This morning I tied in some tomato plants to their canes and removed a few side shoots and lower leaves, the scent of the foliage transporting me back to my father’s allotment in Sunderland. There, in a greenhouse constructed from old window panes, he grew luscious, sweet tomatoes, fed and watered by “filtered beer”. It was some years before we realised that he was filtering the beer through his kidneys, which didn’t impress my mother. Stephen King captured it beautifully when he said that we don’t buy beer, we only rent it*, and feeding tomato plants rather than flushing it down the toilet is certainly the environmentally savvy solution. Clearly my dad was an environmentalist before his time.
These childhood allotment memories represent my first exposure to horticulture, an interest and a practise that has remained with me ever since. I’ve always gardened and, even when I didn’t own or rent a garden, I grew house plants. This link between scientists and their gardens is a persistent one. For example I’ve recently finished reading The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf’s great biography of Alexander von Humboldt, and gardens feature several times as places of calm and inspiration for both Humboldt and his mentor Goethe.
There are many other historical scientists who have used and been inspired by the gardens they have cultivated. Humboldt’s friend and colleague Aimé Bonpland maintained a garden during his time in South America. Darwin’s garden at Down House certainly inspired the great man, and he carried out numerous experiments on plants and earthworms there. The University of Uppsala maintains the garden in which Linnaeus cultivated plants that he used in his teaching and research (I’ve visited this a couple of times, well worth the trip if you are in that part of Sweden).
More recently I can think of several prominent scientists in my own area of pollination ecology and plant reproduction who are also keen gardeners. These include: John Richards (formerly of Newcastle University); Spencer Barrett (whose garden photo gallery shows the location where he did some of the work on the mating costs of large floral displays, subsequently published in Nature!); Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex; and Simon Potts (University of Reading) who (if my memory of a talk he gave a couple of years ago is correct) has experimental plots set up on his lawn.
There must be many others and I’d be grateful for other examples – please comment below. All of the individuals noted above are “biologists” in the broadest sense so I’d be particularly interested for suggestions of scientists in other fields who are also gardeners, or inspired by gardens.
The garden that Karin and I are developing in Northampton (pictured above) serves many functions: as a centre of quiet relaxation, a place to write, to be inspired by the pollinators and their behaviour, to enjoy physical labour, grow food, and (occasionally) to collect data. I cannot imagine being a scientist without a garden; as Francis Bacon said, “it is the purest of human pleasures”. However he was writing in the 16th century before the advent of pesticides, herbicides, inorganic fertilisers, electric mowers, and other gardening modernities that, one way or another, can have a profound environmental impact. Good gardening must be tempered with a sense of how we go about those activities in a way that minimises that impact.
*I first read it in King’s novel From a Buick 8, but a quick google suggests that it was originally an Archie Bunker line.