The Big Question: Can Gardens Make Nations Richer?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Green Carmichael: You’re an economic historian and the author of “England’s Magnificent Gardens: How a Billion-Dollar Industry Transformed a Nation, from Charles II to Today” (published in the U.K. as “An Economic History of the English Garden”). In the book, you argue that gardening as a serious economic activity has been overlooked. During the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the retail bright spots was gardening centers. That seemed to take a lot of people by surprise. As a gardener myself, I was not surprised! Why doesn’t the gardening industry get its due?
Roderick Floud, author, “England’s Magnificent Gardens”: There’s one simple answer, which is that most of our gardening doesn’t form part of GDP, which is about goods and services paid for. The fact is that nowadays, virtually all “do it yourself” gardening is outside the ambit of GDP. Second, people think of gardening as a hobby — they don’t realize how much money they spend on it.
SGC: Yes, you note somewhat ruefully in the book that you added up what you spent on your garden, and it sort of shocked you. Personally, I will never add it up; I can’t bear the thought.
RF: Well, that’s the usual reaction! I also find it quite difficult to get the owners of large gardens to tell me how much they think they spend on it. They just don’t want to know. That’s another reason it’s underestimated.
SGC: Some of the sums that you uncovered from the 350-year period the book covers were just eye-watering. In today’s terms, one of the most famous landscape designers, Capability Brown, was raking in between $25-$64 million a year. The maintenance budget for Chatsworth, in the 1830s, was the equivalent of $2 million a year. If money was no object for some of these big estates, how did garden designers set a price?
RF: When one goes back to the 18th century and looks at Capability Brown or his peers, they’re dealing in a period in which cost accounting was in its infancy. They’re operating with what is described as the “master and servant” method of accounting, which is basically that you simply record all the payments in and all the payments out, and at the end of six months or a year, you add it all up and decide whether you’re bankrupt or you’ve made a profit. It was virtually impossible for the designers of these gardens to know how much they were spending on an individual project.
Some designers — and Capability Brown is the best example — could just name their own price. It was a matter of prestige to have Brown as your designer. The most famous example of garden design in literature is the reference in “Mansfield Park” to Humphry Repton, and what Jane Austen’s character says is, “He’s the man you must go to.” Repton didn’t charge nearly as much as Brown, but he could charge essentially whatever he wanted.
SGC: How did you go about translating the amounts lavished on gardens in previous centuries into today’s dollars and pounds?
RF: The biggest economic innovation of the book is to use comparison with average earnings at the time, rather than using the retail price index. That means that you get comparable figures over time for the amounts of expenditure that you’re dealing with.
If you look at modern examples of big gardens, you find that the sums are entirely believable. The Royal Horticultural Society in Britain has just opened a new garden in Manchester (Bridgewater) on the grounds of an old stately home, and that’s cost them, so far, 35 million pounds. Bridgewater is 150 acres. That is the equivalent acreage of Brown’s largest lake at Blenheim Palace — that lake is 150 acres. The grounds and palace are several times that.
You’re dealing with enormous areas that were being landscaped, and enormous amounts of earth that were being moved in order to do it. They’re basically very big civil engineering projects, and they cost the equivalent.
SGC: You argue that these projects changed the face of England. How so?
RF: There are no natural lakes in England south of the Lake District in Cumbria. All the lakes that we’ve become used to seeing are either created as a result of landscaping, or are reservoirs, or, finally, are the residue of mineral extraction — gravel pits and that kind of thing. So the basic way that they changed the face of England was to create the lakes, which people now think of as natural features of the landscape, but are actually entirely engineered.
That’s important for two reasons. The first is that it shows that gardening is technologically advanced. And secondly, it does actually change the whole shape of the countryside. At Osborne on the Isle of Wight, there’s a valley that runs from the house down to the shore — that was excavated so that Prince Albert King and Queen Victoria could see the sea from the house. At Waddesdon Manor, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild cut off the top of a hill. It was a very silly thing to do, actually, because he removed the topsoil and then the trees wouldn’t grow.
