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Good news for history-loving gardeners. March 29, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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3 comments

It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about a real treat for gardeners who also happen to be fans of Early American history, such as yours truly, our friend Ben, and Silence Dogood. A new book, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation (Andrea Wulf, Knopf, $30) was released just today, March 29. I was happy to see that Amazon already has it in stock, and you can buy it there for $17.64 (with free shipping, if you add a second item to your order to bring it to at least $25). It’s also available on the Barnes & Noble website (www.barnesandnoble.com).

This is far from the first book about America’s Founders and their passion for agriculture and gardening, as we’ll soon see. But Ms. Wulf, a British garden design historian, has done us all a service by bringing all the “Founding Gardeners”—Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, even our own hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin—together in a single volume. And she adds a new spin by focusing on how their travels abroad and exchanges with fellow plant-lovers across Europe enriched their own views of America’s gardening and agricultural potential. (Of the Founders, only the frail, sickly Madison never traveled abroad; Washington didn’t get as far as Europe, but did venture off to Jamaica with his brother Lawrence as a young man.)

We think of today’s internet access, services like Skype, and the Global economy as making today’s world a lot smaller and more accessible than the world of the Founders. But in some ways, this is a fallacy. In their day, everyone who was anyone knew everyone, or at least everyone who shared their interests and passions. True, it may have taken longer to get a letter or package, or to get from place to place. But if you were a well-connected plant enthusiast, you’d be in constant correspondence with everyone from John Bartram, America’s first nurseryman, to the great botanists, plant explorers, nurserymen, and garden enthusiasts across Europe, exchanging plants, seeds, techniques, successes and failures, plant gossip, and, of course, the latest styles.

Let’s say you’d barely made it through elementary school when your father, who’d planned to send you to college but was furious at your refusal to become a minister, instead forces you to go to work as a gopher at the local newspaper. Fed up, at 17 you move to a distant state and end up running a paper of your own, along with creating a number of useful societies and institutions and displaying a passion for experiment and invention that causes you to create a lifesaving device used by everyone, which you decline to patent or trademark and allow to pass into the public domain, profiting not a cent or a sou from your work.

Now, imagine that, your eighth-grade education and lack of social standing—not to mention your irregular domestic situation and acknowledged illegitimate child—notwithstanding, you regularly corresponded with Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, President Obama, the Dalai Lama, and pretty much every major figure in science, medicine, technology, literature, music, and philosophy around the world. Possible? Maybe. Likely? Not very. Yet that was Benjamin Franklin, and his contemporaries also had access to the global network of fellow enthusiasts, generalists, and specialists.

I can’t quite see myself—or, say, our friend Ben, with his advanced education, eager mind, and broad-ranging interests—engaging the attention of a Bill Gates, Michelle Obama, or Ekhart Tolle to discuss ideas. Despite our “small world,” there are simply too many of us, and specialization is the order of our day, preventing those who are interested in everything (or even many things) from even finding each other. In today’s world, generalists like Dr. Franklin who were good at many things would be ridiculed rather than revered like folks who kept their interests confined not merely to, say, medicine, but to the most specialized forms of same, such as bariatric surgery.

But I’m straying from the point here. Fortunately, back in the Founders’ day, it was viewed as perfectly reasonable to be, say, a surveyor, soldier, Freemason, landowner, politician, avid plantsman and agricultural innovator, and Father of Our Country, like our first and greatest President, George Washington. Nobody thought it peculiar that someone with Ben Franklin’s stature would take the time to introduce plants like rhubarb to America while off on diplomatic missions.

Anyway, we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac have added Founding Gardeners to our must-have lists. If you’re a gardener who’s also a follower of the Founders, we suggest that you do likewise, or that you suggest that your local library purchase a copy for its collection.  But let’s get back to the other books on the topic. A quick scan of our collective libraries produced some other books you might be interested in checking out*:

Early American Gardens “For Meate or Medicine” (Ann Leighton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970, $10)

American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century “For Use or For Delight” (Ann Leighton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976, $17.50)

Thomas Jefferson: The Garden and Farm Books (Robert C. Baron, ed., Fulcrum, 1987, $20)

Everyday Life in Early America (David Freeman Hawke, Harper & Rowe, 1989, $9.95)

Colonial Gardens (Rudy F. Favretti and Gordon P. DeWolf, Barre Publishers, 1972, no price)

For Every House a Garden: A guide for reproducing period gardens (Rudy and Joy Favretti, The Pequot Press, 1977, $4.95)

Eighteenth Century Life: British and American Gardens (Robert P. Maccubbin and Peter Martin, eds., Special Issue, College of William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Volume VIII, n.s., 2, January 1983, $10)

Herbs and Herb Lore of Colonial America (Colonial Dames of America, Dover Publications Inc., 1995, $3.95)

Gentle Conquest: The Botanical Discovery of North America (James L Reveal, Starwood Publishing, Inc., 1992, no price)

The Art of Colonial Flower Arranging (Jean C. Clark, The Pyne Press, 1974, $8.95)

Farmer George Plants a Nation (Peggy Thomas, Calkins Creek, 2008, $17.95, a wonderful children’s book about, who else, George Washington)

We know we have others, too, but—how embarrassing!—all of us have so many books, we’re just not putting our hands on them right now.

Here are other books I found on Amazon that we need to add to our collections*:

Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon: Landscape of the Inner Man (Mac Griswold, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999, $40)

Colonial Gardens: The Landscape Architecture of George Washington’s Time (American Society of Landscape Architects, United States Bicentennial Commission, 1932, from $52)

Thomas Jefferson’s Flower Gardens at Monticello (Peter J. Hatch, Edwin Morris Betts, and Hazelhurst Bolton Perkins, University of Virginia Press, 3rd ed., 1971, $12.95)

Jefferson’s Garden (Peter Loewer, Stackpole Books, 2004, $21.95)

Thomas Jefferson: Landscape Architect (Frederick Doveton Nichols and Frank E. Griswold, Univeristy of Virginia Press, 2003, $14.95)

Plants of Colonial Days (Raymond L. Taylor, Dover Publications Inc., 2nd. ed., 1996, $5.95) 

Flowers and Herbs of Early America (Lawrence D. Griffith, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Yale University Press, 2010, $24)

Plants of Colonial Williamsburg: How to Identify 200 of Colonial America’s Flowers, Herbs, and Trees (Joan Parry Dutton, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1979, $12.95)

The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg (M. Kent Brinkley and Gordon W. Chappell, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1995, $29.95)

Williamsburg’s Glorious Gardens (Roger Foley, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1996, $19,95)

From a Colonial Garden: Ideas, Decorations, Recipes (Susan Hight Rountree, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2004, $19.95)

Whew, that’s quite a wish list. And we’re sure we’re still missing plenty! Please let us know if you have favorite books on Colonial, Revolutionary, and Federal gardening in our Colonies/States that I’ve overlooked!

                 Warmly,

                             Richard Saunders

* Note that prices are list prices, not Amazon prices, typically considerably lower, unless noted.

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