The Hidden Face of British Gardening

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Among the thousands of books and periodicals on gardening, none considers gardening as an economic activity - the labour and time it consumes, the trades that provide for it, the output of flowers and vegetables.  Gardening has been big business since the 17th century, but how can we measure its growth and economic importance?

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The Hidden Face of British Gardening

Professor Sir Roderick Floud FBA


Some of the great gardens of the 18th century – such as Calke Abbey and Belvoir Castle, incorporate a curious feature, a tunnel.

Its purpose was to conceal, from the view of the owner and his guests, the servants and others who actually created and maintained the house and garden. They were, as Rudyard Kipling later put it in his poem “The Glory of the Garden”:

            “... the gardeners, the men and ‘ prentice boys
            Told off to do as they are bid and do it without noise;”

I will exclude market gardening and concentrate on gardening for pleasure and the industry which makes it possible.

Kipling realised what the tunnels were meant to conceal:

            “Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
            Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
            With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by:
            But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.

            “Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
            By singing: -- ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade,
            While better men than we go out and start their working lives
            At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives.”

But it is not only the gardeners who are largely hidden from view in the history of British gardening. Among the thousands of books and the hundreds of periodicals devoted to gardening, remarkably few have considered the many different trades, crafts and industries which, for many centuries, have made possible the satisfaction of what has often been called the British obsession or addiction.

This lecture reports on the early stages of a research project into the growth of what I will call the “garden industry”. It includes large and small gardens, allotments, garden centres, TV programmes devoted to gardening, books and periodicals, the makers of tools, statuary, garden machinery, pots and tubs, seedsmen, nurserymen and even the makers of garden gnomes – of which this is a rare Victorian example. 

I will exclude market gardening and concentrate on gardening for pleasure and the industry which makes it possible.

It is difficult to know when to begin. There were elaborate gardens in Roman Britain and probably, though no trace of them remains, much smaller gardens in Roman towns – there were certainly many in the provincial city of Pompeii. There were monastery gardens in medieval Britain; they were mainly intended to supply medicinal herbs, as well as fruit and vegetables, but certainly gave pleasure to those who tended them.

In Tudor and Stuart times, we find manuals of gardening and evidence of the existence of nurserymen and the sale of plants and seeds. But, rather arbitrarily, I am going to concentrate on the last 350 years, since the Restoration of Charles II; he returned from exile in France enthusiastic about gardens, as were to be many of his successors.

I am going to begin at the end, with gardening as it is today.  Then I will consider the growth of gardening and the garden industry since 1660. I will look at the growth of nurseries and the prices of the plants that they sold. I will assess the impact on prices of the plant discoveries of the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in north America and south and east Asia. I will try to assess the size of the garden industry at different times. Finally, I will assess the potential for further research.


1. Gardening and the garden industry today

How big garden industry worth today? The Horticultural Trades Association, which represents garden centres and nurseries, estimates our annual expenditure on gardens as £5 billion.

It’s a sizeable sum, but only about a quarter of 1% of our current GDP, Gross Domestic Product.

But, like much of British gardening, what is on the surface is deceptive. David Cameron has recently told us that GDP is a defective measure because it doesn’t measure our happiness. But there is a more fundamental problem with GDP: it doesn’t measure a great deal of what we do, but only what we sell. In the 1930s, when economists were devising GDP as a measure, one of them pointed out – in what seems today a quaint phrase – that if he were to marry his housekeeper, GDP would fall. GDP includes the wages paid to servants, but not the value of the work of a wife.

Gardening is a perfect example of what economists call “household production” – goods and services produced within the household and never offered for sale - which does not appear in GDP. But it nevertheless takes up a great deal of our time and occupies a great deal of our countryside; it also provides many of us with fruit, vegetables and flowers. It also gives us a great deal of pleasure. How can we measure all this?

First, we can use what are called “time-use studies”. These tell us how much time we spend on different activities, both at work and play, and therefore reveal much about our preferences, our likes and dislikes. The most recent British time-use study, in 2005, shows that on average the British adult spends 17 minutes per day on repairs and gardening – they are lumped together because we tend to garden in the summer and do repairs in the winter. This may not seem much, but it is more time than we spend as a whole on formal education, more than we spend on using computers, almost as much time as we spend on looking after children.

Gardening does differ from those other pastimes. First, we tend to do more of it as we get older – the average 15-24 year old spends 3 minutes per day, the average over 64 year old about 28 minutes, or 3.5 hours per week. We also do more of it as we grow richer; people in social class A spend 3 hours, in social class E 2 hours per week during the main growing season. The rich also spend more on paid gardeners.

