On a once neglected plot on their recently inherited estate, the Duchess of Northumberland undertook to make a special garden.  Inspired by a trip to the Medici estates in Italy, the Duchess wanted to make a garden that was both beautiful and educational.  The carefully-tended plot features things like atropa belladonna, datura, laurel, monkshood, white hellebore, blue ensign flowers, and narcissus.  It’s called the Alnwick Poison Garden because like the sign at the front gate says, “Do not touch any of the plants, don’t even smell them. These plants can kill you.”

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The earliest domesticated plants and horticulture that we have evidence of –so far– date to 9,000 BCE in the Levantine Corridor, which runs from Dead Sea to the Damascus Basin.  The people there planted grains and legumes using sticks to dig the dirt.  The first written reference to gardening dates back to Sumer in Lower Mesopotamia.  Gilgamesh mentions that his city, Uruk, was ‘one third gardens,’ but he probably meant something more like an orchard.  From Egypt, we have paintings and models of gardeners at work.  You can still see the remains of the temple gardens at Karnak.  Or you can head over the Iran to Passargadae to see the layout and irrigation channels of a garden that was created 2500 years ago.  For the oldest garden we can find in Europe, head over to Greece, where gardens, both practical and ornamental, were being put in by 7000 BCE, 2000 years before the Egyptians.  The creation of a new science, botany, the study of plants, meant that gardens became places of learning.  Even in the ancient world, gardens could be an aesthetic choice as well as a practical one.  Evidence suggests the idea originated in Persia with Darius the Great and his paradise garden, beginning a tradition of wall-in gardens.  Lavish villa gardens in the Roman empire spread to China and Japan, where aristocratic gardens featuring miniaturized and simulated natural landscapes, like rock gardens and waterfalls.  Natural elements symbolized power and religious thought.  Zen gardens appeared, and emphasized the concept of using a garden for reflection and increasing one’s own wisdom.  

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The most famous garden in the ancient world is undoubtedly the hanging gardens of Babylon.  According to legend, in the 6th century BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar built the gardens for his wife, Amytis, to ensure she didn’t become homesick for Media near the Caspian Sea.  But we don’t get details of the garden from Nebuchadnezzar himself, which is odd considering he recorded his many accomplishments in cuneiform and there’s no mention of the gardens.  Several ancient Roman and Greek writers wrote about the gardens. They wrote about why they were built, how they were built, and the size of the gardens. They even described how the gardens were watered.  Some scholars argue the gardens were actually built by an Assyrian queen or the king of Nineveh.   We don’t know for sure, because, despite the gardens being one of the seven wonders of the world, we can’t find it to study it.  It’s believed to have been destroyed by an earthquake in the first century CE.

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So why are they called the hanging gardens?  Were they all done in hanging baskets?  Bonus fact — the largest hanging planter basket in the world is on the side of the Hotel Indigo inthe Paddington section of London.  It measures 10x20ft/3x6m and weighs upwards of half a ton.  The hanging gardens didn’t really hang, they over-hung or draped.  In their defense, the draping garden doesn’t sound nearly as appealing.  Accepting the premise that some royal or another wanted to build a royally grand garden in the desert, it was going to take careful planning and serious engineering to pull it off.  The structure was a ziggurat or stepped pyramid, with walls between 20 and 75 ft high, depending on which ancient account you’re reading.  So picture a walled city in the desert.  Rising in the center of it, alongside the palace, is a tower of green.  Palms rise from terraces dripping with vines and sparkling with flowers.

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If the gardens existed with the dimensions and abundance of plants described, it would have required over 8,00 gallons of water, a day.  And archeologists aren’t sure if that would have been possible.  Irrigation was a thing, of course, but to get that much water to the top of a building was no mean feat.  Even the earliest technology for raising large quantities of water, like the Archimedes screw, were still centuries away.  Can we really be sure the hanging gardens even existed?  one group of German archeologists spent a whopping 20 years there at the turn of the 20th century, hoping to finally unearth the long-lost wonder. But they were out of luck — they didn’t find a single clue.  Dr. Stephanie Dalley of Oxford University uncovered new translations of ancient texts which lean into the theory that Sennacherib of Nineveh had the gardens built, which would put them in the area of modern-day Mosul.

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Amazing ancient gardens don’t mean lost gardens.  If you’re impressed by hanging gardens, wait until you hear about floating gardens.  My buddy Matt from Nooks and Crannies podcast is here to tell you more.

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Back to the march of time down the garden path.  In medieval times the monasteries were the main repositories of gardening knowledge and the important herbal lore. Though little is certainly known about the design and content of the monastic garden, it probably consisted of a walled courtyard built around a well or an arbour, with colour provided by flowers (some of which, including roses and lilies, served as ecclesiastical symbols), all of which maintained the ancient idea of the garden as a place of contemplation.

