A Monthly Look at a Husbandry Book: John Gardener

Come springtime, fingers are collectively turning green. Watermelons, fennel, parsley, gherkins, spinach, peas, and runner beans are sprouting on many a Dutch windowsill. Mind you, this is not some random assortment of vegetables and herbs. They are, in fact, growing from seeds that came with groceries from one of the country’s biggest supermarket chains. What I like about this marketing campaign is that the supermarket has set up an ‘online community’ where budding gardeners can share their troubles with experts. Whenever my faith in humanity is wavering, I scroll through these threads and, after reading serious cries for help such as “my courgette has roots but no leaves” and “my pea shoots are of unequal height”, I comfort myself with the thought that, in 2016, at least some of us still care about the fate of struggling seedlings.

Two pages of an online booklet distributed by the supermarket.

Two pages of an online booklet distributed by the Dutch supermarket.

While there probably wasn’t a collective craze for watermelon pips five hundred years ago, people were equally concerned with the well-being of their vegetable patches and kitchen herbs. I could illustrate this point by referring to Thomas Tusser, but since I already namedrop him in every blog post up until this date, I am consulting one of his less-than-famous predecessors: John Gardener. John probably could not write himself, however, as his advice was penned down by a poet who concludes his verse with the line “and thus seyde mayster Ion Gardener to me” (l. 196). I imagine John as of the experts on the supermarket boards, hiding behind an avatar and giving advice to anyone “ho so wyl a gardener be” (l.1). Nonetheless, John’s advice is quite blunt compared to the supermarket experts, who would never state that it is a ‘great folly’ to let your herbs grow too high (l. 135).

Besides a seasoned gardener, John is also somewhat of a walking herbal. In the following lines, he boasts his knowledge of an array of Irish herbs in (intermittently metrical) verse! By the way, all of these herbs need to be sown in April, so there’s plenty of choice for next year’s marketing campaign.

Having listed 87 plants, John reluctantly decides to call it a day: “Further-more wul y noȝt go, but here of herbys wul y ho” (ll. 183-4), implying he could go on all day if he wanted to.

"We'd better go, Humphrey's reciting that awful poem on Irish herbs" Tacuinum Sanitatis, ÖNB Codex Vindobonensis, series nova 2644, fol. 9v.

“We’d better go, Humphrey’s reciting that awful gardening poem again” – Tacuinum Sanitatis, ÖNB Codex Vindobonensis, series nova 2644, fol. 9v.

Reading John Gardener for the first time, it immediately reminded me of a poem by the late Drs. P, a singular Dutch poet who has has composed some of the most memorable metrical verses of the past century. His “Botanisch Twistgesprek” (Botanic Dispute) features two speakers debating the design of their back garden. One debater tries to overwhelm his opponent with obscure plant names, but she simply wants a garden gnome with a basket on his back (“Nee, ik wil een tuinkabouter met een mandje op z’n rug!”). The similarity between the two poems is, naturally, caused by the respective authors flicking through herbals looking for rhyming plant names. There is an excellent read-along rap version of the poem by Bruno van Wayenburg, which can be listened to here: With a bit of practice, perhaps I might once endeavour a similar tribute to John…

– Alicia M. Tyssen Amherst, “X.—A Fifteenth Century Treatise on Gardening”, Archaeologia 54 (1894): pp 157-172.
– “Groene Vingers voor Beginners

NB: This blog post was not sponsored. All rights belongs to their respective owners.

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