Origins of the Gardeners’ Almanac

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Creating a guide and schedule to planting helped sustain gardeners who depended on their harvest for survival.
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“The Compendium of Amazing Gardening Innovations” by Abigail Willis taps into the history of gardening through the eyes of the botanists and explorers who cultivated it.

The Compendium of Gardening Innovations (Laurence King Publishing, 2018) by Abigail Willis explores the history of gardening and the ingenious discoveries that shaped it into the productive past-time, passion, and livelihood that it is today. Willis is a qualified gardener through the Royal Horticulture Society in the UK. She writes for the London Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph, and has authored another book called The London Garden Book A-Z. The illustrations are by Dave Hopkins whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Economist and Mojo. The following excerpt explores the history of the Gardeners’ Almanac.

Part instruction manual, part aide-memoire, the gardener’s calendar or almanac is an evergreen staple of gardening literature. One of the first month-by-month manuals in English of these seasonal guides to what to do in the garden, and when, was John Evelyn’s Kalendarium Hortense; or, the Gardners’ Almanac, first published in 1664 and running to many editions.

Roman agricultural writers included gardening in their dos and dont’s of estate management. Columella, writing in the first century AD, devoted a whole book to it with his multi-volume work De Re Rustica. Columella covered the gardening year and contained instructions on soil preparation, pest control and what plant varieties to sow.

Roman agronomists were still being consulted well into the Renaissance era by writers such as Thomas Hill, whose mid-sixteenth-century book, the catchily titled A most brief and pleasaunte treatise teachynge how to dresse, sowe and set a garden, was the first gardening book to be published in English. Despite its derivative content, it ran to several editions, as did Hill’s subsequent book, The Gardener’s Labyrinth. Published posthumously in 1577, this illustrated manual contained ‘instructions for the choice of seedes, apt times for sowing, setting, planting and watering’, as well as ideas for laying out knot gardens, mazes and herb gardens.

Published in 1664 as an appendix to Sylva, his great work on trees, John Evelyn’s Kalendarium Hortense offered a month-by-month to-do list in the orchard, kitchen garden, parterre and flower garden, along with lists of which fruit and flowers would be at their best. The tone is brisk and authoritative, and palpably written from personal experience. Evelyn, a leading figure of the English Enlightenment and a founder member of the Royal Society, was a knowledgeable gardener, putting his ideas into practice over many years in his garden at Sayes Court, in Deptford.

Evelyn’s almanac set the bar for future calendars and is still worth consulting today (remembering that Evelyn was working from the Julian calendar, rather than the Gregorian). It provides a roster of tasks for the whole garden year, including manuring, sowing, propagation, weed-killing (a July job, using salt water, potash and tobacco) and on- going ‘hostilities’ against vermin. There are instructions on using hot beds to get ‘fine and tender seeds’ off to an early start, and reminders to protect crops against the cold.

A century later, ‘best modern practice’ informs John Abercrombie’s 1767 tome Every Man his Own Gardener. A gardener by profession, Abercrombie’s book included not just what to do each month and when, but also the nitty-gritty of how. Detailed instructions on ‘the method of proceeding’, crop by crop, ensured that it was still in print at least 50 years after its author’s death in 1806.

While Abercrombie’s book was pitched at ‘gentlemen and young professors’, Mrs Loudon’s The Amateur Gardener’s Calendar (1847) provided practical guidance for recreational gardeners. As well as offering guidance on the when, what and how of the gardening year, the doyenne of Victorian gardening literature innovatively instructed on ‘things not to be done’, saving her enthusiastic amateur readers from rookie errors such as pruning in frosty weather or digging up their tulips too soon.

Each age gets the gardening calendar it needs. Mrs Loudon’s advised on that most Victorian of garden features, the shrubbery, and how best to apply the miracle fertilizer of the age, guano. During World War II, the BBC’s radio gardener C. H. Middleton helped the population dig for victory with his month-by-month guides such as Your Garden in War-Time (1941) and Digging for Victory (1942).

Gardeners’ almanacs continue into the digital age: the RHS website can be consulted at the click of a mouse, and many online plant suppliers also offer month-by-month advice on what to do in the garden – as well as advice on what to buy, of course.

More from The Compendium of Amazing Gardening Innovations:

Reprinted with permission from The Compendium of Amazing Gardening Innovationsby Abigail Willis and published by Laurence King Publishing, 2018.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.