Centre Of The Great Palm-House At The Royal Botanic Gardens Of Kew. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
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The contribution of gardens to our mental and physical wellbeing is widely acknowledged. The economic benefits they bring is usually overlooked.

That is a significant oversight and one that Roderick Floud sets out to put right. The economic historian argues that gardening’s value has rarely been appreciated because historic figures have been translated into today’s using the retail price index measure of inflation rather than using Floud’s preferred translation metric of average earnings. And to drive home the continuing economic importance of the sector he estimates today’s annual turnover of garden centres, contractors and so on at more than £11bn.

Floud’s thoughtful overview of English garden history since 1660 comes with a cornucopia of figures drawn from across the centuries that combine to present a remarkable tale of economic scale — and social realities.

At Chatsworth, the Duke of Devonshire’s Derbyshire estate, the maximum daily wage in 1918 for women was, in current money, £19 (2s) while men got £47 (5s). In 1722 the Duke of Chandos paid his gardener £200,000 (£100) putting him ahead of his chaplain £150,000 (£75). Meanwhile, in the 1730s Frederick Prince of Wales spent £10.4m (£5,781) on his garden over three years. A 25ft tulip tree that Frederick bought in 1734 for £38,120 (£21), was no doubt part of the stupendous bill.

Front cover of 'An Economic History of the English Garden', by Roderick Floud

An Economic History of the English Garden moves from courtly and noble gardens to well-paid celebrity designers of the 18th century such as Bridgeman and Brown to poorly paid working gardeners to technical innovations such as steam engines. And he traces the sources of garden money to everything from slavery to soapsuds.

The data are illuminating but does Floud stamp out his territory a little unfairly when he states, “Garden historians . . . almost entirely ignore money”? Charles Quest-Ritson’s The English Garden, Andrea Wulf’s garden books, and plenty more address money albeit not in such depth.

Another minor quibble is Floud’s contention that, historically, the decision to spend public billions on gardens required “wide consensus”. Particularly up until the second world war, that consensus was made up of a small elite. When the royals, from Charles II to William & Mary to George III to queens Caroline and Charlotte, embraced “botanising” and “landskipping”, the nobility and emerging middle classes were naturally going to follow suit. The royals were setting the fashion, whatever the cost. Floud estimates that in the last 40 years of the 17th century alone the royal spend on parks and gardens was about £800m to £1bn in present-day money.

The author questions why the state supported money-greedy gardens. One reason was surely the late-18th-century transformation of the royal gardens at Kew into botanical gardens where crops were trialled either in situ or at Kew’s colonial outposts. Plants, from rubber to tea to the quinine-rich cinchona tree, were economically important crops.

Botanical gardens aside, leisure gardens soaked up money but I question Floud’s suggestion that historic high-end garden making was about keeping up with the Joneses rather than being about messages that they expressed in mud, plants and stone. He underestimates the entertainment value of gardens in a pre-digital world. Stowe, for instance, is steeped in political, sexual and royal messages including the Temple of Modern Virtue, built as a ruin around a decapitated bust resembling Robert Walpole. Then there is the multi-layered meaning of the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, north of Dumfries, Scotland, whose co-creator, Charles Jencks, sadly died last month.

Floud is excellent on the changing fortunes of designers and of women in the garden. Misogyny undercut many — from underpaid weeders to the unsung botanist the Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715). As he puts it, “the fact that women were excellent gardeners was used to imply that gardening was not a serious occupation but rather a polite pastime”.

In a sense that captures a central problem with the garden world. It is so “nice”, that there has long been a failure to understand its longstanding links with other parts of the economy as well as its “pivotal role” in fostering innovation and new technologies.

Now that this message is being delivered by an economist maybe there will be greater enthusiasm for supporting today’s parks, gardens and horticultural training schemes.

An Economic History of the English Garden, by Roderick Floud, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 400 pages

Jane Owen is the author of several garden books and former deputy editor of FT Weekend

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