1 March 2008

Daniel Brown digs into the history, the science and even the future of gardening.


Gardens and science have an intimate relationship. Whilst very few students have the time or space for a garden in the traditional sense, there is much to be derived even just from looking at them. Cambridge has multiple examples, from different architectural and horticultural periods, of gardens that have been created with a particular idea about how life should be. In these gardens, we can see how people’s views of the world around them, and their means of understanding it, is written upon the landscape.

The first cultivated areas would probably not have been considered gardens, and not only because of their strictly utilitarian value. We can think of farming, or cultivation, as the wilful manipulation of ecosystems to include more species that are beneficial to humans. This is often thought of in terms of edible calories within a given area of land. Ants, as well as a variety of other animals, have shown this behaviour as well. Thus the first cultivation (an indeed much non-intensive cultivation now) is in the form of mixed planting, with “weeds” outnumbering edible or otherwise desirable species. From this, the slippery slope to monoculture begins, along with the breeding of plants whose aesthetic worth exceeds their utilitarian value.

Renaissance and formal gardens increasingly brought the ordered and rational out into the wild. Perhaps kicking against this, romantic and pastoral visions wrought for the landed gentry heralded an aesthetic backlash against science that was to characterise much of the nineteenth century; visions that stood in outright denial of the positive aspects of science, and the aforesaid gentry’s responsibilities in the industrial revolution. The most ironic aspect of this phase of horticulture was its forced replication for pleasure of a farming landscape that had initially been of purely utilitarian use. Botanical gardens may be the greatest expression of emergent nineteenth-century science and its intertwining with imperialism.

Botanical gardens, like great exhibitions, claimed to collect all the empire into a given area and then categorise it. Around the empire and commonwealth, and in conjunction with the zoo and the museum, the botanical garden was a means of bringing the laboratory out into the public eye for their intellectual and moral elevation. With the shrinking of the world initially brought about by empire and now know as globalisation, the botanical garden has over the course of the twentieth century been seen as a vessel to preserve a wilderness that was rapidly squeezed out of the world. With the change of botanical gardens from collections of everything vegetative and symbols of empire to parks preserving rare species, we’re seeing part of a wider trend in the ecological sciences.

The explosion into agriculture of the green revolution and the worries voiced by ecologist such as Rachel Carson in Silent Spring have caused an anxiety about the direct manipulation of plant life and animal life. This has brought about the resurgence of the urban nature-garden and the ecological reserve, more weed than wisteria. So it seems we may have come full circle, from an increasingly formal and controlling attitude to planting to a need for wild space in built-up areas. This is not necessarily so, and it would perhaps not be scientific to think of things in such value-laden, gross theoretical terms.

With the proliferation of genetically modified organisms as crops and pets (the popularity of phosphorescent fish in East Asia, for instance), it seems only a matter of time before gardens are open to even greater micro-management than ever before.