It shouldn't be surprising that interest in historical gardens in Britain is strong -- and growing. Gardening has been a national hobby for centuries, the object of much British creativity. The country is still dotted with gems of long-gardened ground. The National Trust (``for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty'') today has in its care the ``greatest number of gardens ever owned and managed by a private owner.'' Over 130 of them are open to visitors.
The trust has developed considerable expertise in the conservation of old gardens. John Sales, gardens adviser to the trust, who recently returned from a lecture tour in the United States, emphasizes the unique ``continuity'' in many British gardens. He considers the British to be pioneers in the art of garden restoration as well as preservation. He talks of a ``subtle approach'' to the art.
An example is that the trust generally avoids remaking a garden simply ``to a date.'' Fixing on a single time in its development, and reorganizing and replanting it entirely to that period, would ignore the forever-changing nature of gardens that have matured over centuries. To retain a garden's special qualities, not only must the first owner's character be taken into account -- his aims and aesthetics -- but so also must the succeeding generations of alteration, taste, and ``overlay.'' A strong original plan may have been greatly enriched over the years, or almost completely submerged.
So, according to Mr. Sales, the trust has originated ``a new profession: garden archaeology.'' Using otherwise unemployed, young manpower, up to 18 gardens have been scrupulously surveyed since 1979. All fixed objects have been measured; trees listed and dated; soil, site, and climate analyzed. The plants still growing in substantially intact gardens, which have come into the trust's possession, have been cataloged, and Mr. Sales maintains that British gardens are actually richer in variety of plant life than any in the world, largely because of the country's moderate climate.
British interest in garden history is also fostered by the Garden History Society. This organization celebrates its 20th birthday in 1985. It was set up ``for the study of garden history and the protection of historic gardens.'' It publishes a journal, campaigns for public awareness, organizes lectures, symposia, visits, and tours. Garden visiting in Britain is an immensely popular pastime.
Mrs. Mavis Batey, secretary of the Garden History Society, told me how much she welcomes a recent sign that the society's efforts are bearing fruit. The government at last recognizes that gardens, no less than historic buildings, can be ``historic monuments'' -- that is, significant parts of the country's heritage, and therefore worth protecting.
``Heritage'' is a word that carries increasing political weight in Britain today. A hopeful result of this recognition is that a register of important historical gardens is being compiled in every county in England -- as it was years ago for old buildings.
Information: Individual membership of Britain's National Trust (42 Queen Anne's Gate, London) costs 12.50 a year. Americans who want to join it are encouraged to join the supporting sister organization, Royal Oak Foundation Inc., 41 East 72nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10021. Tel: (212) 861-0529. Annual membership: $25.