Scientists and gardens


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.

16 thoughts on “Scientists and gardens

  1. restlessboundaries

    I really enjoyed reading this and it brought back some memories of my father and helping him in his garden. To my knowledge he never fed his tomatoes with filtered beer, though. I’ll have to ask him.
    With regard to other scientists who were gardeners who were inspired by gardens, two people that immediately come to mind are Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Although, I suppose Jefferson may not be considered a scientist, but more of a Renaissance man dabbling in many disciplines.

  2. Murtagh's Meadow

    While my work as an ecologist is pretty restricted these days I do still consider myself such and I love my garden. Like you I grow food, but also do my best to encourage wildlife by having plenty wild areas and I have a wildflower meadow which I am constantly “experimenting” with but not necessarily scientifically! Part of my bee and butterfly transects also got through my garden. This year has been a particularly good wildlife year for the garden and in the last month we have recorded an adult and young long eared owl and just this week a pine marten!!

      1. Murtagh's Meadow

        We have the benefit of living in the countryside – the photo of your garden looks lovely though:)

  3. Helen

    Sadly, though I have been to the University of Uppsala, I have not seen the garden. I will have to make a point of going next time I visit a friend in Stockholm.

    Your garden looks very interesting.

  4. afrenchgarden

    So interesting and the book recommendation helped with a birthday problem. I’ll try the Kindle version for myself, for the mobility, but I think the lack of clear images in the Kindle format might be a problem. Amelia

  5. Pingback: The Danish for garden is “haven”: five reasons why I love Gardener’s World | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

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