Robin Lane Fox is an English classicist, ancient historian and gardening writer known for his works on Alexander the Great. At the University of Oxford he serves as Garden Master and as Extraordinary Lecturer in Ancient History for both New and Exeter Colleges. He has also taught Greek and Latin literature, and early Islamic history.
You are a Professor at Oxford University, well known for writing on Alexander the Great and the classical world. How come you are also famous for your gardening column in the Financial Times?
My gardening articles go back to 1970, before I was appointed by any University. I have written for the Financial Times every week for 47 years and am the longest running gardening columnist in the world. I love five things: the Greek world, Virgil and Horace, gardening, fox hunting and women.
In that order?
On my deathbed I will think of Homer, then gardens, the great women I know, and lastly my best days fox hunting. And then I’ll die. They have banned fox hunting in England. I admire Italy where wonderfully they bless the hounds in church at the beginning of the wild boar season in Tuscany and Umbria.
Why did you recently write an article in the Financial Times on the Hanbury botanic garden at La Mortola, which is in Italy near Ventimiglia?
It is a garden with a major history, and a well-crafted approach can be made to the EU for a really serious grant to bring the garden back to what we know was there. It has an amazing story of tremendous friends of Italy – the Hanbury family – of China, of visiting English women, and then the rescue by Genoa University when it had fallen into unfortunate condition.
What has changed in British gardening since you started your column in 1970?
Many things. One big change is that some of the most brilliant amateur gardeners in Britain were women, but now women have careers and work full time. Secondly, the price of houses is very high, so nobody can afford to buy a house and plant a garden very early in life. Third, a technical thing: plants sold in black plastic containers now means you can buy them all year round.
Is having a garden less work nowadays?
In the 1950s and 60s everything had to be labour saving, with gardeners disappearing and the cost of labour very high. People planted massive great drifts of ground cover and had ghostly pale gardens. This changed in the 1980s when people started spending much more on their gardens. Garden design became a career that women could take up, and everything went into reverse. People were encouraged to think that they wanted very highly coloured extravagant gardens, a fashion which is only now ending.
What drives garden fashion?
TV makeover programmes came in with great power, and started a complete delusion. A group of keen young workers would transform the garden in a week and fill it with plants, often in the wrong way and at the wrong time. The impression was that you could make a garden like putting down a carpet, but gardening is a process that goes on all your life. People were disappointed by what they copied off the television, what I call “exterior decoration.
Are cooking and gardening both very much “à La Page”?
Garden watching, voyeurism, has become far more widespread than when I began. Cooking is very quick, you can learn and get the results, but with gardening you have to be patient, getting wet, and cold and dirty. People like looking at beautiful gardens and visiting them, but they don’t always like doing it.
Are there many beautiful gardens of English country houses?
When I started writing there were 350 private gardens open to the public. There are now 3,800. Garden history was not a force at all when I began in the early 1960s. Now the very difficult questions of the restoration of old gardens and garden archaeology have emerged.
Where did you train to garden?
I trained in 1965 in the outstanding Botanical Garden in Munich. The world famous alpine gardens had a staff of 78 and the head of the garden was Wilhelm Schacht. He had been the personal gardener to King Boris of Bulgaria before the war. Schacht was one of the greatest men I have ever known.
What causes the differences in gardens across Europe?
The climate, the taste, and the fashion. Germans who live close to the Bavarian Alps are very ‘green’, so they are inclined to have marsh and steppe land in their gardens. Around Naples they are brilliant growers of highly cultivated small plots of land and are very good at pruning vines, citrus fruits and olives. Among Italian botanic gardens Palermo is great, Florence is a difficult site, Padua is famous historically. In Spain the climate is very difficult, but in Galicia there are good gardens. In France there are botanic gardens like Lyons, Dijon or Bordeaux
What do you think about French gardens?
