May 29. Flowers! On May 19 I discussed the very high level of domestic gardens in this lock-downed country. It is a practice with a long and much-described history. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, specialised plant-rearing spread out from country houses to the mass of the population. By the beginning of the Victorian period there was a large industry of specialised nurseries, supported by a burgeoning literature which in its way supplied as much useful and timely information as Monty Don’s Gardener’s World. The 1803 edition of John Abercrombie’s Every Man His Own Gardener, for instance, ran to 646 pages of monthly tasks, followed by another hundred pages cataloguing plants and then a thorough index. Artisans joined together in associations which offered annual prizes. A survey of the industrial north in 1826, identified fifty auricular and polyanthus shows annually, together with twenty-seven tulip, nine ranunculus, nineteen pink and forty-eight carnation competitions.
I have on past Fridays, supplied stay-at-home food from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1861. Here now, for those who like me still cannot get to garden centres, is the London trade in plants as sold in the Covent Garden and Farringdon wholesale markets. In this case the volumes are not the point; there were numerous nurseries on the edge of the capital also supplying a substantial market. But Mayhew’s table does describe the basic tastes of Londoners in garden flowers:
Primroses 1,000 Polyanthus 1440
Cowslips 1200 Daisies 1400
Wallflowers 1920 Candytufts 1200
Daffodils 1200 Violets 2400
Mignonette 3800 Stocks 2880
Pinks & and Carnations 800 Lilies of the Valley 288
Pansies 1080 Lilies and Tulips 280
Balsam 640 Calceolarii 600
Musk Plants 10560 London Pride 720
Lupins 1600 China-Asters 850
Marigolds 10560 Dahlias 160
Heliotropes 1280 Michaelmas Daisies 432 (p.131)
Most of these plants, in one form or another, are the staple of modern nurseries. It could be argued that gardens constitute one of the strongest links between the present and the past. In most other areas – diet, clothing, occupation, health, mortality, warfare, politics, religious belief (in particular) there is a void between our own times and a period even as recent as the Victorian era. But less so in the practice of growing flowers (and vegetables).
John Clare (1793-1864), the great peasant poet of nature, owned half a dozen gardening books, including Abercrombie, and had a deep interest in the latest developments in horticulture. Were he to find his way into my garden, he would recognise many of the plants as versions of those that he grew, and would take an informed interest in later imports and introductions.
Above all he would understand why I spend so much time between my hedges, and what pleasure it gives me, with or without the current inconvenience.