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The earliest account of gardening in English, The Feate of Gardening, dating from about 1400, mentions the use of more than 100 plants, complete with instructions planting herbs and grafting trees.  There were lots of names you’d recognise: parsley, sage, fennel, thyme, turnip, spinach, leek, lettuce, and garlic.

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Early gardening was largely practical, but the Renaissance, with its increased prosperity, brought an upsurge of curiosity about the natural world and, incidentally, stirred interest in composing harmonious forms in the garden.  The French, especially, were all about that carry-on.  The great gardens of Europe derived from the influence of the French designer André Le Nôtre, creator of the gardens at Versailles.  The French style represented extreme formality, clean lines, intricate designs, and a layout that would frame the house.  The widespread adoption of this style among the European nobility and gentry reflected the potency of French cultural influence at the time. The garden of the palace of Versaille, that the English were emulating, are a precise, prisinte, torturously manicured affair that took 40 years to complete and covered 800 acres, twice the size of the principality of Monaco.

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The industrial revolution changed the world in many ways, the least of them bringing more than half of the world’s population into cities where they couldn’t grow their own food.  Large cities like London, Paris, and New York, and later the major cities of India and China, were dirty and polluted because of industry, inadequate housing, and the lack of healthy open spaces.  Gardening as an institution got smaller, so farming, aided by new machines and technology, got bigger.  

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At the turn of the 1900’s, food production was at a low in both the United States and Europe. Food prices in America soared.  People were encouraged to go meatless and wheatless to ameliorate the shortages.  A few weeks before the US entered WWI, the National War Garden Commission was formed to encourage people to grow their own food, so the crops of large farms could go to soldiers.  Enter the Victory Garden.

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Propaganda posters encouraged civilians to “Sow the seeds of victory” by planting their own vegetables, and local organizations like women’s clubs and chambers of commerce help spread the word.  Newly-minted gardeners were provided with instruction pamphlets on what to plant in their area, when and how.  People latched right on to the idea.  Knowing people would have food they’d need to preserve, the government began distributing booklets on canning and drying food.  Even children were encouraged to garden; the federal Bureau of Education initiated a U.S. School Garden Army (USSGA) to mobilize children to enlist as “soldiers of the soil.”   In 1917 alone, more than 3 million new gardens were planted, rising to more than 5.2 million in 1918, which generated an estimated 1.45 million quarts of canned fruits and vegetables.  And that’s just the US.  Over in Britain they had allotments, land assigned to citizens to garden on, many of which families maintain a century.  You can hear more in episode 104, Making Do. 

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Victory gardens became important a generation later when we, as a species, had a war after the war to end all wars.  Eleanor Roosevelt even planted a victory garden on the White House lawn.  This time, rationing became a major part of people’s dinner tables, but if you grew it yourself, you could eat as much as you want.  Throughout both world wars, the Victory Garden campaign served as a successful means of expressing patriotism, safeguarding against food shortages on the home front, and easing the burden on the commercial farmers working arduously to feed troops and civilians overseas.  It was also a boost of morale and camaraderie.  We were all in it together.  I think that feeling is part of why so many people are gardening right now.  If you’ve got a garden going, even if it’s a window box in your apartment, post a picture and tag the show.

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From kids books to that Super Bowl ad a few years back, if you ask someone to picture a gardener, it will be a matronly woman with a warm, satisfied smile.  If you picture a farmer, it’s the same archetype every time — middle aged man, plaid shirt, slightly leathery skin.  This farmer archetype will undoubtedly be white.  This isn’t a narrow margin of demographic disparity; 98% of rural land is owned by white farmers.  Black farmers are 1.4% of US farmers, but 100 years ago, it was 10 times more than that.  Ownership has dropped from 41.4 million acres of land to 4.7 million acres.  

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This depletion didn’t just happen. The Atlantic slave trade stole not only lives and labor but also the enslaved people’s agricultural knowledge.  South Carolina became a thing thanks to rice plantations, whose muddy fields couldn’t be worked with machines, thanks to the expertise of people trafficked from the Senegambia region of West Africa. They also applied their knowledgeable hands to okra, millet, cowpeas, and sorghum.  Have you ever wondered how the enslaved people brought seeds from Africa under those circumstances.  Some women, knowing their family could be taken, would braid the seeds into their hair, to keep their traditions with them.

