Where Will Shakespeare might have gone for garden advice

`HE doesn't take it for granted that this is just another activity. ``There's a sort of concerned love behind what he does, and I think that most people who garden have that. They recognize in him a sort of kindred spirit,'' says Walter Punch, head librarian of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Who's he talking about?

A garden writer.

Jim Crockett of ``The Victory Garden''?

No.

Though in one sense, this garden writer was the great-great-etc.-grandfather of Jim Crockett and many other familiar modern gardeners.

He is Thomas Hill, a 16th-centurty Englishman. Although Hill wrote other things, his fame rests upon the fact that he put together the first gardening book in the English language, The Gardener's Labyrinth.

The Oxford University Press has published a new edition of Hill with beautiful period illustrations and modern typeface, rather than the original typeface.

Richard Mabey, author of many garden books and editor of the Oxford Press's edition, has this to say of Hill:

``He was fundamentally just an ordinary gardener and a jobbing writer. And, as a good journalist, he was able to pick up on the kind of things that were happening in late Elizabethan England in gardens, and combine them with what he knew from his reading, his background research reading of classical authors.

``And he added to this a rather infectious enjoyment of actually getting his hands dirty and of passing on the kind of tips he picked up by doing his own gardening and mixing with other gardeners.

``But I think the important thing about him is not any great or penetrating thoughts about the philosophy of gardening, but simply that he enjoyed it, and also, crucially, that he was the first person to write it down.''

Hill, or Hyll as he sometimes spelled it (the Elizabethans viewed phonetic spelling as a mark of education), is not a great writer - though Shakespeare may have known his work. Indeed, ``The Gardener's Labyrinth'' can prove for the modern reader more difficult than Shakespeare.

But at the same time, Hill offers a great deal of ``hands on'' advice - comments that are as true today as they were 400 years ago.

For example, he is insistent that the garden plot be ``well-digged,'' and that it be fertilized.

He recommends careful handling of tender seedlings, and early morning watering so as not to burn the plants.

Of cooking asparagus, he advises, ``I think it necessary to be remembered that the Sperages [asparagus] require small boiling, for too much or long boiling, they become corrupt and without delight in the eating.''

Walter Punch comments, ``When you read that kind of thing, you say, `Yes, this is exactly what I want to know.' He's practical, but he's practical in an eloquent way.

``Since he was the first, he did sort of - no pun intended - set some ground rules on gardening.''

``The Gardener's Labyrinth'' also provides a solid source for the gardener attempting to create a ``Shakespeare garden.''

Hill's illustrations of such horticultural design as Elizabethan knot gardens can still be used as ground plans.

Because he provides specifics on the what and where and how of the Elizabethan garden in general, his work is of inestimable value to today's garden historian.

Hill left a legacy in the form of the unpretentious practicality of his writing. It proved a successful formula, even in those days: The book went into six editions. Judging by the number of how-to gardening books available today, it has remained a popular form.

Hill bridges the gap between the past, the present, and the future. In an age when we have come to fear excessive use of chemicals, he offers some natural remedies. For those who fear a science-fiction vision of the 21st century, ``The Gardener's Labyrinth'' is proof that some things can be counted on, whatever the year.

As Hill himself wrote, ``The life of man in this world is but a thraldom, when the Sences are not pleased; and what rarer object can there be on earth,... then a beautifull and Odoriferous Garden plat Artificially composed, where he may read and contemplate on the wonderfull works of the great Creator, in Plants and Flowers....''

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