From the historian's point of view, the trouble with gardening is that the basic techniques scarcely change. For sure, the modern sod-turner can take advantage of new plant varieties, labour-saving machines, pesticides and fertilisers; but the processes of cultivation remain constant. More significantly, so do the passions that drive them.
When we hoe a row, drop seeds into it, apply water and hope something useful or beautiful will emerge, we are doing what the Romans did two millennia ago, and the Chinese before that. Year by year, we experience the same emotions of triumph and disappointment. The latter invariably prevails. Only the hardiest gardeners stick it out through adversity, as the poet George Gascoigne noted as long ago as 1575: "Oh how it pleased my fancy once to kneel upon my knees,/ To griff a pippin stock, when sap begins to swell;/ But since the gains scarce quit the cost, Fancy (quoth he) farewell." Any present-day allotment holder, on the brink of throwing in the trowel, would recognise those sentiments.
Jenny Uglow has raked diligently through literature - embracing poetry and fiction as well as gardening manuals - to uncover such apt quotations. They show how, though the essentials remain the same, gardening fashions have responded to fads in diet and design. Writers such as Austen, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Dickens are invoked to provide evidence of contemporary horticultural perceptions and prejudices.
After racing through the early history (monks and their herb gardens, the wealthy aristocrats competing to grow exotica from Asia and the Americas), Uglow proves a reliable guide to the impassioned disputes over design in the 18th and 19th centuries. Formal Tudor and Stuart gardens were replaced by Capability Brown's supposedly "natural" rustic landscapes, before they in turn were overthrown by a return to structured bedding and the introduction of borders in dazzling colours.
Bringing the story up to date, she notes the trend among fashionable designers to bring elements of the wild back into the garden. On this irrational development, I share the view of William Morris, who wrote of the ideal garden: "It should look both orderly and rich... It should by no means imitate either the wilfulness or wildness of nature, but should look like a thing never to be seen except near a house."
Uglow does not reveal her own position. Her sense of detachment, usually an admirable quality in a historian, is a weakness when dealing with a subject that arouses so many conflicting emotions in its devotees. She hints at this when, in her epilogue, she refers admiringly to writers who "combine scholarship with passionate, hands-on experience": a roll of honour on which she includes Anna Pavord, Roy Strong, Penelope Hobhouse and Christopher Lloyd.
The jacket photograph, showing her cradling a mug of tea in spotless hands as she poses demurely behind a herbaceous border, serves to strengthen doubts about the depth of her own passion. This is not a fatal flaw. You do not need to be a criminal to write a history of crime. But it means the book - though perceptive, well-researched and entertaining - lacks a crucial dimension. As she observes, "gardening has always been a balance between poetry and practicalities"; this Little History seems a little lacking in both.
It may be unfair to complain of omissions in a book whose title points to its deliberately limited scope, but there is one that rankles. While Uglow gives honourable mentions to several contemporary garden writers and gurus, she ignores David Hessayon, whose admirable Expert paperbacks, selling in their millions, have done so much to take the mystery out of gardening and introduce it to the uninitiated.
Hessayon's readers hail chiefly from the suburbs rather than the shires. Early on, Uglow notes that horticulture has always been inseparable from snobbery, and this omission confirms it. All the same, this is a pleasing book that will appeal especially to those about to embark on the new season of garden visiting.
Michael Leapman's life of Inigo Jones is published by ReviewReuse content