All this time is not value-less, even if it is not counted in GDP. We speak of “spending” time on something, implying that time has a value. We can assess the value of that time – perhaps by assessing what we could otherwise earn in those hours, or what we would need to pay someone else to work for us. On perfectly realistic assumptions, the value of our time spent on gardening is a minimum of £84 billion (if we value our time at the national minimum wage) and a maximum of £270 billion (if we value it at the cost of a paid gardener) each year.

But that is not all. Gardens use land and land has value. Look at any large-scale map of any British village, town or city and you will see just how much land we devote to gardening. That impeccable source, Autumnwatch on BBC2, estimates that gardens take up 2% of the UK land surface, or 1481 square miles. Another estimate made by the Horticultural Trades Association fits well; it is of 1300 square miles in England and Wales. Once again, we can estimate the value of this land by imagining that it was used in alternative ways, perhaps as farmland or as residential building land. If it were to be the latter, the capital value of our gardens would be a staggering £750 billion.

However, to compare the value of land with the value of our time, we need not the capital but the annual value, estimated here conservatively at 3% of capital.

Finally, to complete our picture of gardening today, we need to add the garden centres and nurseries and – for the moment we have no figure for this – the books, TV programmes, fountains and garden gnomes. The result is, even on a very cautious basis, a huge figure, dwarfing the £5 billion which enters into GDP.


2. The growth of the industry since 1660

How on earth did we get to this point?

The story of the garden industry begins not very far from here. The earliest nurseries and seed businesses which we know about were in and around the City of London; London had the greatest concentration of wealth and also the best transport links. Information on these early nurseries was collected by John Harvey, the only garden historian to have shown an interest in the economic history of gardening.

The first large nursery in London was the great Whitechapel Nursery of Captain Leonard Gurle.

It was established by 1643, but grew in importance after the Restoration of 1660. Harvey says rightly that it was “not really large by later standards”, but it covered 12 acres to the east of Brick Lane. Its original speciality was fruit trees, but by the 1670s it also sold a range of hardy plants such as jasmine and lilac. The reputation of the nursery was cemented by the appointment of Gurle in 1679 as Gardener to Charles II and Keeper of the Royal Gardens; he succeeded John Rose, seen here in the well-known painting presenting the first pineapple grown in Britain to his royal master. 

Harvey describes many other nurseries, initially around London but increasingly during the 18th century in provincial towns and cities. They were on a large scale and grew rapidly. One of the most famous was the Brompton Park Nursery, founded in 1681. By 1685, it was able to supply the Earl of Bedford at Woburn with a single order of 200 apple trees, 50 pears, 100 currants, 100 gooseberries, peaches, nectarines and mulberries.

By the 1730s there were, Harvey estimates, 25 nurseries and seedsmen in London and important firms in Colchester, Exeter, Newark-upon-Trent, Oxford, Pontefract and York. By 1760 there were at least 30 large nurserymen and seedsmen in London and another 40 in the provinces. They were large in scale, at about 30-60 acres for those around London, with one of over 100 acres, while the provincial nurseries were even bigger. Some indication of their scale of operation is that they produced, from the early 18th century, priced catalogues; many forest trees were priced only per 1000.


3. Nurseries and the plants they sold

The growth of nurseries continued into the 19th century and beyond, but the evidence is that the garden industry was well-established, one could call it mature, before the traditional age of the Industrial Revolution. Industries grow by enterprise fulfilling demand. What were the major factors in demand and supply which made the growth of the garden industry so fast and so great?

Let me look first at the prices of plants which were being supplied and purchased. Some of these prices were collected by Harvey but, for the 19th century onwards, I have used catalogues preserved by the invaluable Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society. These prices give us a sense of what gardeners wanted, what they were prepared to pay for and what nurserymen could supply. There is no doubt that, at the top end of the market, aristocratic gardeners were desperate for the latest novelty and anxious to steal a march on their gardening rivals. Here is a list of the most expensive plants which we know to have been sold in each half century from 1650 to 1900. 

I’ve quoted the price at the time and the price as it would be today; I’ve also calculated the price as a % of average GDP at the time, to give a sense of how purchasing these plants would have impacted on an average family budget.

The first of these plants was the nectarine bred by Captain Leonard Gurle in Whitechapel.

I will come back in a minute to the second and by far the most expensive. The two trees listed in 1750-1799 were both introductions from North America. 

