The sums spent on gardening by the royal family, or in other words the taxpayer, over the past four centuries would make you gasp and rub your eyes. The later Stuarts and early Hanoverians had no qualms whatever about laying out billions on their gardens. An Economic History of English Gardens, a fascinating recent book by Roderick Floud, spells out exactly how many billions of reckless spending it took to give us the great gardens we so enjoy today, from the Royal Parks to such aristocratic extravagances as Blenheim and Stowe. Capability Brown was by no means a one-man band: his account books (in the Lindley Library) show the scale of his enterprise, and he was one among many.
This all seemed particularly relevant at a time when our whole nursery industry was put on pause. Awkwardly, plants can’t be told to stop growing (except, that is, in fridges waiting for Chelsea). Billions were at risk. Closing nurseries, along with locking churches, was one of the government’s least well-advised anti-Covid moves. Surely praying is as private an activity as you can imagine.
Half the country’s gardeners, on the other hand, will scarcely have noticed; the half that lives in its green bubble where no one thinks of actually spending money to buy a plant. Vegetable seeds, maybe. But plants? They osmose their way from garden to garden as little swaps, or little presents, in a quiet interchange between neighbours and friends. Far from the world of from-scratch designer layouts and planting by numbers, in the deep-rooted culture of proper gardeners every plant has its own family tree.
This one came from Charlie across the road; this turned up at the village fete. This one started as a thumbnail cutting on holiday in Devon. This was grown from a seed found in a pocket after a National Trust outing. The garden is as much a collection of memories as it is of plants. ‘Cottage’ garden is the rather condescending label of this category, where plants grow as individuals for their own sakes rather than brush-strokes in a painting. The label, then, logically applies to the garden of a botanical magpie on any scale. It may spread to hundreds of acres and have a coherent plan, proportions, perspectives and all the grown-up attributes, but it is still a cottage garden at heart.