Today we celebrate an English critic who wrote some of our most beautiful quotes about gardens, nature, and flowers.
We'll also learn about a dedicated English naturalist who lived in the Rainforest for eleven years and provided ample proof of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
We hear words from a gardener and nursery owner about gardening and garden attire in winter.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a book that helps us make some great garden projects with concrete - prepare to be amazed.
And then we’ll wrap things up with a letter from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra written on this day 214 years ago.
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February 8, 1819
Today is the birthday of the leading Victorian-era English art critic, watercolorist, thinker, and philanthropist John Ruskin.
John is responsible for some beautiful thoughts and quotes about the natural world.
With regard to gardening, John wrote:
“The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.”
John’s own garden, at times, could be a disappointment. By the end of the summer in 1879, John wrote,
“Looking over my kitchen garden yesterday, I found it one miserable mass of weeds gone to seed;
the roses in the higher garden putrefied into brown sponges, feeling like dead snails;
and the half-ripe strawberries all rotten at the stalks.”
As for John’s property Brantwood, today his own home and garden are administered by a charitable trust. The property name Brantwood has Norse etymology. Brant means steep, and the property sits on a wooded highpoint overlooking a lake.
A champion of the environment, John’s love of nature is reflected in the critiques of his contemporaries, and it’s also in much of his writing. John wrote:
"Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty.”
“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies, for instance.”
Finally, there’s one famous garden saying from John Ruskin you might recognize:
Kind hearts are the garden,
Kind thoughts are the roots,
Kind words are the blossoms,
Kind deeds are the fruit.
February 8, 1825
Today is the birthday of the self-taught British entomologist, explorer, and naturalist Henry Walter Bates.
Unlike many of his scientist friends and peers, Henry was entirely self-taught.
In the mid-1840s, Henry met the great English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace who had one of the most intelligent scientific minds of his time. Alfred was said to have “the head of a man and the heart of a boy,” and so it is no surprise that Henry and Alfred became great friends. In no time, the two men began planning a trip to explore the Amazon Rainforest.
To pay for their trip, Henry and Alfred reached out to universities, collectors, and institutions, and they started a bucket list of desired specimens. Within a year, they had enough funding to start their big adventure.
So, in 1848, Henry and Alfred left England to explore the Amazon Rainforest.
Henry recorded the moment they arrived in Brazil:
“It was with deep interest that my companion and myself, both now about to see and examine the beauties of a tropical country for the first time, gazed on the land where I, at least, eventually spent eleven of the best years of my life.”
And while Henry stayed in the Rainforest for eleven years, Alfred returned to England after four years. And it’s worth noting that all of Alfred’s specimens and notes were lost at sea on his voyage home after his ship caught fire and sank. Alfred and the crew nearly died but were rescued after ten days adrift in the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, back in the Amazon, Henry felt quite at home in the jungle, and he wrote:
“There is something in a tropical forest akin to the ocean in its effect on the mind. Man feels so completely his insignificance there and the vastness of nature.”
Now the excellent Palm House at Kew was already seven years old when Henry and Alfred left for the Amazon. In an ironic twist, Henry compared the rainforest to the Palm House - instead of the other way around - when he wrote that the Amazon rainforest was like a,
“great palm-house spread over a large tract of swampy ground.”
During his eleven years in the Rainforest in Brazil, Henry collected butterflies, and he sent back a whopping 15,000 insect specimens - with over half of his collection listed as brand new discoveries.
Henry’s work helped provide living proof of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Henry’s most significant contribution was a phenomenon now called “Batesian mimicry.” After watching Heliconius butterflies, Henry realized that the bird’s avoided eating them because the birds had learned that the species was toxic and tasted terrible. Next, Henry realized that other butterflies looked remarkably similar to the toxic Heliconius butterflies - thus tricking their predators into believing that they too were toxic and would taste terrible. Ultimately, Henry correctly surmised this survival technique would ensure the survival of a species.
Henry generously shared most of his observations and suspicions with Charles, who happily received the information and encouraged Henry to publish his work. And by the time Henry’s notes and discoveries were shared in The Naturalist on the River Amazon, Charles called it,
“The best book of Natural History Travels ever published in England.”
