Copyright 1978, 1998
Press, New York
"The Illustrated History
of Gardening" by the
late Anthony Huxley captures elements of what gardening must have been like in
days long past, as well as a sense of more recent changes in how and why we
toil in the earth. Published in 1978 and re-released with a foreword by Charles
Elliott in 1998, the 352-page book provides unique insight into methods of
cultivation ranging from irrigation to weed control, with a comprehensive look
at the use of such tools and techniques throughout history.
A formidable and vast subject,
Huxley does a good job of
looking at a broad range of cultures and subjects, within the context of the
"history of gardening." However, since it was written more than 20
years ago, Huxley also has managed to present his case from an era gone by:
from the 1970s, the days when population growth and gas shortages necessitated
smaller gardens and a renewed reliance on "community plots" and
vegetable gardens. But mostly the book is dedicated to the evolution of
gardening throughout history, and it remains interestingly relevant to
The book is half what it says: an illustrated history. It
is in fact a compilation of prose that addresses certain technologies, such as
the evolution of irrigation methods, then contrasts them over a period of
thousands of years. That in turn is supplemented by a collection of photographs
and art, compiled by Maurice Michael and reprinted here in black and white.
plans for the St. Gall monastery and its
"physic garden," dated 820 A.D., to a London rooftop in the recent
20th century, the use of art to explain antiquated methodology is particularly
helpful. But Huxley also relies on the work of his predecessors, noted writers
who range from Virgil to Emerson, to provide the background and sentiment of
gardening throughout the centuries. When the modern gardener may have tired of
learning about the latest trends and techniques, he or she will be fascinated
to learn that many fundamentals of gardening today date back to the ancient
civilizations and the gardens of Rome, Egypt and Persia.
According to Huxley, the earliest
garden cultivators were
believed to have lived around Jericho in Palestine in 8,000 B.C. Such history
is interesting not only because Huxley jumps around from century to century,
but also because he compares a wide variety of cultures (Roman, Greek, English,
Dutch) in looking at the evolution of gardening.
A chapter-by-chapter account leads
the reader through the
evolution of techniques of lawn care, gardening under cover and other topics,
with a comprehensive look at essential operations and the development of garden
tools. It is obvious that Huxley looks upon these times past with some longing.
"In recalling primitive beginnings of cultivation, one is reminded of
man's constant instinctive urge to have plants around him," Huxley writes.
"Our gardens are echoes of the primeval green world in which our ancestors
lived and evolved, a world which
we are all too busy destroying today."
In one of the many attributions featured
in this book,
Sir Francis Bacon, more than three centuries ago, said gardening is "the
purest of human pleasures." He said it offered a "refreshment to the
spirits of man." But it is the craft of gardening on which this book
primarily focuses. "Gardeners are first of all artisans, only secondarily
artists," notes Huxley.
In the newly added foreword, Charles Elliott explains
that this historical volume "has less to do with theory than with
things." "An Illustrated History" deals with the tools,
techniques, devices, procedures and "all the paraphernalia that gardeners
have invented, improved, employed successfully or otherwise ... over the centuries,"
The development of tools alone covers a wide breadth of
topics, including, for example: planting beds, containers, hedges, fences,
methods of sowing and planting, controlling pests, watering, feeding, training,
forcing and protecting.
The artwork featured spans decades - as well as countries
- but most date from the periods concerned. Many have not been published in
years. And only in a few cases does Huxley include photographs or drawings of
tools or devices that are still in use today. "The illustrations are a
very important part of this book, and much time has been spent in searching for
them," he explains.
Huxley also has made a point to use original quotes–and
their original spellings. A Providence, Rhode Island, land grant dated 1681,
for example, reads, "The northwestern Corner being bounded with a pine
Tree... the Northeasterne Corner Bounding with an old Walnutt stumpe... the
South Westerne Corner with a Chestnutt Tree." These attributions, Huxley
notes, "may seem quaint." But such honest use of words is also
refreshing and direct, and that's "all too seldom (seen) today," he
adds. In many cases, the origin of the quotes is also historically significant.
While garden writers have penned their words in abundance
during the last few centuries, that wasn't always the case. In some ancient
civilizations, such writers were far and few between, or, like the Romans
Columella and Pliny, were "virtually unique," says Huxley.
In the course of his study,
Huxley also found it interesting
that many cultures developed similar kinds of garden implements about the same
periods, without having any connection or at all knowing what was happening in
other parts of the world. He also felt it interesting that certain techniques,
first developed out of practical necessity, later became full-fledged art forms
in and of themselves. The basic plant bed is one such example.
as a way to prevent stepping on
plants, the technique developed into "pure design" and later, with the
aid of improvements such as irrigation, led to the evolution of ornamental
fountains, spouts, basins and more. Gardening as we know it has, of course,
long since moved beyond the basic necessity of growing food. Throughout the
years, people have been attracted to the earth and plants for reasons relating
to leisure, diversion and decoration.
While looking at the past, Huxley also strives
modernity in his prose. In talking about ancient methods, he compares them to
modern developments and the use of such techniques today. After all, he notes,
"history only stopped yesterday." As with art, he sparingly
incorporates references to modern equipment, stressing that it is in fact "the
forgotten past which (most) fascinates."
Huxley died in 1992 at the age of 72. A member
Britain's intellectual aristocracy, he was related to Darwin supporter T.H.
Huxley, zoologist Sir Julian Huxley, and novelist Aldous Huxley. In 1949, he
joined the staff of the weekly magazine, "Amateur Gardening." After
that, his list of accomplishments is quite extensive: Throughout the years, he
worked as editor, writer, lecturer, photographer, tour leader and more. He
wrote nearly 40 books on the topic of plants, and was editor of the
authoritative Royal Horticultural Society's "Dictionary of Gardening - the
Of Huxley's talent for the historic, Elliott notes,
"The combination of... pictures and Huxley's magpie taste for the odd fact
will fascinate anyone who has ever pruned a rose or hoed a row of beans. Although there are plenty of bad or failed horticultural
along the way, Huxley makes plain that there's no call for us to feel superior
to our predecessors."
Even the thoughtful gardener today, Elliott adds,
"might strike an idea or two worth trying again today, even though it may
be a couple of hundred–or thousand–years old. After all, we've still got
caterpillars, if not Arcadian asses." In the end, Huxley stresses that
gardening is a devotion which brings happiness to many. "Without green and
flowering plants for pleasure as much as food, the world would be a much poorer
place," he says.