Usually I like it when my personal and professional lives intersect, but not now. I am working on two courses this summer and several writing projects, all of which involve Renaissance gardening texts in one way or another. So I’m reading about what I should be doing in the garden, and not doing it, for lack of time and energy. Like many scholars before and around me, I’m pretty dedicated to restoring gardening to the Renaissance art (and science) it once was, and I’ve got lots of evidence to support my view. Depending on their status and wealth, sixteenth-century people saw gardening as a way to reclaim paradise lost, glory in God’s creation, and, of course, feed themselves; it was serious business all around. In England, there was an intensifying and rather democratic demand for gardening advice, resulting in about 20 titles published in the sixteenth century alone, with more to come in the next century.
Looking over these texts today, the practical passages seem to be speaking to me, particularly those offering weeding advice, since I am not out back weeding. Obviously I would prefer to read about it! Here is Thomas Tusser giving me instructions for June, in verse, in his A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandry (1557; later expanded to Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie): in June get thy wedehoke, they knife and thy glove: and wede out such wede, as the corne doth not love. Slack no time thy weding, for darth nor for cheape: thy corne shall reward it, or ever thou reape. Well, I am slacking. Tusser’s contemporary Thomas Hill, author of The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577), does not agree with the former’s technique: In this plucking up, and purging of the Garden beds of weeds and stones, the same about the plants aught rather to be exercised with the hand, than with an Iron instrument, for fear of feebling the young plants yet small and tender of growth. He want me to dig in and get my hands dirty, but as my rather overgrown garden is full of well-established plants, I think I can go for the iron–I really like this “skrapple” in William Lawson’s New Orchard and Garden (1618).
I’m skipping over to two slightly less practical garden writers of the seventeenth century: John Parkinson, King James I’s apothecary and a gardener himself, and the more famous Francis Bacon, who included a charming little essay on gardens among his Essays (1625). Parkinson’s books are appealing because they demonstrate his own interests and expertise, cultivated on his estate near present-day Covent Garden. London was an emerging metropolis in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it still had patches of undeveloped land and urban gardens, as illustrated by Ralph Agas’s contemporary map of the city.
North of the Strand was Mr. Parkinson’s garden at Long Acre, where he cultivated the English flowers that are the subject of his two major works, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (Park-in-Sun’s Terrestrial Paradise, 1629), and Theatrum Botanicum (The Botanical Theatre or Theatre of Plants, 1640). Parkinson’s books gave plant-specific advice, from an upper-middle-class urban perspective, thus they are perfect for a suburban gardener such as myself. In their own time, Parkinson’s books were no doubt popular because of the inclusion of woodcut illustrations, like the mallows below.
Francis Bacon’s little essay on gardens is part of his major collection, Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall (1625). This was a definite sideline for him, and I can’t imagine it receiving much attention at the time of its publication given the horticultural competition, but centuries after there are some lavishly-presented editions of the essay, which offers more inspiration than advice.
Bacon’s Essay on Gardens, 1625, 1902 & 1905 ( Illuminated Manuscript on Vellum by Alberto Sangorski, courtesy Book Aesthete).
Enough reading and writing: time to get out there, among the weeds and spent flowers: it’s mid-June, and duty calls. Everything is satisfactory in the shade border in the foreground (thanks to the very tidy Lady’s Mantle), but the central garden is not getting its close-up until I clean it up, one way or another. Not this morning, however, as it is raining, and all of my experts tell me that the best time to pull weeds is two days after the rain.