As Henry wrapped up his time in the Rainforest, he had survived both yellow fever and malaria in addition to many other uncomfortable maladies. Toward the end, it’s not surprising to read that Henry had grown weary of the enormous challenges of life as an explorer. He wrote,
“I suffered most inconvenience from the difficulty of getting news from the civilized world down river, from the irregularity of receipt of letters, parcels of books and periodicals, and towards the latter part of my residence from ill-health arising from bad and insufficient food.”
In the end - after a dozen years away from family, friends, and civilization - Henry Bates, the great Naturalist, could not ignore what had been building in his heart: he was lonely. He wrote,
“I was obliged, at last, to come to the conclusion that the contemplation of nature alone is not sufficient to fill the human heart and mind.”
In 2014, Henry’s Amazon notebooks were digitized, and they are now online to view from the Natural History Museum Library.
And in 2018, Henry’s remarkable story was shared in an IMAX film called Amazon Adventure.
I am a small person with short, gray hair, usually dressed in winter in faded jeans, frayed at the knees and cuffs, boots, and layers of old shirts, and in summer in faded shorts and shirts. A wide-brimmed straw hat without a crown protects my face from the sun. I generally pull a small aluminum cart loaded with a bucket filled with hand tools and a garden fork and spade as I walk briskly and look down to right or left at plants in growth or for those expected to grow. My hands are usually dirty, my knuckles somewhat distorted, and when I reach my destination, I work on hands and knees.
— Nancy Goodwin, American gardener, author and nursery owner, Montrose: Life in a Garden, Late January & February
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2011, and the subtitle is Easy & Inexpensive Containers, Furniture, Water Features & More.
In this book, Camilla and Malin help us learn how to create with concrete - a perfect medium for gardeners. Durable and weatherproof, concrete provides insulation for outdoor plants. Better yet, concrete weathers so beautifully; the edges soften, the color mellows, and it can be enhanced with lichen and moss.
Concrete Garden Projects features excellent step-by-step instructions for many different containers as well as elegant seating, miniature ponds and birdbaths, stepping stones, and even a fire pit.
Camilla and Malin love to use molds for their projects, and happily, most of their go-to molds are easily found or made from household items like kitchen bowls or pans and simple wooden frames or boxes.
And in terms of cost, concrete is so affordable, just pennies per pound, and so simple to use — just add water and then pour the concrete into the mold.
This book is 132 pages of stylish vessels and projects made with budget-friendly concrete.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
February 8, 1807
Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra.
Jane loved gardens. She had a heart for ornamentals, herbs, and kitchen gardening. And, her family always had a garden - growing their food and beautifying their homes with flowers.
In every one of her books, Jane included gardens.
We know from Jane's letters to her sister Cassandra that gardens brought her joy, and they were also regulating.
In this letter written on this day in 1807, Jane wrote about her garden redesign, which included syringa or wild mock orange. And when she writes about syringa, she mentions the poet Cowper, who used the words “syringa ivory-pure” in his poem.
Jane also writes in this letter about Laburnum. Laburnums are small European ornamental trees that have hanging clusters of yellow flowers. The beautiful hanging yellow flowers are how Laburnum got the common names Golden Chain or Golden Rain.
In modern times, one of the most significant elements of Rosemary Verey's Barnsley House garden is the yellow Laburnum Walk. In fact, many people consider Rosemary’s Laburnum Walk to be one of the most iconic garden plantings of the last fifty years. Rosemary had seen Russell Page’s Laburnum Arch, which was the likely inspiration for her Laburnum Walk. If you ever see it, Rosemary’s walk is a vision. The Laburnums romantically drape over a sea of allium parted by a concrete walkway texturized with pebbles. It is absolutely glorious.
Here’s Jane Austen’s letter to her sister Cassandra written over 200 years ago today:
“Our garden is putting in order by a man who bears a remarkably good character, has a very fine complexion, and asks [questions].
The shrubs which border the gravel walk, he says, are only Sweetbriar and Roses, and the latter of an indifferent sort; we mean to get a few of a better kind...
And at my own particular desire he procures us some Syringas. I could not do without a Syringa, for the sake of Cowper’s line.
We talk also of a Laburnum.
The border under the terrace wall is clearing away to receive Currants and Gooseberry bushes, and a spot is found very proper for Raspberries.”
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