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After the post-Emancipation promise of “40 acres and a mule” crumbled under the weight of President Andrew Johnson’s stunningly blatant racism, even by old-timey standards–he was really an atrocious excuse for a human being.  Black farmers were relegated to sharecropping, a system that made the white land-owner richer while driving the black tenants farther into inescapable debt, like the payday lending system these days, but with food.  It would take until the early 1900s that black farmers to be able to buy their own land, usually in small parcels, a few acres at a time.  These limitations didn’t limit the intellectual curiosity of the black farmers, who pioneered methods that are still used today.  Remember George Washington Carver, the man who figured out 100 different things to do with peanuts, except grind them and pair them with jelly.  He sought ways to use peanuts to make them a more financially worthwhile crop so he could convince gardeners and farmers to plant peanuts as part of crop rotation.  Peanuts and other legumes put nitrogen back in the soil after it has been taken out by mono-crops like corn, cotton, and tobacco, thus improving the soil.  Carver also developed a system for spreading his research directly to the community through workshops and demonstrations, a system that would later become the US Department of Agriculture’s extension program.  Ever read a gardening book or google a gardening question and it tells you to call your local Extension agent?  That all started with George Carver. 

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Black farm ownership peaked in 1920.  Unfortunately, that coincides with the rise of the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan.  They couldn’t have black families able to support themselves; that just wouldn’t do.  They drove black people off their land through terror or stole it through legal chicanery.  During the 20th century, the price of open land rose dramatically, moving self-sufficiency farther from black hands, and that trend hasn’t changed.  Forced into cities, black people in America were denied the opportunity to grow their own food that even suburbanites can enjoy.  But there is a drive to reclaim a sort of agrarian equality.  Leah Penniman, author of Farming While Black, is co-director of Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York.  Their mission “focuses on training the next generation of Black and brown farmers, as well as providing food and medicine for our community,” she said. The farm is part of a coalition of groups “claiming sovereignty and calling for reparations of land and resources so that we can grow nourishing food and distribute it in our communities.”  Soul Fire Farm also leads the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, which calls on “good-hearted, good-minded people” to donate land, which will then be farmed by people of color, and so far several hundred acres have been put into trusts to be donated.  Here in my hometown of Richmond, VA, an organization called Happily Natural is on a mission to help people in food-insecure urban areas by garden boxes, soil, toils and training to grow their own food.  They kicked this effort into overdrive during the Covid lockdown when it became even more difficult for people in food deserts to get groceries.  You can donate to their Resiliency Gardening Initiative at thenaturalfestival.com.

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Speaking of people doing remarkable things with gardens, there are gardens out there in the world today that are must-haves for any travel itinerary, like the Garden of Cosmic Speculation in England, which looks like it was designed by MC Escher with help from Salvidor Dali and a consult with Dr Seuss.

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Step Garden at Acros Fukuoka

Thilafushi, the Garbage Island

Location: Fukuoka, Japan Background: Adding a new building in Fukuoka, Japan, forced designers to encroach upon one of the last green spaces in the densely populated city. Eco-centric architecture firm Emilio Ambasz & Associates created a unique 5400-square-meter green area that flows into what remains of the park by snaking this 14-story, ziggurat-like garden up the side of the civic center. Why It’s Unique: Acros Fukuoka’s walls are mostly glass, allowing natural light to flood the building year-round. “I’m assuming that they probably did the green side facing south, and the glass is on the north side because of heat-gain issues,” Callaway says, noting that a relatively new trend is companies creating vertical green panels that can be used on the sides of buildings. But Step Garden is no aftermarket add-on. In 1995, when the building opened, Step Garden had 37,000 plants spanning 76 varieties. Today, there are more than 120 varieties and 50,000 plants. And just because the garden runs up the side of a massive building doesn’t mean it’s off limits. Two entrances from the park allow residents and visitors to meander up steps that cut through the greenery.

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The Greenhouses of Almería

Florida’s Isola di Lolando

Location: Almería, Spain Background: Not all gardens are about leisure; some are money-making machines. The roughly 20,000 square hectares of greenhouses on the southeast coast of Spain churn out fruit and vegetables by the ton on a year-round basis, fueling the province of Almería’s economy. The greenhouses are packed together so tightly that they’re visible from space. Why It’s Unique: Almería’s sea of white-roofed greenhouse is so vast that researchers from the University of Almeria estimate that the local temperature has dropped an average of 0.3 degrees Celsius every 10 years since 1983. “What they’re going to do is do the cheapest thing possible because its business, but it looks like a totally functional thing that just happened,” Callaway says. “There’s a certain elegance and industrial beauty in factories and anything that has a functional purpose.” The potential cooling effect from the reflective nature of the white roofs has led some experts to suggest that similar designs can be used in geoengineering projects to help bring down the temperature in certain regions.

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The Lost Gardens of Heligan

Northstar Island

JOINT PIPELINE OFFICE

Location: Cornwall, England Background: England’s Lost Gardens of Heligan have a storied history of prosperity, neglect and rejuvenation. The once glorious Heligan estate fell into disrepair as World War I creeped into England and priorities shifted. Nature took its course in the decades that followed, swallowing the gardens and obscuring the walkways. It wasn’t until 1990 that two descendants of the Tremayne family—the owning family of the estate dating back to 1200—discovered a small garden and decided to revamp the site. Why It’s Unique: Before there were Chia Pets, there were the much larger Mud Maid and Giant’s Head of Heligan. Callaway says there is a fine line between kitsch and art, but these two sculptures are wonderful additions to the garden. “It could be that those mud sculptures are much better now than they were in the beginning,” Callaway says. “Because now they have the patina of age.” In addition to these impressive sculptures, Heligan also boasts an Italian Garden, an extensive jungle section and an alpine-inspired ravine.

