It’s what I do on dark January afternoons; retreat a century and half to the world of frock-coats and crinolines, the world of JC Loudon, John Lindley, Joseph Paxton and William Jackson Hooker, the years when gardening was just finding its scientific feet.
My time-machine is The Gardener’s Magazine. I am deep in the issues of 175 years ago. John Lindley, secretary of the Horticultural Society, has just published his Theory of Horticulture, described by its reviewer as ‘as useful and indispensable to the gardener as the compass is to the mariner’. Lindley began by explaining in plain terms how plants work, in ‘a short guide to the horticultural application of vegetable physiology’. Such a thing, it seems, did not exist; gardening was learnt only by tradition and experience. “If I had met with such a book as this twenty years ago I would not have so many grey hairs in my head now”.
Paxton had just built the Great Stove at Chatsworth, the prototype for the Crystal Palace. Loudon enthuses about what the new Penny Post would contribute to gardening, making the distribution of seeds and cuttings possible as it had never been before. The nobility, and even commonplace millionaires, were investing in more and more ambitious gardens, nurserymen were flourishing and plant hunters ranging further than ever. And yet, in January 1840, the government announced it was closing down the royal gardens at Kew. All the plants were offered to the Horticultural Society – at a price. The Society declined; they were offered gratis to anyone who would take them away. And the greenhouses were to be demolished.
Strange, I think, that Paxton’s boss, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, with his house at Chiswick, just between Kew and the Horticultural Society’s Chiswick garden, didn’t put two and two together. The job of saving Kew was achieved largely by John Lindley and his friends, lobbying the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. His friend William Jackson Hooker became the first director of the new establishment.
I close my magazine and pick up the newspaper. What do I read? Kew’s budget has been cut again. The world’s most important botanical garden is to be cut down to size. They have already laid off fifty scientists. They may have to be closed to the public out of season. And London is to have a new public garden – on a windswept bridge, of all places, crossing the Thames from the Temple to the South Bank. At a cost of £175 million. Putting two and two together still seems to be too difficult.