The Founding Gardeners – A Review

Founding Gardeners

If you thought protecting natural species and the environmental movement was a 20th century phenomon then you would be wrong.  According to Andrea Wulf in The Founding Gardeners, James Madison, the fourth President of the US, was way ahead of everyone else.  In May 1818 in his Address to the Agriculture Society of Albemarle railed against “the excessive destruction of timber” and the affect of man increasing “certain plants an animals – crops and livestock – ‘beyond their natural amount’, thereby tipping the scales towards his own advantage.” Whilst Madison may not have been the first to talk about the destruction of the forest and conservation “he was the first politician (albeit a retired one0 to make a public speech about it,..”

The Founding Gardeners is a fascinating and engaging read.  Andrea Wulf takes what could be a considerably dry subject – the early years of the United States and brings her four ‘Founding Gardeners’ alive.  She demonstrates through a series of vignettes how Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison were passionate about ‘gardening’ of one form or another.  She does however, warn us at the start that the term ‘gardening’ is used in the loosest sense through out the book and covers a range of activities from weeding a flower border to growing crops in vast plantations.

This book follows on from The Brother Gardeners in which Wulf explores the connections between the early plant hunters in the US and other colonies such as John Bartram  and the keen plantsman back in the UK who commissioned the collecting such as Phillip Miller.  The Founding Gardeners moves forward a little in time but shifts its focus to the US.  Wulf shows how important agriculture was to the creation of the country we know now. The two party system evolved out of a disagreement between those who thought the country’s economy should be based around agriculture, the Republicans, and those who beleived that banking and trade was the US’s future, the Federalists. Even before this time Benjamin Franklin, a representative of the American colonies, was a key figure in encouraging the Founding Fathers to move for independent based on his belief that the US could be independent due to its ability to grow vast crops – it was essentially at this time the bread basket for Britain.
However, away from  the political scene each of the four Founding Gardeners was passionate about plants and gardening.  We learn that Adams and Jefferson went on a tour of English gardens to kill time while they were waiting for the British government to repay a loan.  They visited Stowe but Jefferson was particularly taken with the idea of the ornamental farm which he saw at Wooburn Farm and The Leasowes.  He was to later take this idea and develop it at Monticello, his own property in Virginia.  I knew that Jefferson was a keen horticulturalist but I didn’t realise that Washington was as well.  Like Franklin, Washington saw that America’s wealth was in its cultivated land but he also realised how important it was to preserve the country’s native flora.   Wulf argues that whilst Franklin valued the country’s flora by how productive it was either through feeding the people or providing timber for fuel or building; Washington, being of a younger generation, “was also more susceptible to the sheer beauty of the American flora”.  Just as Jefferson and Madison would do in later years Washington set out to plant only native species at his property and they all were clients of John Bartram’s nursery, now run by his sons.  Adams, not being as wealthy as the other three, gardened on a more modest scale but he too set out to acquire land and planted orchards. He also thwarted Washington’s grandiose scheme for the gardens and parkland around the new White House in Washington opting instead for a more informal and smaller garden.  Wulf describes how Adams struggled with the pressures of his Presidency and how creating the garden at the White House was more important to him than furnishing the interior as it was his way of dealing with the pressures of government.These are but a few of the stories that Wulf presents us with to show how Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison’s “passion for nature, plants, agriculture and gardens shaped the birth of America” and I have to say I  found it a compelling read.Personally, I think Andrea Wulf is one of the most readable of garden historians.  Her writing style flows well despite the factual content, she has an inate ability to bring the lead figures to life and you forget you are reading a factual account.  Whilst she makes assumptions based on the sources she has researched she is clear and obvious when she is making these and there is no sense of feeling there is a hidden agenda or you are being talked  down to.  This post was not written as a result of receiving a review copy of the book.  I bought it myself as I enjoyed her previous book so much and I have a passion for history as well as gardening.  I would recommend The Founding Gardeners to anyone who shares my passions and I am sure that my gardening friends in the US would find it fascinating to discover that many of their approaches to gardening were shared by their Founding Fathers.

The Brother Gardeners

I have been most distracted recently with a book my brother-in-law gave me for Christmas.  Admittedly I had told him that I wanted the book or I wouldn’t have got it.  The book? The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf.  His response to the book – “What sort of gardening book is that with no pictures”!

But it isn’t a gardening book; it is a garden history book and a pretty fantastic one at that.  I am terrible at skim reading books. I have always done this unintentionally even when I was studying my for my degree in literature.  It was especially helpful the year I read 19th century novels helping me get through the likes of Middlemarch and Dombey & Sons quick enough to submit my essays on time but it means that I sometimes miss out on the nuances of language particularly descriptive passages. However, I have found myself really reading The Brother Gardeners, savouring every word and taking my time – a testament to the quality of Andrea Wulf’s writing.

I think she has done a wonderful job of bringing the 18th century early horticulturists to life.  She has obviously spent a considerably amount of time researching her subject, pouring over manuscripts, letters etc and somehow she has managed to bring all this information together in such a way that you find yourself not reading a dry factual non-fiction history book, and I have read a few, but a lively, intelligent, engaging story of 6 men who were fundamentally instrumental in making England the gardening nation that it is today.

The book covers the 18th century a period which included the American War of Independence, territorial disputes, the discovery of Australia and the introduction of the Linnean system of nomenclature.  If I am honest I have never really considered the Americas and Australia in the round and I was amazed at how closely these events all happened in time.  It must have been an amazing period to live in.

So  who are the six, who Andrea refers to as “‘my’ six men”?  They are Philip Miller the curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden who at the start of the century was publishing his Gardeners Dictionary, the model for all future plant encyclopedias. Peter Collinson,  the trader who was importing and exporting to America but because of his thirst for new plant species located John Bartram, a farmer, who plant hunted for him.  Bartram was responsible for introducing to Britain such plants as Magnolias, Thujas, Rhododendrons, Maples, Juniper, Liquidambar and the Tulip tree.  Then we have Carl Linnaeus who saw that Miller and Collinson were key to having his new system of nomenclature accepted in England.  Whilst Linnaeus was apparently not that popular his student Daniel Solander soon became a firm part of the English horticultural world and accompanied Joseph Banks on his trip to discover Australia.  Banks then went on to become President of the Royal Society, a post he held for 40 years, as well as founding the Horticultural Society.  He was instrumental in seeing how plants that grew in one part of the empire could be useful in another for example the ill fated trip* to collect breadfruit from Tahiti to take to the West Indies to produce food for the plantation workers.

These six men and to a lesser degree their friends were fanatical about plants, horticulture and botany.  Their thirst for new plants, more knowledge was insatiable.  Through their work, their connections, their persistence new plants were introduced firstly to the places like the Chelsea Physic Garden and Kew but then sold to wealthy landowners with similar interests.  Then as with everything these plants were seen and admired, propagated successfully and were soon being sold across the country to a new breed of gardeners. I was amazed that at the start of the 18th century there were only a handful of nurseries in existence by the end of the century there were 200 in London alone and we need to remember that the London of the 18th century was smaller than that of the 21st century!

I could go on and on about the ideas and impressions I  have drawn from this book but I don’t want to take the enjoyment away from anyone who shares my fascination with our plant history.  All I can say is it is a very good read not just if you are a British Gardener but also if you are an American, Australian, South African gardener who is interested in how your native plants travelled the world, or someone who wonders where the system of naming plants came from.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

*Bank’s ill-fates sponsored trip to collect bread fruit was the journey that ended in the Mutiny on the Bounty