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THE HIDDEN HORTICULTURALISTS: The Untold Story of the Men Who Shaped Britain’s Gardens by Fiona Davison book review

  • Written by  Elizabeth Wainwright
  • Published in Books
THE HIDDEN HORTICULTURALISTS: The Untold Story of the Men Who Shaped Britain’s Gardens by Fiona Davison book review
30 Mar
By Fiona Davison • Atlantic Books

In 2012, Fiona Davison started a new role as head of libraries and exhibitions at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). She soaked up the treasures of the largest horticultural library in the world, but it was one particular notebook that captured her attention. Titled The Handwriting of Under-Gardeners and Labourers, the book contained 105 handwritten notes from young gardeners from 1823–29.

Their story starts with the purchase of the RHS’s first garden in Chiswick – a place to propagate plants and horticultural knowledge. A period of exploration and trade, coupled with scientific knowledge and new wealth, was fuelling interest in botany and practical horticulture. The garden was established and the 105 young men were its first students.

It was a time of economic hardship in many rural areas – farming prices were depressed, and ‘enclosure’ (landowners consolidating open fields into private enclosed units) meant many men couldn’t follow their fathers as farm tenants. A career in horticulture appealed to men from working-class backgrounds.

Their stories are as diverse as the plants they learned to grow. There are plant collectors, head gardeners, nurserymen – some from a pedigree horticultural background, most not. Well-known gardener, architect and MP Joseph Paxton was among the men, but most remained unknown. Their stories take in fraud, fashion, fame, international travel, scandal, madness and, naturally, plants.

Today, much of the men’s work has disappeared – there is no Chiswick Garden, other than a cul-de-sac called Horticultural Place – but their work echoes in our idea of a domestic garden, and in the horticultural trainees at RHS Wisley. Thanks to Davison, their stories, once dormant, have been unearthed to bloom again.

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