Ten lessons from horticulture’s past

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

There have been many “best-thing-since-sliced-bread” moments in the history of horticulture. At the time, no doubt, they were deemed innovative breakthroughs to propel the industry forwards. Some have, others have not. A few have caused major problems. Here are 10 examples from our horticultural past from which we have, or should have, learnt.

1 The best of things can be the worst of things

The invention of the internal combustion engine in the 1790s was a seismic moment in the history of mankind. It took 40 years before the technology was fitted to a lawnmower and a further 60 years for the first petrol-engined tractor to come into being. Doubtless it seemed a good idea. At the same time, a transport revolution took place, enabling more food to be delivered quickly from the countryside to towns and cities, allowing these populations to expand. Further developments to the internal combustion engine gave us the two-stroke engine, which was subsequently fitted to chainsaws, mowers, hedge trimmers and other handheld tools.

Today, however, we recognise the damage that fossil fuels do to the environment. Despite developing more efficient and cleaner engines with reduced emissions, we are now writing the obituary of the internal combustion engine. New solutions are coming to the fore, including battery-powered transport, tractors, excavators and skidsteer loaders. Tools powered by lithium-ion batteries are finding popularity, especially in grounds care operations. With zero emissions during use, Li-ion seems the perfect answer to reducing our use of fossil fuels in the landscape. But the demand for electricity to recharge kit must be factored into the equation, questions arise around battery disposal and, we must not forget, lithium is another limited resource dug out of our earth.

2 Herbs are our pharmacy

Animals know it, even early man knew it — plants can be our medicine. Early medical traditions, including those of Babylon, China, Egypt and India, used herbs to cure illnesses. Earliest Ayurvedic texts on medicine date from 2500BC and describe dietary and herbal controls for restoring a healthy equilibrium.

The Ebers Papyrus (1500BC) contains more than 700 medical formulas and some 2,000 years ago Greek physician Dioscorides wrote De Material Medica, a five-volume work describing 500 plants and the preparations of 1,000 simple drugs. The doctrine of signatures, dating from the time of the Roman Empire, states that herbs resembling various parts of the body can be used to treat ailments in those parts of the body. In England, studies of botany and medicine are closely linked to the Middle Ages, with monasteries having physic gardens for the cultivation of herbs.

While the modern pharmaceutical industry has largely replaced herbal treatments in today’s health care and disease management, functional and integrative medicines are seeing a tremendous surge in interest and resulting in more herb cultivation.

A large part of functional medicine revolves around diet and taking the best of herbs and spices to boost and even repair the body. Herbalism is definitely making a comeback although, of course, we must not forget that some plants can also be poisons.

3 Some plants good, some plants bad

Plant hunters and explorers have introduced some fantastic plants to the UK. Think, for instance, of Gentiana sino-ornata and Pieris Formosa var. forrestii introduced by George Forrest, or Lilium regale brought back from China by Ernest “Chinese” Wilson. So many non-native plants are now taken for granted — the potato springs to mind. But what would physician and adventurer Philipp Franz von Siebold think if he saw the invasion of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) in Wales, Cornwall and other parts of the UK? Hopefully, he would wish he had never found it growing on the sides of that Japanese volcano.

4 Skills are easily lost

My father was a gardener and my grandfather and great grandfather both understood what was required to feed the family from the garden — fruit, vegetables, chickens, rabbits, pigs, a goat and lots of hard work. For generations, families stayed close to where they were born and skills were passed down from parents to children. Propagation, and not just seed sowing, was on this syllabus.

Today, with university education and work often difficult to find, there is a greater tendency to move away from home.

Large populations live an urban life in rabbit-hutch-sized properties with little or no gardens. Add to this the ever shrinking garden teams at heritage sites, events such as the loss of hundreds of parks apprentices when compulsory competitive tendering came in and the decrease in the practical element of so many courses, and we find the main components in horticulture training are changing and skills are lost.

5 Keeping records is important

We can learn so much from past records. Whether we look back to our own sowing and spraying documentation, the ancient records of herbalists, the seasonal weather patterns recorded by Victorian head gardeners or read early editions of Horticulture Week (formerly The Gardeners’ Chronicle), we can glean valuable information.

Today, everything is changing rapidly. In less than a century we have gone through mechanisation and into a time of automation for a large number of horticultural processes. Now we are using computer programmes for monitoring, data collection and analysis. But the old records of physicians, plant breeders and head gardeners can provide us with fresh ideas and inspiration. Who knows, perhaps one day we may need to know how to go back to the old ways.

6 Nature heals

The mill and factory workers of the Industrial Revolution, combined with high-density living, resulted in high levels of disease. Purpose-built public parks, such as Derby Arboretum, Princes Park in Toxteth and Birkenhead Park, brought space, nature and health to the doors of these workers as landscapers and visionaries such as Joseph Strutt and Joseph Paxton realised the value of plants and nature in supporting well-being.

Today, scientists are backing up these principles with research and science-based evidence, and the pandemic has brought home to the public the value of exercise and spending time in nature, whether urban parks, the countryside or forest bathing.

7 Soil is easily damaged

We never heard of soil damage while horses ploughed the fields and practices such as crop rotation and mixed farming boosted organic matter and pumped up the soil microbiome. Destruction cannot be put down to just one thing but is rather a combination of abuse through mono-cropping, heavy machinery and disturbing amounts of chemicals. Is it too late to reverse the destruction while still producing the food we need? Some might say the solution is to give up the land and grow food on shelves and in laboratories. But, surely, if we had healthy soils before, we can have healthy soils again. Perhaps the future is rewilding — bringing together much of our past and using plants and animals in cohesion.

8 What goes around, comes around again

There have been many must-have plants over the centuries. Tulip mania — the speculative frenzy over the sale of tulip bulbs in the 17th century — caused homes, estates and businesses to be mortgaged. In 1637, the price structure of tulips collapsed overnight and left many families, particularly in Holland, in financial ruin. The fascination with tulips has returned in modern times, thankfully without the mania but with an atmosphere of festival. Every year there are spectacular tulip festivals in Holland and, although sadly the Spalding tulip festival made its last parade in 2013, great displays are being put on by many of our heritage properties, including Arundel Castle and Hever Castle.

In Victorian times, cacti and succulents were collected by enthusiasts and displayed in greenhouses. They may have lost favour for a while, but they are back as the public find succulents thrive in dry conditions and a cactus on the home-office desk does not mind when its owner forgets to water it. What trended in the past will trend again in the future. We just need to be ready for it.

9 Pests and diseases are opportunistic, but nature has answers

There have been many examples of plant pests and diseases entering the UK and ravaging our native species. Dutch elm disease comes to mind. Threats continue and border inspections have never been so important. But we must also remember that we can learn from nature, hence the drive towards biological controls.

10 Horticulturists can adapt

Just like the internal combustion engine turned out to be a bad idea, so too have things that growers and gardeners have come to rely on — notably peat, plastics and some chemicals. Peat has been used in growing media because it is lightweight and for its ability to retain water and nutrients while initially presenting a blank canvas on which to work. Plastics have also served a valuable purpose as containers for growing, packaging for products such growing media and fertilisers, cladding for tunnels and a hygienic way of delivering food to customers. An increase in organic growing shows the public’s desire to disassociate from chemicals. What we do and how we grow is changing and always will do. 

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