The Magnolia Virginiana or swamp magnolia was the first magnolia tree to arrive in England, perhaps as early as 1688, but it was still described as rare in Miller’s dictionary of 1739.

Kalmia Latifolia or Mountain Laurel was introduced in 1734 by John Bartram and Peter Collinson, whose trade is described so well in Andrea Wulf’s book The Brother Gardeners. It was difficult to raise from seed, so many specimens came from America as saplings.

By the late 19th century, Asia was supplying many of plants new to Britain. 

Larix Kaempferi, the Japanese Larch, comes from northern and central Japan. However, Castanea chrysopylla seems to have been a sweet chestnut from north America.

Back to the most expensive tree of all, the 25’ Tulip Tree, whose value today would be close to £3000.


4. A Royal Garden and its Plants

It was supplied by Robert Furber in 1734 for the garden of Carlton House, the London residence of Frederick, Prince of Wales.

Nothing remains of this garden except for the rather boring gardens of the Pall Mall clubs, including the Athenaeum and the Reform, but it was designed for Frederick by William Kent and described at the time by Sir Thomas Robinson as exemplifying a “new taste in gardening .... it has the appearance of beautiful nature and, without being told, one would imagine art had no part in the finishing.” So successful was it that it was soon imitated. As Robinson puts it: “The celebrated gardens of Claremont, Chiswick and Stowe are now full of labourers, to modernise the expensive works finished in them, even since everyone’s memory. If this grows a fashion, ‘twill be happy for that class of the people, as they will run no risk of having time on their hands.” Kent went on soon afterwards to design the beautiful garden at Rousham, near Oxford, the best extant example of mid-18th century fashion in garden design.

Frederick, perhaps like other Princes of Wales, was not only enthusiastic and knowledgable about gardening, but also impatient. To the modern observer, one of the most extraordinary aspects of Carlton House Garden, which covered 9 acres, is that it was created in not much more than two years, by the importation of many mature trees, of which the tulip tree was one; it was accompanied by mature cypresses, Virginia walnuts, catalpas and many others, including a number of recent introductions from the Americas. 

Altogether, at least 12,000 trees and more than 2000 border or climbing shrubs were planted in 1734 and 1735 – there were 1500 elms, 400 cherries, 1400 hornbeams, 1000 chestnuts, 500 yews, 150 firs, hollies, oaks, laurels, lilacs and many others, together with hundreds of herbaceous plants and thousands of bulbs. The garden accounts show expenditure on plants of at least £450,000 in today’s prices, but there were also fountains, “two engines for watering with 654 feet of leather forcing pipes”, turf for the lawns, pebbles, gravel, stone, dung and mould. An Octagon incorporated statues and a bath-house.

Frederick was also, with his wife Augusta, the original creator of the gardens at Kew, which became the Royal Botanic Gardens. It was there that, directing the planting in 1750, he caught a severe chill and died in March 1751, aged only 44. He is probably the only heir to the throne – so far – to die from gardening, but certainly not the only one to take delight in his garden.

To return to more mundane matters, it is a sign of the capacity of the garden industry in the mid-18th century that so many plants could be supplied, in just two years, principally by two nurseries. The scale of the industry, then and in the 19th century, is suggested also by the speed with which new plants were introduced and the fact that prices fell as more specimens were bred for a mass market. As the market grew, nurseries seem to have been able to capture, and to pass on to their customers, economies of scale. However, plant rearing has always been a very labour intensive industry, with labour costs having a major effect on prices.

Most of the plants sold were, of course, much cheaper than the extremes I have been discussing. This table shows the median price of plants sold in each decade, with half the plants being cheaper and half more expensive.

The impression gained from this table is that prices fell in the early 19th century before rising again towards the end of that century. This is very much borne out by a comparison of the prices of typical British forest trees over this period. The prices of ash, beech, birch, chestnut, elm, Scotch and silver fir, hazel, holly, hornbeam, larch, laurel, lime, oak, poplar, sycamore, walnut and yew are revealing. In all these cases, real prices fell significantly between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, to about a third of their previous value. These prices persisted through the late nineteenth century, but then rose – I have not had time to record the 20th century data in detail – to levels today which are significantly higher, often higher than they were over two centuries ago.

Who was buying these plants?  The short answer is that we do not know. The records of the Carlton House Garden are exceptional, although I hope in future to collect similar information from other great gardens. But we shall never know how many plants were bought by the owners of medium to small gardens; the tradition, of course, is that many plants were traded or exchanged, or seed was kept for the following year. This was almost certainly true of the archetypal English cottage garden with its vegetable plot.


