As well as being a seasoned gardener, I started ten years or so ago to rekindle a hidden passion for history. It all started whilst walking alone for the day through the magnificent Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew in London.
For a few hours I basked in its history and could almost see the people receiving the jewels of the plant world brought back from the furthest corners of the globe in the 18th century. The history of the plant hunters sent out by plant societies, plant nurseries and private estates in those times is about adventure and often trepidation in the pursuit of botanical exploration.
There is an air of history
I guess I have been rather spoilt coming from the UK, a country renowned for its gardening history, and my earlier life has seen me working in gardens of some of the most magnificent old country houses and castles.
There really is an air of history, and thoughts turn to those gardeners who have gone before you. Indeed, the industrial revolution saw the era of the nouveau rich and it was no longer just the aristocracy who owned these magnificent estates.
The industrial revolution brought money and money also brought buying power for displaying wealth through majestic landscaped gardens.
The past teaches lessons for future action
Somehow, having spent my whole career in the horticultural industry I have held the feeling that history shall repeat itself. It’s called ‘historic recurrence’ and has been thought and written upon by the great Western philosophers, war correspondents and modern-day novelists. G.W. Trompf in his book ’The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought’, notes that most western concepts of historic recurrence imply that "the past teaches lessons for... future action"
In terms of the soil for example, it’s being seen that it really is the feeding of it with organic composts and manures (just as it always was done before synthetic fertilisers) that improves its health.
Modern agriculture has destroyed soil health to such a degree with annual cultivation, pesticide use and synthetic fertilisation that a new approach to agriculture getting some of the best results is in reducing the use of the plough, planting cover crops and feeding the soil with organic manures.
500 million plastic plant pots
I have grown up too in the plastic generation, and I am so disappointed with the amount of it being used in the horticultural industry.
An estimated 500 million plant pots and seed trays are sold in the UK every year. It is perhaps not shocking to learn that two-thirds of these pots end up in landfill or incinerators.
There are many alternatives out there, but I find paper-based products break so easily when wet and there is a large carbon footprint potentially associated with coir and bamboo substitutes.
Both coir and bamboo are primarily sourced from South Asia, which raises a host of environmental considerations, not least regarding the resources required to transport the products halfway across the globe.
My solution to it is that I have to use what I have got and use it responsibly. That means that I use plastic pots and seed trays that can be reused again and again. They are quality products and not just one-time use, throw aways.
I produce nearly all the vegetables grown in my kitchen garden as small plants grown from seed in plug trays. These plug trays I have been using for the last five years and I sterilise them each year to stop any build-up of diseases or overwintering of greenhouse pests.
The above is my solution to contemporary garden plastic use yet the basics of growing are the same as they have been since plants first appeared on our earth around 500 million years ago. Put a seed in the ground and it will grow is one of the basics of all principals.
Some of the old ways of doing things still work
Our gardening practices are changing though especially with global warming. Slight rises in a few degrees of temperature make the difference in what plants can survive over winter. It also gives us a longer growing season if we have earlier springs and later autumns.
Nothing keeps still in our contemporary world, especially concerning issues such as the changing climate and increasing technologies. With them I am having to adapt my garden to keep up and thrive, yet I look also to the past for answers in helping devise systems for the future.
The soil has always been a huge carbon sink and one of the ways in which I believe we are going to help reverse global warming through covering its bareness again with plants and crops in increasing carbon sequestration.
By looking back I have found we can see that some of the old ways of doing things still hold merit in contemporary gardening and growing.
Pineapple cultivation - a show of wealth and skill
I spent a lovely summers evening drinking coffee and discussing ideas last year with a colleague when the conversation turned to pineapples.
I had at that time been thinking of how the use of hot beds are used in these Northern climes to start the season off a bit earlier in germinating seed.
The principal is simple - a hot bed provides bottom heat, using decomposing animal manure rather than electricity as the heat source, thus speeding up plant growth of seedlings and tender plants.
Fresh, strawy manure is used in a layer 60-90 cm deep (after treading). As the manure breaks down it generates heat, and by treading it down well to compact it ensures a more even release of heat.
Hot beds were used in Victorian times to grow pineapples for the owners of large houses and estates. Henry Telende’s method of pineapple cultivation was published in Richard Bradley’s ‘A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening’ in 1721.
Telende grew the young plants, called ‘succession plants’, in large cold frames called tan pits. The fruiting plants would subsequently be moved into the stove or hothouse to benefit from the additional heat provided by the hot-air flues.
The tan pits were lined with pebbles at the bottom followed by a layer of manure and then topped with a layer of tanners’ bark into which the pots were plunged. The last of these elements was the most important.
Tanners’ bark (oak bark soaked in water and used in leather tanning) fermented slowly, steadily producing a constant temperature of 25ºC-30ºC for two to three months and a further two if stirred. Manure alone was inferior, in that it heated violently at first but cooled more quickly.
Stable bottom heat is essential for pineapple cultivation and tanners’ bark provided the first reliable source. It became one of the most fundamental resources for hothouse gardeners and remained in use until the end of the 19th century. It was a show of wealth for the estate owner yet it was fine testament of horticultural skill by the head gardener.
A pineapple is a long-term project
The pineapple, Ananas comosus is native to tropical and subtropical America where it is in active growth the whole year around and needs tropical heat-like conditions to grow.
It takes almost three whole years to produce a pineapple from a young plant and the best way I know to grow one is to cut the green leafy top off one bought from the supermarket, strip off a centimetre or so of the bottom leaves, put it in water and let it grow roots.
Once enough root has been produced it can be potted up in a pot of peat substrate and grown on for the summer in a hot bed.
It will have to be brought indoors for the winter to keep warm and then back out in the hot bed the following year, repeating it the following year until a pineapple is produced.
It’s a long-term project for just a small pineapple but so much reward is given for your patience. We are so used to seeing pineapples and other tropical fruits on our modern-day supermarket shelves, but I can guarantee that none of them will be as tasty as the one you have grown by your own hand.
My garden is a place of peace
We certainly live in a fast pace changing technological world for all the pro’s and con’s that it brings. That said though, I’m so glad for my garden in being a place of peace and contemplation into which I can disappear at the end of busy working day in leaving the stress of the modern world behind, even if only for a few hours before bed. Not a hot bed though – that’s just for my experimental pineapples!