, and there was a fairly bad swampy smell.

So then we walked back to the big pond and stared at ducks. Hard to amuse yourself looking at ducks, but I managed, because I got lots of pictures of this:

Getting the perfect picture of a duck doing this cracks me up every time. I now have many, and I really don’t know what to do with them, I think it’s more fun to take pictures of them than to look at them. We had mallards doing it, coots, murgansers, and we learned a new duck this weekend, the American Wigeon. I suppose it’s not every weekend you learn a new duck! I’d hate to keep that to myself, so here it is

The sun was behind him, but the water came out well….