From the Archive: Springtime in the Georgian garden.

This document is one of the earliest records of the Marriott family in Cotesbach. The ‘Mr Marriott’ to whom the bill was addressed was Robert, who had (at the age of 20 in 1763) recently graduated  from Oxford and taken up residence at the Hall. His gardener (one John Crow, as we know from his bills, also preserved in Cotesbach Archive) had been working hard to prepare the garden for the new owner and, in early spring 1764, it was about to produce the first crops of the year.

This was during the reign of George III (‘Farmer George’), an era of great public interest in botany and the development of plant cultivation. Joseph Banks, the famous botanist who sailed with Captain Cook and who is credited with the discovery of some 1,400 plant species, was an exact contemporary of Robert Marriott at Oxford. Banks went on to become botanical adviser to George III and director of the Botanical Gardens at Kew. Even Robert Marriott’s more modest establishment, however, can give us some insight into Georgian advances in horticulture.

The little list of seeds purchased for Cotesbach Hall gardens includes peas, beans, radish, lettuce, carrots, cucumber and mustard & cress, all destined to be sown in the winter months. In the days before frozen vegetables and produce flown in from warmer climes, varieties and techniques to extend the growing season were particularly prized. As Stephen Switzer (author of the classic Georgian manual ‘The Practical Kitchen Gardiner’) puts it: ‘[Gardening] of the Kitchen has been so wonderfully improv’d  within these few years, that … the winter, and almost all times and seasons of the year, are furnish’d with curiosities which it was thought could be had only in the summer and more benign months of the year. To this may be added likewise … the great improvements made in hot-beds and glasses; the forcing vegetables in such a manner as to eat near as well as when they come natural; [and] the great variety there is of new-discover’d plants and seeds.’

The seed varieties sown at Cotesbach in 1763/4 included some not generally recognised in the twenty-first century, but very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth. Mazagon beans, for example, were introduced as the earliest cropping variety, ready for picking from early April. Charlton peas were known for early and heavy crops and were at one time one of the most widely grown garden vegetables, possibly declining in favour because the peas they produced were white. Yellow, grey and blue peas were also available. The Cos lettuce seed purchased by Robert Marriott in January 1764 produced white lettuces. Cucumbers grown in Georgian and Victorian times were also frequently white, while carrots appeared in red, yellow, white, orange and purple forms. What a pity that so much of  ‘the great variety … of new-discover’d plants and seeds’ has since been lost to us.

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