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.

Postcard from Cornwall 3: St Michael’s Mount


I can’t remember when I first became aware of the existence of St Michael’s Mount but it was a long time ago.  It spoke to my child’s imagination and curiosity.  Despite many visits to Cornwall over the years I have never really been in the right area or with the right people.  This year I realised that St Michael’s Mount, and St Ives another on the list, were very do-able and yesterday we went.


Even thought I knew what it would look like my heart still missed a beat as we drove around a corner and there the castle was.  We were lucky in that it was another gloriously sunny day, the sun glinted off the sea which was relatively calm.  To get to the Mount you potentially have two options: walk across the causeway if the tide is low enough or go by boat.  The tide times yesterday meant that there was going to be no opportunity at all to walk across the causeway during the opening hours though to be honest that didn’t disappoint me as I love boat trips.  There is something quite exciting and magically about getting on a boat to go to a castle on an island.


You have to wonder at the characters that decided to build  a castle on such a difficult spot.  Apparently the site was first used as a trading harbour for Cornish tin as far back as 2000 years.  A religious centre followed by the 6th century with the abbey being granted to the Benedictine monks of Mont St Michel in France after the Norman contest.  It was around this time that the church on top of the Mount was built and the site became a pilgrim destination.  Since then there have been various occasions when the Mount became embroiled with England’s history.  The first beacon signalling the sighting of the Spanish Armada was lit here, it was held by the royalists  against the round-heads during the Civil War.  The St Aubyn family came to the Mount in 1647 when its one of its members was appointed Governor following the royalist surrender.  The St Aubyn family have lived at the Mount ever since until 1954 when it was given to the National Trust, although the family retained a 999 year lease to live there.


I really don’t think I could live there although I suppose you get used to the daily challenges.  The walk to the top was hard work and the paths were incredibly worn and precarious.  I  noticed a sign which said there was a small tram somewhere which was used to take supplies up and we think the residents of the castle had some form of transport although the steepness in some places made you question this.  The castle was restored in the Victorian period to make it more habitable and at this time the house around its base were built to house the servants and a village created with its own pub and bowling green.  There is even a special building for the residents to change into their swimming costumes.


We did make it to the top and looked around the castle.  The views were stunning and looking down on the garden was quite strange, like having a bird’s eye view.  The interior of the castle is quite  comfortable, of course we only saw the very public rooms but I can imagine that the private rooms will be very well-appointed.


After struggling to the top and down again we went to look at the gardens.  I had particularly wanted to see these and luckily our holiday timed well with the couple of months that the gardens are open five days a week.  You have to  admire the tenacity of anyone who first thought creating a garden on the steep sides of the Mount with the sea air and wind coming in was a good idea.  Given its location the planting, as in much of this area, is predominantly what I would term tender.  Plants that turn their toes up in my garden at the first frost were positively taking over such as Osteospermum, Echiums, Puya, Geranium madrense and many succulents including Aeonium and Aloe.  The garden is maintained by 3 gardeners and volunteers and is immaculate.  I tried not to think about the effort it must take to weed some of the locations and I suppose, like living in the castle, you have to have a different approach to tackling things than if you were in your average garden on the mainland.


We decided not to join the throng in the cafe for afternoon tea, instead we went back to the mainland by boat and found a delightful tea room just 5 minutes walk from the landing point which was much quieter.

Another good day was had by all.



A cultural interlude

I have frequently driven through the town of Craven Arms on my way to Wales or the Welsh Marches and noticed a sign to Stokesay Castle and each time I think I really must go and visit but I don’t.  Then earlier this year my youngest son and I took a slow and ponderous train journey from Hereford to Bangor and the route went along the other side of Stokesay and I could see the castle in all its glory and my mind was made up that I would visit at the next opportunity. So when I was planning my trip to Wales a few weeks back now I made sure that Stokesay was en route.  I am so glad I did as it is a wonderful place.

I think you need to think of the term ‘castle’ in the loosest possible way for Stokesay Castle is really a fortified manor house.  It was built the 1280s on the back of wool money by Laurence of Ludlow  and is on the route from Ludlow to Leominster and south to Bristol and Gloucester.  Laurence was one of the richest men in England at the time and it is believed that the design of the building is meant to signify his wealth without threatening the neighbouring long-established lords of the Anglo-Welsh marches, which had a history of war. There is a moat and big walls but these are designed to dissuade robbers rather than withstand a siege.  Although, in the civil war the property was nearly subject to a siege but was surrendered very quickly without a shot being fired.

