Andrea Wulf follows up The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession with a book about America’s Founding Fathers, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation.
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I met Andrea at Petersham Nurseries in Surrey in the fall of 2010. It’s an extraordinarily elegant garden center that seems like it’s been there for 300 years—exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find in the English countryside. You can even have your afternoon tea there. It occurred to me, as Andrea and I were talking that day, that it must be interesting for someone who lives in such a garden-obsessed country to write about the history of American gardening. Here’s what she had to say:
I’m sure you’re going to get this question a lot on your book tour: Since you are not American, what attracted you to the American Founding Fathers for this book?
I was born in India, brought up in Germany and lived for the past 15 years in Britain. My last book, The Brother Gardeners, was about the British obsession with gardens. When I researched it, I not only discovered how important America had been in the creation of the English garden but also that plants, gardens and nature played an important role in the shaping of the American nation.
I would have never thought that this would lead me to write a book about the American Founding Fathers and gardens. I had never thought of America in terms of gardening—in particular compared to Britain, where I have lived for the past 15 years and where everybody seems crazy about their flowerbeds.
Had you spent much time here in the States before you came over to research and write the book?
My first impressions of America were shaped when I went in 1987 on a seven-week road trip across the States. It confirmed every cliché: gigantic shopping malls, colossal billboards, endless drive-thrus, bulky fridges and huge cars. I thought of America as an industrial, larger-than-life country. I certainly never thought of it in terms of gardening—in America, I believed, I was more likely to see someone driving a riding-mower than pruning roses.
But how wrong I was! At its roots America is a gardening nation—just a bit different to the British.
I’m willing to bet that many Americans don’t know about our early gardening history. So who are the Founding Gardeners?
One of the protagonists in The Brother Gardeners is John Bartram, an American farmer and plant collector who lived outside Philadelphia. For four decades, from the 1730s, Bartram sent so many seed boxes of American trees and shrubs to Britain that he completely transformed the English garden.
It was in Bartram’s letters that I first realized a remarkable connection to the Founding Fathers, for he was a good friend of Benjamin Franklin. As I read on through letters, diaries and other manuscripts, I came across a visit of the delegates of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to Bartram’s garden and an invoice to George Washington, who had ordered hundreds of trees and shrubs for his garden at Mount Vernon, as well as accounts that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had visited. As I read on, I realized that America’s first four presidents—Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison—had used nature, though in different ways, in their fight for America.
It’s amazing to think that they had time for gardening or even farming. I mean, there was a revolution going on!
They not only created the United States in a political sense, they also understood the importance of nature for their country. Golden cornfields and endless rows of cotton plants became symbols for America’s economic independence from Britain; towering trees became a reflection of a strong and vigorous nation; native species were imbued with patriotism and proudly planted in gardens, while metaphors drawn from the natural world brought plants and gardening into politics.
In fact, I believe it’s impossible to understand the making of America without looking at the Founding Fathers as farmers and gardeners. But the greatest surprise for me was that James Madison is the forgotten father of American environmentalism. He regarded nature as fragile ecological system that could easily collapse. Man, he believed, had to find a place within the balance of nature without destroying it—words that remain as important today as they did when he spoke them.
Amy Stewart, a primary blogger at Garden Rant, is the award-winning author of five books on the perils and pleasures of the natural world, all from Algonquin Books, including two New York Times bestsellers, Wicked Plants and Flower Confidential. Her new book is Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon's Army and other Diabolical Insects. She lives in northern California, where she and her husband own an antiquarian bookstore and tend an unruly flock of hens in their backyard.