England’s Magnificent Gardens: How a Billion-Dollar Industry Transformed a Nation, from Charles II to Today by Roderick Floud

In early 1701, visiting the lavish work being done on his new Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace, William III noticed that he couldn’t see the Thames from his first-floor rooms. He immediately ordered the garden be lowered by 8ft so he could get his view. Over the next few months, men dug out the earth, moved the pipes for the fountains, shifted the statues and laid out the plants.

Visiting again later in the summer, the truculent king complained that he still couldn’t see the river. “All the newly installed plants, grass, paths, pipes, fountains and statues,” writes Roderick Floud, “had to be removed and [a further] 3ft of soil taken from an area of five acres before all the plants and equipment were put back.”

This sort of behavior, and this sort of extravagance, is typical in Floud’s survey of 350 years of English gardening. Thirty-odd years later, the equally willful Frederick, Prince of Wales, wanted an instant garden for his palace at Carlton House, north of St James’s Park. Unable to wait for the trees and shrubs to grow, he ordered them to be transplanted wholesale. Within three years 15,000 trees (including a 25ft-high tulip tree and 18ft Virginia black walnut), plus thousands and thousands of shrubs, bulbs and plants, two giant pumping stations, an aviary and a bath-house had been rushed in, at a cost of $14.6 million, in today’s money.

This is a very different kind of gardening book. It’s not about design or horticultural techniques, but is a history — the first of its kind, the author claims — of the economics of gardening, financial excess and all, from Charles II to today.

A Dirty Business

Floud is an economic historian, and he is tired of seeing gardening being treated by fellow academics as a hobby, when it should be seen as an industry — or if not an industry, then at the very least “one of the greatest, and certainly most conspicuous, forms of expenditure on luxury in England since the 17th century”. His heroic attempt to apply the same criteria to it as, say, to factories or agriculture might sound dry. In fact, it is often extraordinarily interesting.

Floud impresses on us the sheer scale of what we’re dealing with here. Changes wrought to the grounds of England’s 5,000 or so country houses in the 18th and 19th centuries dramatically altered the landscape of the country, and incurred huge costs. Capability Brown took six years, and charged nearly $45 million in today’s money, to create Blenheim Palace’s 150-acre lake. The space he excavated was so large that, after six separate layers of clay had been rammed in to prevent leakage (the first of them 4ft thick), it took two years to fill with water.

Over the centuries, garden designers have diverted rivers, created and flattened hills, and introduced a whole battery of technological advances that were subsequently taken up elsewhere, from heating systems to glass-and-steel houses (it is a gardener, John Claudius Loudon, who is credited with being “the true father of curvilinear iron and glass architecture”).

The passion for gardening even influenced town planning, with the generous rule of 12 houses an acre in urban areas and eight houses an acre in rural areas becoming the norm for developments after the First World War. “Gardens, in short,” says Floud, “are far more important to our economy and society than even their greatest devotees have realised.”

“One of the greatest, and certainly most conspicuous, forms of expenditure on luxury in England since the 17th century.”

Because of the nature of the records, much of Floud’s book is a chronicle of extravagance, as kings, queens and aristocrats sought to express their power through their gardens. Vast amounts were spent on over-the-top landscaping projects in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Charles Hamilton created at Painshill, on the outskirts of southwest London, a lavish space that had a 14-acre lake, “tree-lined ‘Alpine’ valleys, a vineyard, flower gardens on an ‘Elysian plain’, temples, a ‘Chinese’ bridge and a hermit’s hut” that, for a brief period at least, housed a real (paid) hermit. When guests came to visit, a gardener was employed to “conceal himself and let fall a cascade of water”. The whole conceit set Hamilton back $19.7 million in today’s money.

The people who fed off this extravagance could also make themselves extremely rich. Brown’s account books show that he turned over the equivalent of $1.1 billion in his career, and gave away $49 million to his family. His most famous precursors, Henry Wise and George London, who were nurserymen as well as designers, had a business at Brompton Park Nursery that covered 100 acres of South Kensington and was said to have contained 10 million plants. When he died in 1738, Wise was reputed to be worth $506 million in today’s money.

Capability Brown took six years, and charged nearly $45 million in today’s money, to create Blenheim Palace’s 150-acre lake.

The sums expended on gardens might sound vast, but the rich did it because they could easily afford it. “Very few of these men [sic] were constrained by their incomes,” he points out. Lord Boringdon, the owner of Saltram House in Devon, listed all his expenditure in minute detail in the early 19th century. Amid the money spent on paintings, racehorses and even his children’s shoes, maintenance of his gardens took up less than $444,000 of his annual income of $13.2 million.

And in case we think they did it differently then to today, Floud points out that the 4th Duke of Marlborough may have spent most of the $49 million he lavished on Brown at Blenheim on that lake, but the current estate is due to spend $8.4 million in 2020 just clearing it of silt.

The $59 million spent at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland between 2000 and 2007 restoring part of the gardens more than matches any expenditure by 17th- and 18th-century aristocrats, and Floud shows that current annual expenditure on London’s royal parks, $38 million, is more than was spent each year on creating them during the 17th and 18th centuries.

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.

The monumentally impatient Frederick, Prince of Wales, for instance, paid the equivalent of $53,791 for that 25-ft tulip tree for Carlton House in 1734 (it had to be imported from America) and $10,758 for another, smaller type of tulip tree. Forty years later, the smaller one was selling for the equivalent of $310. Today, Floud notes, you can buy one at your local garden center for about a fiver.

Andrew Holgate is the literary editor for The Sunday Times of London