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The Illustrated History of Gardening

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Oh, my aching muscles...

An Historical Look at the Art of Gardening

By Anthony Huxley, foreword by Charles Elliott

Copyright 1978, 1998

The Lyons Press, New York

ISBN: 1-55821-693-6. 

"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 gardening today.

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.

From the 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," Elliott explains.

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.

Originally designed 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 for 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 of 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 Illustrated History."

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 notions included 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.

NWGN archive published April 1999

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