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And if all that’s not interesting enough for you, you can always travel farther.  A lot farther.  Geosynchronous orbit, in fact.  Yup, there’s a garden on the international space station.  More or less.  Mankind has been sending plants and seeds into space since we first broke the surly bonds of earth.  The first organisms in space were “specially developed strains of seeds” launched on a U.S. V-2 rocket in July 1946, though we weren’t able to recover them afterwards. The first seeds launched into space *and recovered were corn or maize seeds launched later that same year, followed by rye and cotton.  The seeds were being sent up by Harvard University and the Naval Research Laboratory to see how cosmic radiation exposure would affect them.  In 1971, 500 tree seeds were flown around the Moon on Apollo 14, brought back, planted and distributed throughout the country, as well as Brazil, Italy, and Switzerland, and then most of them were promptly forgotten about. 

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In 1982, the crew of the Soviet Salyut 7 space station grew some rockcress, a plant related to mustard and cabbage, which became the first plants to flower and produce seeds in space.  A Skylab crew experimented on the effects of gravity and light on rice plants, before they got more data than they wanted on the effect of gravity on a space station.  In 1997, The SVET-2 Space Greenhouse successfully achieved a full life-cycle of plant growth aboard space station Mir.

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Every year or so, a new system is developed to help us grow food in space in the unique challenges of weightlessness, lack of natural lack, and a lack of soil, which is far too heavy to take into space.  The Vegetable Production System (Veggie) system was tested with lettuce, Swiss chard, radishes, Chinese cabbage and peas before being sent to the ISS.  Red Romaine lettuce was grown in space on Expedition 40, which is not bad considering the difficulty I have with it here on earth.  Expedition 44 saw the first American astronauts to eat plants grown in space in 2015, when their crop of Red Romaine was harvested.  Imagine how great a fresh salad must taste after weeks of pre-packaged, processed food.  Since 2003, Russian cosmonauts have been eating half of what they grow, while the other half is used in research.  In 2012, a sunflower bloomed aboard the ISS under the care of NASA astronaut Donald Pettit.  How did it know which way to look?   In 2017 the Advanced Plant Habitat was designed for ISS, which was a nearly self-sustaining plant growth system for that space station in low Earth orbit.  It works with the Veggie system, but doesn’t need as much upkeep by humans.  Some plants that were to be tested in APH include Dwarf Wheat and the rockcress again.  In December 2017 hundreds of seeds were delivered to ISS for growth in the VEGGIE system.  And on and on.

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And that’s … After visiting the infamous Medici poison garden and the archeological site of a Scottish monastic hospital, the duchess of Northumberland became enthralled with the idea of creating a tourist attraction out of plants that kill.  According to the Duchess, “Children don’t care that aspirin comes from a bark of a tree. What’s really interesting is to know how a plant kills you, and how the patient dies, and what you feel like before you die.”  Many visitors are surprised to see plants in the poison garden that they have around their own homes, like laurel hedges, which can produce cyanide vapors when cut.  Though you might not have heard of the poison garden, you may even have seen Alnwick Castle– it stood in for Hogwarts in two of the Harry Potter movies.  Remember…thanks…

 

Sources:

https://www.gardenvisit.com/blog/where-was-the-worlds-first-garden-made/

https://www.britannica.com/science/gardening/The-French-style

https://www.popularmechanics.com/home/lawn-garden/how-to/g348/worlds-18-strangest-gardens/

https://www.cntraveler.com/galleries/2015-05-01/weird-and-wonderful-gardens-around-the-world

https://phys.org/news/2018-05-space-gardening-giant-leaf-mankind.html#:~:text=Necessary%20nutrients%2C%20like%20vitamins%20C,clotting%2C%20cancer%20and%20heart%20disease.

https://www.motherjones.com/food/2020/06/black-farmers-soul-fire-farm-reparations-african-legacy-agriculture/?fbclid=IwAR05OsVlP8qgNC_oQds9onHn2CnChwVetRqz3Bvb9JiNr4HiDkY4ppnfdDk

https://thebackyardgnome.com/history-and-evolution-of-gardens/

https://adventure.howstuffworks.com/seven-wonder-ancient-world2.htm

https://allthatsinteresting.com/hanging-gardens-of-babylon

https://www.history.com/news/americas-patriotic-victory-gardens#:~:text=In%20March%20of%201917%C2%AC,could%20be%20exported%20to%20our