Book Review

The Hidden Horticulturalists: The untold story of the men who shaped Britain’s gardens

by Fiona Davison

Pub. Atlantic Books, London, 2019
Reviewed by Kevin Barton, April 2020

Did you know that the great Joseph Paxton lied about his age to get into the new RHS garden at Chiswick in 1823?  That Scots make better gardeners (at least in the 1820s) because they ‘are better educated in their youth and more accustomed to frugality and labour’ according to J.C. Loudon – himself a Scot.  Or that your turnip seeds from an early nurseryman might be a scam and be mixed with Indian rape seed?  If you enjoy these sorts of glimpses into the world of nineteenth-century gardening, then The Hidden Horticulturalists by Fiona Davison is an interesting and thought-provoking read.

The starting point for this book is a collection of handwritten introductory notes – held at the RHS Lindley Library –  made by 105 students at the new RHS garden at Chiswick from 1823-1829.  All young men with some gardening experience and a well-known horticultural sponsor, this was a form of early advanced apprenticeship, preparing the head gardeners for the future.  Some became nurserymen, others plant hunters and many became head gardeners here or running botanical gardens throughout the British Empire, although none reached quite the heights of Sir Joseph Paxton.  As such the sub-title is misleading; this is actually only a small representation of the horticulturalists of the day, many of whom disappeared without trace, despite the considerable head start provided by a Chiswick apprenticeship.  That said, the author has taken this small starting point to research their lives and achievements and thereby, through telling some of their stories, provides a window into the often highly cut-throat and competitive world of nineteenth-century horticulture.  Different chapters cover the horticultural elite and the tough life of the jobbing gardener, plant collectors and plant propagators, the development of nurseries, the challenges and pitfalls of being a head gardener and the risks of crime in the garden.  In the background are the society power figures, such as Joseph Sabine, Sir Joseph Banks, Thomas Knight (President of the RHS) and William Hooker, whose ruthless quests for new plants and horticultural excellence are often at the expense of the young gardener’s health and well-being.

Davison writes in an easy style that enables the reader to relate to these young gardeners and their trials and tribulations.  The more knowledgeable garden historian, however, may find this a frustrating book.  As soon as the reader really starts to get to grips with one character and the element of horticulture being discussed, it is time to move onto another.  That said the book provides a very accessible overview of the role of the professional gardener in this period and their many, often poorly recognised, achievements and contributions to gardening.  It is an enjoyable read, full of little vignettes of gardening history at the height of the empire and all that has brought to our gardens today.  Fundamentally, it is a book about people with a passion for gardening; and we can all relate to that.