Roderick Floud has produced a feast worthy of George III’s Christmas dinner, well written and full of fascinating details. But it is also a highly provocative take on the history of gardening and will, it is to be hoped, spark debate and further consideration of horticultural economics beyond those of the rich. He reminds us how gardening has brought beauty and pleasure to the English scene. It is a shame that these qualities have for large parts of his book been overwhelmed by the relentless presentation of costs.
The contribution of gardens to our mental and physical wellbeing is widely acknowledged. The economic benefits they bring is usually overlooked. That is a significant oversight and one that Roderick Floud sets out to put right. The economic historian argues that gardening’s value has rarely been appreciated because historic figures have been translated into today’s using the retail price index measure of inflation rather than using Floud’s preferred translation metric of average earnings. And to drive home the continuing economic importance of the sector he estimates today’s annual turnover of garden centres, contractors and so on at more than £11bn. Floud’s thoughtful overview of English garden history since 1660 comes with a cornucopia of figures drawn from across the centuries that combine to present a remarkable tale of economic scale — and social realities.
Floud can be dull in his exposition as he piles up the figures, and occasionally cloth-eared (Alexander Pope was most definitely more than just an “essayist and garden fanatic”), but, although he admits that this is just a first attempt to bring economics to gardening and more needs to be done, his book is full of fascinating detail — about everything from working-class gardens, kitchen gardens and nurseries, to the astonishing cost of some rare plants and their shrinking value over time.
There is a mind-boggling amount of detail in this book and, at times, it threatens to overwhelm. However, Floud is a clear writer and excels at providing context and keeping the whole enterprise grounded (well, it is about gardening, after all). One of his best chapters looks at how the technical aspects of gardening have contributed to various industrial innovations such as water and heating engineering. After all, those lakes, which we think have always been a part of the English landscape, didn’t just appear by themselves. And the “pine houses” to grow the adored pineapple had to be kept warm.