The British have long been known for their glorious gardens. Even so, when I moved from Germany to London in the mid '90s I couldn't quite believe just how obsessed they really were. Everybody — young and old alike — seemed to think that a day digging in the flowerbeds was great entertainment. The British spend around £4 billion a year on their gardens, and I think Britain must be the only country that has celebrities whose route to fame is gardening.
The Royal Horticultural Society has even diagnosed a new national affliction: plant bereavement. According to them, English gardeners go through the typical stages of grief — shock, denial, anger, depression, and acceptance. Apparently their telephone advisory service deals with trauma caused by damaged shrubs and blossomless flowers as often as giving horticultural advice. To make matters worse, there seems to be a wave of "garden crimes" because, in Britain, thieves think it's worth stealing trees. I have spoken to dozens of gardeners who woke up one morning to see their gardens stripped of flowers and trees — whole lawns have been rolled up by green-fingered thieves. But it was when I interviewed the director of a company specializing in garden-crime prevention (yes, it does really exist) that I realized just how obsessed the British are. His company, he told me, is "currently looking to implement a variation on the latest anti-terrorism technology in an effort to reduce garden crime."
Surprisingly, these severe reactions are nothing new — already in the second half of the 18th century British plant lovers pushed an Act through Parliament punishing plant theft with deportation, and several thieves were sent to the penal colonies "for plucking up, digging up, breaking, spoiling, and carrying away" flowers, shrubs, and trees.
But despite all this, I'm still amazed how many evenings I have spent in the past 13 years talking to my English friends about their allotments and flowerbeds and their horticultural failures and successes. The English really are a gardening nation, and many gardeners across the Western world admire English gardens (and, let's not forget, envy them for the most conducive climate for such pastimes). Over the past years I have heard many American gardeners talk in great admiration about quaint English cottages covered in rambling roses and glorious herbaceous borders that look effortlessly natural (...but require impeccable horticultural knowledge and lots of work). Who wouldn't adore the velvety green of immaculate lawns that gently roll towards a serpentine lake, edged by groves of flowering shrubs?
But what few people seem to know is that, in a way, America was the birthplace of the English garden. The garden revolution that changed the English garden began when in 1733 the American farmer John Bartram sent the first two of many hundred seed boxes from Philadelphia to London. They were filled with the seeds of glossy evergreens, towering trees, and flowering shrubs that he collected from across the colonies — from the pine forests of Nova Scotia to the Florida swamps. Over the next four decades Bartram dispatched so many boxes to Britain that, by the end of the 18th century, the English garden had changed forever.
I fell in love with Bartram during the three years of my research for The Brother Gardeners. Working through his hundreds of letters, I encountered a brave and diligent man who was alive with intellectual curiosity. But Bartram also brought a smile to my face when he described how he would scramble up pine trees and hold his hat out to catch the seeds that he shook from their hanging cones. I adored him for his habit of falling out of trees and for the melancholy that overcame him when he failed to find the seeds he sought. He was also a man so distractedly obsessed that he would often lose his way, or would find himself stranded in storms and darkness because he failed to notice sudden changes of weather when searching for a particular plant. And when I traced his footsteps through the Appalachian Mountains in October 2006, I found them blanketed in autumn colors and saw, through Bartram's loving descriptions, how the leaves of maples, scarlet oaks, and dogwoods were indeed like drops of amber clinging to the branches.
In the 18th century, the English gardeners had been incredibly excited about these trees because, until Bartram's boxes arrived in Britain, autumn had been a fairly lackluster affair — the English trees paraded a show of muted browns and yellows instead of vibrant reds and oranges. Bartram's American trees and shrubs provided, for the first time, beauty all year round — fiery autumn foliage of maples and winter blossom such as witch hazel. Bartram's magnolias, fringe trees, and rhododendrons furnished the Georgian shrubbery with color and variety unlike anything that English gardeners had ever seen before. And because Britain had only four native evergreens (Scot's pine, yew, holly, and box) gardeners were greedy for America's evergreens and conifers.
Soon the English garden became so fashionable that landowners across Europe sent their gardeners to Britain so that they could learn how to design and plant it. The irony was that a real English garden consisted of American trees and shrubs. Thomas Jefferson realized that immediately when he toured Britain to see the famous landscape gardens. Because the British were obsessed with American trees and shrubs, it would be easy to carve such fashionable gardens from their own forests without any expense — for in America, "we have only to cut out the superabundant plants," he said. In a strange twist, at the very moment that the 13 colonies became independent, American trees and shrubs had become the mainstays of the most fashionable English gardens.