From the Garden Gate: The Garden Museum in London

Sep 30, 2013

Roy Helton divides his time between teaching in the English Department at Murray State University and indulging his passion for gardening. In this edition of "From the Garden Gate," Roy talks about his visit to The Garden Museum in London. 

The Garden Museum in London

Whenever I teach in England as I did for a month this summer, I always feel as if I’m in a kind of gardeners’ heaven.  This summer I got a chance to visit a museum devoted entirely to gardening.  Located across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament, the Garden History Museum is housed in the rescued and restored medieval church of St Mary-at-Lambeth.

The collection of gardening objects there is not all that large, but it is filled with the kinds of things that can’t help but fascinate any serious gardener. One display, for instance, contains the oldest sprinkler cans I have ever seen. One from sometime in the 1600’s is glazed ceramic and looks pretty much like one you would see today.  One of the first things that caught my attention though was something called a “Thumb Pot.” It is one of the earliest forms of watering can, dating from the time of Shakespeare. Picture a glazed pottery jug with a handle and an opening in the top about the size of a dime. The  jug holds about a gallon and at the bottom has a series of sprinkler holes. You would submerge the whole thing in water until it filled, and then cover the top hole with your thumb and lift the pot.  Then you could control the release of water with your thumb—the same way you can with liquid in a soda straw.

Lots of garden implements today—things like hedge trimmers and pruning saws and digging tools--look pretty much like what they did in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

The oddest group of garden tools consisted of walking sticks from the 19th and early 20th centuries—a time when it was fashionable to be a so-called Gentleman Gardner. That meant that you could wear your tweeds and garden, but with no intention of actually getting grubby.  There were walking sticks that allowed for weeding, for pruning, for slashing, or specifically for uprooting dandelions.

In the early 20th century spraying pesticides was achieved with a contraption called a Knapsack Sprayer. I cannot imagine strapping that thing onto my back.  It appeared to be made entirely of copper, looked a great deal like a fair sized fire extinguisher,  and had more tubes and valves than your average espresso machine.  

Passing through the church, you enter the high-walled garden, created in 1980 to incorporate the existing tomb of one of the world’s first and greatest plant hunters and collectors, John Tradescant.  Tradescant was gardener to both Kings James I and Charles I.  This beautiful recreation of a 17th century knot garden has the basic structural border elements of the knot itself in low, clipped boxwood.  The knot garden and other parts of the garden are planted with the flowers which grew in Tradescant’s London garden four centuries ago.  I noticed hollyhocks and mallow, oregano and alliums, columbine and acanthus, rose campion and tradescantia.  And yep, tradescantia, or spiderwort, is named for John Tradescant.

The area surrounding the knot garden is also planted with species introduced by Tradescant and his son-- such as the scarlet runner bean, red maple and tulip tree--and many others grown by both of them in their Lambeth area garden. 

Unlike your average garden, this one is over the burial ground of a church, which in this case also contains the grave of Elizabeth Boleyn, mother of Queen Anne Boleyn, and the large tomb of one William Bligh, made famous forever by the mutiny on the Bounty.

Well, here’s to you—from the garden gate.