Great Gardeners of History/Chelsea #4

Let us away from Chelsea, that foul and feckless temple to Mammon, away from esurient financiers and hoggish merchants, away from all corporate Champagne and amalgamated sponsorship. This week join me in simpler times; come and meet the next great gardener of history – founder of the first botanical garden, creator of the herbaria and the finest plant collector since Theophrastus. Let’s lose ourselves in his scholarly Eden, marvel at his Jerusalem artichokes and gasp as he conjures sunflowers before our under-stimulated European eyes. Let’s stick fingers in our ears and for these moments ignore the shadow of his patron, deep-pocketed and long-knifed Cosimo I die Medici – we know there’s no place for bankers in gardening.

In 1543 Luca Ghini created the world first botanical garden at the University of Pisa. After the Middle-Ages’ one and half millennia of horticultural stagnation, he removed plants from the pages of the illuminated manuscript and placed them where they belonged and have remained ever since, in the ground. Natural intellect, flair and Medici money combined to leave us a legacy that we all enjoy today.

Luca Ghini

Before Ghini started his garden, horticulture was in a sorry state. The ancient Greeks and Romans had undertaken intensive studies of their native flora, and recorded their findings in magnificent books, such as Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica. These pagan savants gifted their learning and illustrations to their Christian progeny, who spent 1500 years slavishly copying copies of copies (more to curtail monastic masturbation that for a love of learning) until all diagrams resembled either blobs with leaves or leaves with blobs.

Cosimo I dei Medici

But a good Renaissance will do wonders for a peoples’ self confidence, and by the 16th century, Western Europe, having already challenged the ancients in sculpture, music and architecture, finally got around to the greatest art – gardening. Ghini was our standard bearer. Such was his confidence that shortly after founding the garden he wrote to a correspondent:

of horminum I have two species, cultivated and wild. I am sending you both plants dried and glued to cardboard. It does not matter that Dioscorides mentions only one because in many other cases he does not mention all the species that could be described. I think my dear sir, that you yourself have observed many more Tithymala, ranunculi, polygonata, and so on, than are enumerated by Dioscorides. In my own garden I have three species of hastula regia besides the one described by Dioscorides.

It does not matter what Dioscorides thought! Shocking yet brilliant – stuff Copernicus and his bloody sun – this is the real scientific revelation of the 1540’s. Ghini quickly gathered a circle of apprentices, wowed by his empirical approach and his insistence that plants should be viewed in their natural state. Soon these new creations, “botanical gardens”, spread to Pisa, Florence, Padua and Venice, and from there to the rest of the world.  Wikipedia tells me there are nearly 2000 registered today.

In the1540’s extravagant mercantile wealth and gardening came together to create something of self evident benefit to horticulture and to mankind. Without botanical gardens hundreds of thousands of people’s appreciation of the natural world, and even of life itself, would be hugely diminished – naysayers may scoff, but I’m sure in 500 years time they will say the same thing about pink flying gardens.

Pink flying garden


Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (or, Physalia – the Brilliant Bionic Boat)

Being a gardener I know a few things about building. I know a patio is built on hardcore and sharp sand. I know a pergola is built on 300mm concrete blocks. And I know that life is built on broken dreams. Dreams of plants unflowered, dreams of crops that never grew, and most hauntingly, dreams of the open sea.

The Plan of Broken Dreams

Like most young men I grew up longing to be a pirate. To race around The Spanish Main, cursing and drinking and loosing thunderous broadsides, is there any better way to live? I spent long hours at university practicing my swigging, my spitting and my swashbuckling, all in preparation for the day when I would take up my graduate position as a Scurvy Nave. But it was not to be, man chooses not his fate and I was powerless to resist the call of the garden. So it is that I have spent these past years leaning on my spade and watching as friend after friend pierces his ear, ties his bandanna and embarks for a life of rape and pillage under hot Caribbean sun.

So thank god that after over 6000 years of civilisation someone has finally designed a sea worthy garden. At last the average Joe Horticulture can chase death, doubloons and dusky maidens across the Seven Seas, and not loose his tender annuals to salt spray. I give you the work of Vincent Callebaut and his magnificent floating garden – Physalia.


A collision between a whale, a jellyfish and a fertile architectural imagination, ladies and gentlemen, this is the future.

Physalia commeth

Physalia will travel around the waterways of Europe with a cargo of scientists busily cleaning H20 and researching in a carbon neutral manner.

Physalia on Thames

An exceptionally interesting and eccentric thinker Callebaut has also designed floating cities for climate change refugees and a metabolic farm for urban agriculture in the shape of a butterfly. In his touring botanical garden there will be four main plating areas; Earth, Air, Water and Fire.

Air Garden

Let Callebaut be our catalyst and take to the oceans! Come ye, you alotmenteers and flower heads, you rakers and pruners! You are free gardeners, and you have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea and an army of 100,000 men. We shall grow fat on the blood of the rich while our fruits grow plump in Physalia’s hold and the waterways of Europe become cleaner and cleaner. For me the world has won back a bit of its magic.


And do Gardeners Dream of Electric Sheep? (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love GM.)

Following yesterday’s revelation that the space garden is now within touching distance I thought it appropriate that today’s post be an investigation into the gardens of the future.

Now a lot of people (particularly in the gardening blogosphere) envisage the garden of the future as a completely organic and carbon neutral wonderland, where small allergy-free children can gaily frolic with Arcadian nymphs (and all shall have prizes). An admirable sentiment, and deserving of applause. However has anyone stopped to ask the children what they want? I have, and they want space monsters. So with out further ado I give the garden of the future.

Firstly, my garden will be based around a solar-powered-rainwater-collecting-mega-supertree. Like the ones designed here for a new community garden in Singapore.


City living

The super tree will dominate the skyline of Putney, proudly rising above the municipal housing and local churches, neighbours will complain and dynasties will fall, but it’s solar power generating so I will have the backing of the right thinking majority. At the top of my 20 story mega-tree (or monstrosotree) will be that Putney staple, the outdoor dining set. However this will be a living dining set, genetically modified to fit 8 of my closest friends, some wine and a loaf of foccacia, while still producing leaves and oxygen, never again will I have to climb over the neighbours fence to find an attractive centre piece for my table! I will email the scientists and get them to engineer me leaves with fantastic autumn colour, all year round. Visit to find more about space age living furniture.


GM for the smallest room

These innovations are set to change our cities and gardens forever. Do not think of them as evil but learn to love and embrace them, yes Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster were scary at first, but now see the joy they bring to millions every Halloween. The world is in a mess and climate change is undeniable, but that does not mean that we as gardeners have to revert to Luddite fantasies of small holdings and vegetable patches. Gardens have always been a canvas for romantics and dreamers to live out their fantasies. My fantasy unfolds 100ft above the southwest London on a biotable, who here will stand between a man and his dreams?


Is There Gardening on Mars?

I know that everyone reading this will have had a childhood dream; some of you may even have shared mine, to be a Space Gardener! So you will all know the pain of realising that you will never, ever, ever, accomplish the one thing that could have made your life worthwhile. I finally acknowledged that I would never be a 0G horticulturalist at the age of 18 on the first day of my degree (BA, History). Some sort of internal spark fizzled out in me that day and I though it would never return. Well… its back!!!

O.K its not really being a space gardener but it is as close as I think we (/I) can hope to get. A satellite to tell you whether you plants need watering, certainly beats going outside and checking. I can guarantee that the interminable debate over chemical pesticides VS organic controls will be halted forever when we can simply blast aphids with laser beams from space. Their aint no halting science.