Bulbs wait for the right conditions – sufficient light, water, warmth – to produce new growth. Eighteen months ago, when I moved to a new boat, the conditions were right for me, too. For the first time after more than ten years living in London I had some outdoor space. I lugged pots, troughs and bags of compost and, by the end of the summer, had planted a little patch around our occasionally windswept but often sun-drenched Thames barge: two sturdy shrub roses; hot petunias and fuchsias; marigolds and geraniums, little canopies of leather-leaved hellebores and a swaying purple amaranth. I hadn’t anticipated my total absorption.
My assumption that the English are especially obsessed with their gardens turns out to have been a delusion, however. In An Economic History of the English Garden (Penguin, £12.99), Roderick Floud points out that we rank near the bottom of European surveys in terms of actual time spent gardening, though we like to spend money on it: £11.4 billion a year, excluding hired labour. According to one study, people from low-income households or ethnic minority backgrounds are twice as likely to find it hard to access a garden. The same difficulty clusters among the young. For those who do find a way, the benefits go beyond fresh air and light exercise to what’s lurking in the soil: exposure to Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless bacterium, seems to work like an antidepressant, delivering an increase in serotonin production and improved cognition. The very novelty of this fact indicates the vastness of our ignorance when it comes to the human microbiome.
Floud’s economic history, like the history of English gardens in general, is a story of a tiny, absurdly wealthy elite, whose great gardens were built from land rents, or sinecures, or wealth acquired through slavery. Capability Brown’s gardens at Blenheim Palace would today cost around £34.4 million (much of the money was spent on the giant artificial lake). It’s unlikely that the Duke of Marlborough encountered any M. vaccae himself, and Brown was an early master of subcontracting. That reward belonged to the armies of gardeners, or the tenants who laid the lake’s basin, which was ‘puddled’ with layers of rammed clay, lime and gravel – the only way to stop your water feature draining away before the manufacture of plastic pond linings.
Ordinary people scarcely figure in the history of the English garden. Not because ordinary people had no gardens – they spider across 17th-century maps – or because the gardens they did have were purely for subsistence, but because nobody thought it worthwhile recording anything about them. Only with the rise of the middle class, and the new suburban villas, of the 19th century does something like a recognisable modern garden appear in the record. The 19th-century horticulturalist John Claudius Loudon devotes much of his work to ‘fourth-rate’ gardens, by which he meant gardens of a size he thought small but we would consider reasonably large today. His love of the ‘gardenesque’ – a great variety of plants, planted as individual specimens with bare earth in between, the better to show off each example – now seems more than a little uptight, but its influence is still evident in neat residential front gardens across the country, even if the owners do something wilder in the unseen back gardens (usually they don’t: a patch of grass lined with a few shrubs remains the most common model for the gardens of England).
It’s hard to escape the association between gardening and decorous, repressive suburbia. Neville Chamberlain considered gardening a conservative practice: his homes fit for heroes were provided with large gardens because ‘every spadeful of manure’ would help to rid returning soldiers of any revolutionary spirit contracted in Europe. Tom and Barbara might have horrified Margo Leadbetter in The Good Life, but few insurrections start in Surbiton. The literature contrasting the folly of politics to the wisdom of the gardener is extensive: Candide’s English equivalent is Hardy’s nameless man harrying clods, who continues undisturbed by war or government, ‘though Dynasties pass’.
Two difficulties arise: if the ideal situation is a private patch of green in which the householder can play demiurge, can the high-density projects needed to alleviate the acute urban housing shortage ever provide this? New parks, which can be used but not touched, don’t seem sufficient. Allotments are scarce and getting scarcer. The experiments in common gardens once dotted around London’s squatted communities, the best-known at Railton Road in Brixton, offer suggestions, but not total solutions. And there is the danger that talk of nature gives way to myths unrelated to bacterial properties –of the soil’s autochthonous children. Is the English garden gate also a colour bar? The garden itself can answer this. Even before the arrival of a global empire of botanical treasures, English gardens were hybrid and heterogeneous. There are only 48 endemic native plant species – eyebrights, sea lavenders, rowans. The English oak isn’t English. Hollyhocks come from China, apples from Central Asia.
Derek Jarman, who did much to free gardens from their cultural confinement, warned against those ‘bad children, spoiled by their parents, over-watered and covered with noxious chemicals’ (many now banned). His own garden was wild but meticulously tended, English and alien, refined and subversive. He couldn’t entirely avoid noxious chemicals: visitors are forbidden from foraging the sea kale that bursts from dead-looking stalks all around the cottage, not for reasons of conservation but because the plants absorb radiation from the nearby nuclear power station at Dungeness. The American poet W.S. Merwin, whose ecological concern anticipated our own by decades, spent the last forty years of his life planting a garden across a twenty-acre site in Hawaii, gradually knitting life back into a devastated and eroded soil. The garden figures in his late poetry as a place with its own peculiar time (not so far from Marvell’s ‘vegetable love’, which grows ‘vaster than empires, and more slow’). For Merwin, the gardener has to find a middle way between imposing his will on the environment and letting it take its own course. If a garden used to mean an enclave from which wild nature was banished, he suggested that the human capacity for destruction on a global scale had turned that meaning inside out. The garden might now be the last reserve of those who wish to restore, preserve or defend against human encroachment.