Grass, Green-houses and … Gravity? Philip Miller’s The Gardener’s Dictionary

For those of you who have been following Monty Don’s series on the Secret History of the British Garden here is the title page and frontispiece from Philip Miller’s The Gardener’s Dictionary. Like many eighteenth century books, the title is almost as long as some books are today!

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Title page of Miller’s ‘The Gardener’s Dictionary’. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Philip Miller (1691-1771) was Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden for almost fifty years, and would have been well known to international plant enthusiasts, collectors and botanists. He was credited with introducing many foreign species of plant in the UK and cultivating them for the first time. However, this book is no academic tome; it was held by not only landed gentry but also their gardeners and nurserymen – in fact, anybody who was interested in gardening.

The copy we have is a first edition published in 1731 but as the eighteenth century was a period which saw the continuous introduction of new plants from all over the world, the book was being frequently updated and republished.  The fact that you could buy a pirated copy from Ireland is testament to its popularity. The eighth edition, which was the final and the largest, was published in 1768.

A glance at the entries for ‘G’ indicate the breadth of gardening knowledge included in the volume. They range from descriptions of a staggering array of flora and fauna – such as “GRAPES” and “GRASS” – to handy hints on how to arrange your own garden:

GREEN-HOUSE or Conservatory.

As of late Years there have been great Quantities of curious Exotick Plants introduced into the English Gardens, so the Number of Green-houses or Conservatories has increased, and not only a greater Skill in the Management and Ordering of these Plants, has increased therewith; but also a greater knowledge of the Structure and Contrivance of these Places, so as to render them both Useful and Ornamental, hath been acquired: And since there are many Particulars to be observed in the Construction of these Houses, whereby they will be greatly improved, so I thought it necessary, not only to give the best Instructions for this I was capable of; but also to give a Design of one in the Manner I would chuse to erect it, upon the annexed Copper Plate.

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Copper plate from Miller’s ‘The Gardener’s Dictionary. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

However, the entry before this one may seem a little odd to the modern peruser of Miller’s dictionary:

GRAVITY, is by some call’d Vis centripeta, and is that Quality by which all heavy Bodies tend towards the Center of the Earth, accelerating the Motion the nearer they move towards it.

Miller dedicates almost two full columns to a comprehensive description of gravity. He says: “It is now therefore a Principle, or Law of Nature, that all Bodies, and all the Particles of all Bodies, gravitate towards each other mutually. From which single Principle Sir Isaac Newton has happily deduc’d all the great Phoenomena of Nature.” He goes on to explain how the law of universal gravitation applies to gardening: “To this Property of Gravity, perhaps, is owing the alternate Motion of the Sap in Vegetables, which may be accounted for from the Alternacies of the Day and Night, Warm and Cold, Moist and Dry…”

The first edition of Newton’s Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica was published in 1687, and the third amended edition was published by Newton in 1726, just 5 years before Miller first produced this dictionary. Miller’s unparalleled botanical knowledge led to his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1691; as Newton was also a Fellow from 1642 onwards and President of the Royal Society from 1703-1727, it is unsurprising that Miller was thoroughly up to date with the revolutionary scientific discoveries of the seventeenth century.

It is not a stretch to imagine that by putting a clear paraphrase of this complicated law of physics in his dictionary, the Bible of many a humble gardener, Miller helped to make new developments in science accessible to the masses.

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Frontispiece from Miller’s ‘The Gardener’s Dictionary’. Image copyright the Dean of Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

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