SGC: Speaking of technologies, one of the things that really stood out to me was that sometimes the plants would get central heating before people did — people were heating their greenhouses before their actual houses.
RF: Every time. When I was a boy in the 1950s, we were very unusual in having central heating in our house. You really got 300 years or so of central heating of plants before you had it in the houses.
SGC: When you talk about the various royal landscaping projects, you describe them as essentially government spending. How did all that stimulus affect the industry?
RF: You can argue that government spending kickstarts the garden industry, and then provides an underpinning to it for several centuries. The expenditure that James II, and then William and Mary, and then the Georgian kings were spending on gardens was substantial. The Royal gardeners were working for the government — that is, working for the kings — and also running nurseries and their design businesses on the back of that permanent income. The government expenditure is wholly intertwined with the creation of the garden industry.
SGC: What were some of the other sources of wealth that paid for these gardens?
RF: Well, land, of course. I mean, there are something like 300 to 400 estates of 10,000 acres or more in 18th century England. And all of those essentially had to have a garden because it was socially required.
Another source of income was slavery; there are a number of examples of great houses built on the back of slavery and slave owning, slave trading. The plunder of India also comes back into a number of the very greatest of gardens. Claremont, Robert Clive’s estate outside London, is the best example of that, but there are plenty of others as well.
Then there is military service. You could make a lot of money out of it, both legitimately — because [officers] were very, very well paid — and illegitimately, by skimming off the money from provisioning the troops or investing the wages and taking the interest before paying the troops.
The last is marriage. The one way in which the English nobility were prepared to admit non-nobles into the aristocracy is if they were women with lots of money. The number of daughters of city merchants, bankers and brewers coming into the nobility in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries is very substantial. And then, of course, in the 19th century, you get the heiresses from America — Consuelo Vanderbilt, for example, at Blenheim. The nobility is very good at maintaining itself.
SGC: You had some notes in the book on how stressed out and workaholic these garden designers were. Why?
RF: Well, you’re dealing with self-employed people who have got families and workers they feel responsible for. So they’re in the same position as an awful lot of self-employed people — their financial situation is determined by their next job, or their last job. Second, they’re having to travel a lot around the country in order to get these jobs. You’re dealing with stagecoaches, or you’re having to ride a horse, and there’s the ever-present danger of highwaymen. Finally, you have capricious clients who are used to both having what they want and also changing their minds quite frequently.
SGC: William III, for instance, demanded that a garden at Hampton Court Palace be lowered by several feet, not once but twice — including not only plants, but paths and fountains — so that he could have a clear view of the River Thames.
RF: Yeah. And there are a lot of risks associated with business in the 18th century. After all, you don’t have limited liability. You could end up very easily in the debtors’ prison if you got things wrong. The nobility were notoriously bad at paying their bills. Most entrepreneurs, and not just in gardening, often had huge numbers of people owing them money. So there are plenty of causes of stress.
SGC: Themes of inequality and luxury run through the book, but you don’t draw explicit comparisons to the present day. But do you see any parallels?
RF: Yeah, don’t you? I mean, we’ve got Jeff Bezos saying, “Well, what am I going to spend my money on?” and spending it on putting himself in a rocket. It seems to me that by comparison, building a beautiful garden is really quite a good thing to do.
I think what’s interesting about the 18th century gardens and some of the 19th century gardens is the fact that it was important to build gardens to show off not only your wealth, but your taste — or your knowledge of the classics, through the temples and the statues that they put around their gardens. Today, nobody really says to the multibillionaires that they want to be demonstrating taste in their expenditures. We simply let them get on with paying for ludicrous parties or sending themselves off in rockets.
I think we should be rather grateful that in the 18th century, social pressure meant that it was an important thing to do to spend money on gardens.
SGC: So do you have a favorite plant or flower?
RF: Oh, I like vegetables.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.
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