The French are very stylish and recently are said to have become more interested in actual gardening; the potager and vegetable gardening has become strong. In Paris, Bagatelle is a superb garden, very well run, and the park André Citroën is very good. The small garden in Normandy called the Jardin Plume is a carefully thought combination of planting and planning.
What about Asia and Japan, and the USA?
Japan is often brilliant. Kyoto is very heavily visited by endless groups of school children in the way gardens never are in Britain. They have a symbolism that we don’t fully understand. The US climate is difficult, but US gardening has grown out of the earlier imitation of the English. They have stopped to think about their own flora, and, on the West Coast, the Far East Asian tradition.
Gardening is part of being human and yet gardens were also an ornament for kings?
There is the garden as a display, showing off, an area where you and your courtiers can process, or there is a small enclosed garden echoing something in your mind.
Is gardening artificial?
Of course, and you do it for pleasure and fascination. My aim at home is that my garden should always look as if I had died 6 weeks ago. If I lived on better soil in a better climate I would have a superb garden. I have two acres, planned in sequences, always something looking good. I like sitting in my garden at night as the light is fading, quietly contemplating: ‘I am superior to Adam, as I have had to plant the whole thing!’
What do you like in a garden?
I like anything that grows. I started when I was ten, I have done it for 60 years and I still do it every day. I am extremely happy when I go out in the morning and see my arnebia, a little plant with yellow flowers that has 5 black dots on it when it opens, but as the flower ages the black dots disappear. The story of this flower is that Satan met Mohammed, marked the flower with his fingertips and said, “You see Mohammed, I can change the world.” Mohammed waved his cloak and the marks of Satan faded.
Do you find great depth in a garden?
When I look at the apricot scented climbing rose ‘Lady Hillingdon’, which my father also grew, I find I think of what she said: “Every time Lord Hillingdon comes to me in bed, I shut my eyes and think of England.” The flowers on Lady Hillingdon’s rose hang their heads very modestly. When I look I see many layers of things …..
In England is there always disorder in the garden?
Aesthetically English people still like informality within a formal design, and have the climate and the nurseries to support this.
Did you ever make a garden for anyone else?
No. I admire people who grow things. If the person who owns the garden really does the work, it has a different quality that other gardens will never have, even if it’s a complete muddle. I pull out the weeds. I take the cuttings, choose the plants, and raise the seeds.
Are young people interested in gardening?
They are yes, and in food. Much of the most brilliant vegetable growing in England has been done in buckets and dustbins. But I have taught here at Oxford University for 44 years and have never had a pupil, of all the clever highly selected pupils that are here, who knows what flower the primrose is.
Should gardening be taught in school?
Of course it should. It’s a perfectly reasonable subject and much better than macro-economics.
What is the most popular flower in Britain?
I think the rose; and also internationally.
If you were asked to choose one flower what would you choose?
Probably a gentian, if it was the true form, and would grow with me, and was slug resistant, and would persist.
Are plants useful in medicine?
The medicinal garden of the Royal College of Physicians has the best exposition of this, by Dr Henry Oakeley. Some natural compounds are immensely useful, but they all have to be processed by expert chemical companies. There is enormous improvement once we break down the natural compounds and pharmacological companies make them in the right quantities. The heart medicine digitalis which originates from the foxglove is one example.
Do your love of gardens and your love of the classical world go together?
Here, at Magdalen, there was an enormous wisteria in full flower and I sat reading Cicero under the wisteria and at the same time heard all the cars going by on the road outside and I thought: ‘I can’t join the world, I love people but I have a contemplative side.’ But you can’t just sit cultivating your garden. You can’t just withdraw and disengage from public political life.
What do you think of Brexit?
I was appalled by Brexit. It’s the biggest disaster that the English have inflicted upon ourselves. We’ve never been invaded so we made up for it by shooting ourselves in the foot.
Do you travel a lot?
I travel for myself and write about it in the Financial Times. Last July I went to Kyrgyzstan on horseback. Wherever I go the first thing I say is, “What garden can I see?”
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