The History of Gardening in 12 Books

Credit: RHS Lindley Collections

From Jane Loudon’s Gardening for Ladies: with a calendar of operations and directions for every month in the year (1843).

The UK’s leading gardening organization, The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), has been moving its unique library to a new purpose-built home, RHS Hilltop at its Wisley property in Woking, Surrey. It holds an extensive collection of rare books, journals, and other publications relating to gardening stretching back to Leonhart Fuchs’ De historia stirpium commentarii insignes (1542), a landmark illustrated herbal guide.

Credit: RHS Lindley Collections

The full frontispiece of Loudon's book.

RHS Hilltop will offer better facilities for researchers and displays for the public. Its official 2021 opening has obviously not been quite what the RHS envisioned, but meanwhile the charity has opened a well-illustrated online-only exhibition featuring a dozen important gardening manuals from its archives, Gardening by the Book: A history of gardening in 12 books. Among them are Thomas Hill’s ca. 1558 Profitable Arte of Gardening, which the RHS describes as the first dedicated gardening manual to be published in English; Hill wished to make horticultural knowledge more widely available “for the commoditie of many.” From the eighteenth century, the RHS has plucked Philip Miller’s Gardeners Dictionary (1731), which took a scientifically detailed approach to the subject – including plants introduced into Britain from the Americas – and London-based Thomas Fairchild’s The City Gardener (1722), the earliest guide to urban gardening.

The later choices happily include female gardeners and writers. An early practical guide for women was The Ladies Flower Garden by Jane Wells Loudon in 1840 which offered practical advice to female gardeners rather than the often condescending ‘guidance’ suggested by male authors.