John Evelyn is best known for his Diary, second only in reputation to that of his friend and fellow diarist, Samuel Pepys. But during the seventeenth century, as well as recording the events of the English Civil War, the Restoration of Charles II and the Great Fire of London, he was also writing notes on the upkeep of his garden at Sayes Court, London ‘which may be of use for other gardens’. Publicity Manager Juliet Evans delves into Directions for the Gardiner to unearth some horticultural tips from our gardening past…
May is definitely Gardening Month in the UK. After a particularly cold winter here, we gardeners are looking forward to warmer temperatures – and to finally planting out the trays of tender crops and flowers which have been filling up those window sills and conservatories over the last month. May is also the month for one of the highlights of the gardening calendar: the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London, which took place last week.
Chelsea is an amazing event – and always a sell-out. As usual, there were the fantastic show gardens such as the ones sponsored by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, and Laurent-Perrier but, with the credit crunch biting hard, there was an even greater emphasis on ‘thrift’ and ‘self-sufficiency‘ in many of the gardens this year. And the public can always catch a bargain – as I did – in the show’s great ‘great sell-off’ at 4pm on the last day of the show.
Whereas gardening today is a leisure activity, for Evelyn and his seventeenth-century contemporaries it was primarily a means of sustenance, and essential for providing fruit and vegetables throughout the year. In Directions for the Gardiner and Other Horticultural Advice, Evelyn covers every aspect of running a self-sufficient garden, and here‘s just some of fascinating and practical advice for gardeners.
Seventeenth-century meals were very much based on seasonal produce: “The Gardner, is every night to aske what Rootes, sallading, garnishing, &c will be used the next day, which he is accordingly to bring to the Cook in the morning: and therefore from time to time to informe her what garden provision & fruite is ripe and in season to be spent.” and very little was wasted. On the ’to do’ list for the three months from August, was the making of cider and perry from all the excess apples and pears in the orchard. Evelyn names over 154 pear and 75 apple varieties in his manuscripts, including some fantastic names such as ’Great-belly’, and ’Go-no-further’. The production of honey was also important (sugar was rare and expensive) and bees and the housekeeping of hives are mentioned during at least seven separate months in the gardening calendar.
Although Evelyn was a substantial landowner (his estate at Sayes Court was about 100 acres/40 hectares, and he also inherited his father‘s estate at Wotton House) he was able to advise on the benefits of companion planting in small spaces: ‘One may sow Reddish, & Carrots together on the same bed: so as the first may be drawn, whilst the other is ready: or sow Lettuce, purselan, parsneps, carrots, Reddis on the same beds, & gather each kind in their season, leaving the parsneps to Winter.‘ And at a time when there were few seed merchants or nurseries, Evelyn reminds his readers about the necessity of collecting, saving and sowing seeds from every type of plant – including tulips, which amazed me having ordered the bulbs over so many years.
He also recommends many activities that today’s gardeners would do well to follow in the winter months to avoid unnecessary new purchases: fountain pipes should be protected against the frost: ‘the Advice will save you both trouble and charge’ and ‘The Tooles are to be carried into the Toole-house, and all other instruments set in their places, every night when you leave work: & in wett weather you are to clense, sharpen, & repaire them.’ (Indeed, Evelyn insisted that his gardener show him any broken tool to prove it was beyond repair before he allowed him to buy a new one).
And as I do battle with my own allotment this year, the most relevant gardening tip for me has to be ‘Above all, be carefull not to suffer weedes (especially Nettles, Dendelion, Groundsill, & all downy-plants) to run up to seede; for they will in a moment infect the whole ground…’
John Evelyn lived to the grand old age of 85. He left behind an immense legacy of written material to fascinate and inspire today’s gardeners and historians. It is our good fortune that even after three hundred years we can still learn from someone Samuel Pepys called ‘a man so much above others’.