The Gardener's Labyrinth


Mark Hooper on why one of the first ever gardening books is more Monty Python than Monty Don…


I'm not a fan of gardening books in general. Not enough drama. But The Gardener's Labyrinth by Thomas Hill is something a little different. First published in 1577, it is generally considered to be the first popular gardening book to appear in the English language (in fact, it's a sequel of sorts to Hill's 1563 tome
The Profitable Arte of Gardening). Hill's informal approach, shunning the dry format of listing plant species and purely instructional style that had preceded it, set a template for the genre that is still followed to this day by Monty Don, Alan Titchmarsh and all. Hill seemed to be a dab hand at Elizabethan hype-mongering, too (the sub-heading reads, "Wherein is laid down New and Rare inventions and secrets of Gardening not heretofore known"). Which isn't to say it's an easy read. Hill might rightly be described as the Chaucer of gardening – 
and his prose style, spelling and sentence construction can be just as impenetrable to modern audiences.

The use of woodcut illustrations and typesetting throughout makes this more of an artefact than a mere manual. But, before we've even reached the first page, there's an almost infantile delight in the most basic elements of a book, making it an interesting read in more ways than originally intended. The contents page, for instance, is announced with the following headline:

"A table expressing the contents of every chapter contained in this Labyrinth."

That same sense of wonder about what was still a relatively new phenomenon – a mass-produced book – is apparent throughout. Even the more prosaic sections read like a Monty Python sketch. Take his notes on chervil for instance:

"The herb Chervil, joyeth to be sown in a wel dunged earth, in the months of February, March, and April".

Better yet is his introduction to the second half of his mammoth book:

‘The Second Part of the Gardener's Labyrinth, Uttering such skilful Experience, and worthy secrets, about the particular sowing and removing of the most Kitchin Herbs, with the witty ordering of other dainty Herbs, delectable Flowers, pleasant Fruits, and fine Roots, as the like hath not heretofore been uttered of any. Besides, the Physick benefits of each Herb annexed, with the commodity of waters distilled out of them, right profitable to be known.’

The sensible green-fingered advice (covering everything from seeding and weeding to watering by tubs) is spiced up with a mixture of old wives' tales and superstition, meaning it’s hardly practical as a guide today. Water of Sorrell, he helpfully informs us, ‘prevaileth against the plague’, while ‘Water distilled out of Parsneps, helpeth the palsie, moveth the venereall act, and increaseth the sperme, helpeth the painfulnesse in making water’. Which is always good to know.

An original copy of Hill's Labyrinth might be tricky to get your hands on – the University of Glasgow has a 1594 version in its collection – but you can pick up the 1987 reprint for around a tenner on Amazon. You never know when it might helpeth.