5. Gardens in the 19th Century

In the predominantly rural Britain of the seventeenth and eighteenth century the cottage garden, together with the gardens of the gentry and the great estates, must have predominated. The extent of village gardens can clearly be seen in large-scale maps from the early 19th century and before. 

But maps of the 17th and 18th centuries also show gardens in towns and villages, while the garden of Sir Thomas Gresham’s house in Bishopsgate is well known to us. 

One of the greatest changes which has accompanied economic growth, in this and every other country, is that the majority of the population came to live in towns and cities. What is surprising is that gardens, and the demand for garden produce, did not reduce or disappear when this occurred in Britain in the 19th century, The reverse seems to have been true. Moreover, it was a British peculiarity, differentiating us from many other European countries.

What is the evidence for this? The nineteenth century was the great age of gardening books and magazines, the equivalent of today’s Gardener’s World and Gardener’s Question Time or the garden makeover programmes.

Nurseries multiplied and their catalogues grew larger and larger, running to hundreds of pages, many more than today. The range of plants, with the North American plants supplemented by introductions from India, China, Japan, South Africa and South America, multiplied to levels not seen before or since.

It seems inescapable that much of the demand for these plants must have originated in towns and their suburbs. The great puzzle of British – particularly English – garden history is why the gardening tradition carried over from the countryside to the towns and why the new houses, built in their millions, almost all had gardens attached. In some cases, building regulations stipulated that houses must have gardens.

Gardens in towns, including the growing towns of the 19th century, were ubiquitous. A Cambridge Ph.D. student, Zoe Crisp, is currently studying the urban back garden in the long nineteenth century. As she has already shown, most of the houses built in the growing towns of the 19th century typically provided for a yard or garden. There were exceptions, such as the infamous back to back housing of some northern cities, but these were unusual and transient. Zoe shows that in Sheffield, Preston and Northampton the majority of houses had gardens of at least 20m²; this is quite small – (about a third/half of the area of this Hall NB CHECK), but it was clearly sufficient to grow some plants and vegetables. In addition there were window boxes and, of course, house plants of which the ubiquitous Victorian aspidistra is the best known; it could tolerate, at least as well as its owners, the smoke pollution which hung over most cities and was the bane of urban gardeners.

We know from other sources that urban gardening was popular throughout the country. One excellent source which I expect to use is the records of numerous local horticultural societies, together with the reports of shows, sometimes of vegetables and flowers in general, sometimes of particular plants such as the auriculas, the ferns or the orchids which experienced waves of popularity. We know also of the growth, and immense popularity, of the allotments which were established – after a time by Acts of Parliament – from the late eighteenth century onwards in England’s towns and villages.

I made use earlier of data on the size of gardens. These can be used to calculate that the average size of our gardens today is about 130m². Gardens in 19th century towns were much smaller than this; Zoe’s data shows that the average garden in Northampton in the 19th century was over 40m² and in Preston about 20m². As today, the size of gardens varied with social class, the average working class garden in Northampton being about 30m² and the average for the upper middle classes being about 60m², with a similar variation in Preston. These figures are probably much lower than the national average but they can still be used to extrapolate to the whole country, in order to try to estimate how much land was devoted to gardens. This was, at a minimum, 15-20,000 hectares at the end of the 19th century, but probably much more; it is over 300,000 hectares today.

Our addiction to gardening is shown partly by the land that we devote to them.. We do not have time-use evidence for the nineteenth century, but men and women in the past probably devoted just as much time to gardening as we do today. This was certainly the belief, or possibly hope, of those who advocated the provision of allotments to enable men to provide food for their families and at the same time keep out of the pub. But, as today, gardening gave pleasure to people of all sorts and conditions.

I have not had time, in this preliminary lecture, to look at many parts of the garden industry, at the toolmakers, the makers of flowerpots, the authors of gardening books, the publishers of gardening magazines. I would welcome your suggestions for the most fruitful areas of research and your thoughts on the British peculiarity or British obsession which I have been discussing. Hidden thou much of it is, gardening deserves much more than to be dismissed as a peripheral part of our lives and our economy.


©Professor Sir Roderick Floud FBA, Provost, Gresham College 2011

This event was on Thu, 12 May 2011

Professor Sir Roderick Floud FBA

Professor Sir Roderick Floud FBA

Provost of Gresham College

Professor Sir Roderick Floud FBA is an Honorary Fellow of Gresham College having served as the Provost of Gresham College between 2008 and 2014, taking...

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