Being an early bird and with a lot of driving ahead of me I was one of the first visitors and so had the pleasure of enjoying most of the spaces on my own.  Above is the Hall and I spent so much time staring up at the beautiful roof that I got a crick in my neck.  It is constructed around cruck timbers which are created by splitting a tree lengthwise and then using the two pieces to form an arch.  There are few of these still in existence and I had learnt about them as part of my degree course so it was wonderful to see the real thing.

I realised when I looked back through my photographs that I had become completely obsessed with the windows and light in the rooms.  I am trying to think why.  It wasn’t a particularly sunny day but there must have been something to draw my attention to them so much.  Maybe because I like light open spaces I found the more enclosed rooms difficult and was drawn to the windows, maybe it was the views across the Shropshire countryside – I really don’t know.  However, I will not bore you with more window pictures.  I have chosen the one above as I liked these windows and loved the fact that the glass was only put in when the owner was visiting and when he left it was removed and they were boarded up.

I was also impressed with the Solar Block and the amazing panelled walls.  These date from the 17th century and the carving above the fireplace is particularly ornate. Apparently when it was first installed it was brightly coloured but I like it as it is now.

As I have said above Stokesay was caught up in the English Civil War and like many other grant houses suffered as a result.  The castle’s barns and stables were all pulled down to provide a clear sight line for the defenders and the walls were reduced in height to make it indefensible.  The house was by now in the ownership of the Baldwyn family and continued to be occupied on and off until the end of the 18th century.  After this time it was sublet to various tenants who made numerous changes to the buildings in order to provide storage and workshops.  Stokesay became a sort of early tourist attraction for the travelling well to do with Turner describing it as ‘one of the perfect and interesting 13th century buildings’.

Whilst Stokesay Castle, and in particular its Tudor gatehouse, appealed to the devotees of romantic and picturesque movement in the 19th century the buildings were deteriorating and the property was at risk of collapse.  Luckily it was rescued by Frances Stackhouse Acton, who was a huge fan of medieval art, who appealed to the second Earl of Craven, the then owner, to do something about the property.  She must have been very persuasive since the Earl of Craven complied and Mrs Stackhouse Acton oversaw the work! The house’s fortunes continued to be a little unsettled, it had a new owner in 1869 but by 1986 it was placed under the guardianship of English Heritage.

I was so fascinated by the buildings and interiors which were unlike any other castle I had visited that I ended up buying the guide-book so I could learn more of the manor houses’ history.   I think what really appealed to me was that unlike many castles and stately homes this property was not lived in by aristocracy but by people who had earned their money through endeavours such as trading in wool and in the 19th century through making gloves – I like those sort of people and the stories that go with them.

I really enjoyed my visit and would recommend Stokesay Castle to any one visiting the borders of England and Wales.  It is something different, it still retains the romantic and picturesque feel that won Frances’ heart back in the 19th century and saved it from dereliction.

Blogging – the archive of the future?


Will our blogs be seen as an archive for social comment in the future?  I was prompted to wonder this when I recently received my winter directive from the Mass Observation Project.

The Project was originally set up at the start of World War II in order to record the experiences and thoughts of everyday people in the UK.  Participants from all walks of life and all ages were asked to keep a diary and these were sent in regularly to the project.  Some of the responses have, in recent years, appeared as books and in one case as lead to a TV film, Nellas War.  They are fascinating to read.

The Project continued after the war through various up and downs.  Now participants are sent several directives each year and asked to write about their experiences, thoughts, feelings in relation to various subjects.  This winter’s directive is asking me to write about Friendship, the world financial crisis and global poverty.  Over the last couple of years I have been asked my thoughts on domestic voilence, war, shopping, gardening, and researching family history.  The responses are then archived and used by researchers.  The project also collect diaries.

Why do I participate?  Well it keeps my hand in at writing and I think that social history is very important.  When I did history at school it was always about the politics and what I suppose you would call hi-level stuff but never about the man in the street and what he thought.  To me this is far more important.

I have noticed over the last 10 months while I have been a member of Blotancial and reading other garden blogs that whilst some concentrate on gardening many blog about a whole range of subjects and comment on major events in their lives.  I wonder whether in years to come researchers will use this medium.  Whilst it is easy, although space consuming, to archive hard copies of people’s thoughts – will it be so easy to access say my post today in ten years?  Will it still be there in the ether? Or should researchers be thinking about tapping into this huge resource now?