praying mantis eating fly

Gardening by numbers

In 1596 John Gerard published a catalogue of all the plants growing in his garden. It was the first plant catalogue ever, of either a private or public garden, and it listed a very impressive 1039 plants. Clearly not your average 16th century backyard. In fact, Gerard was a barber-surgeon with a good knowledge of healing herbs, and a skilled gardener. Something of a social climber, he also had the right contacts to get access to many of the exciting new plants arriving in Elizabethan England from all around the world. (One advantage of being so well-connected was that he was the first person in England to eat potatoes he’d grown himself. He declared them at least the equal of sweet potatoes.) The catalogue was advance publicity for his big book, The Herball.  Here’s Gerard on the  frontispiece, holding a flowering stem of potato.

John Gerard's Herbal

Ther Herbal was a reference book on plants and how to grow and use them, written for the burgeoning new market of gardeners and plant collectors, as well as for ladies looking for new patterns for embroidery and those who managed family healthcare. John Gerard’s Herbal was a best-seller for centuries, and is still a good read – as personal as a blog post, with charming flights of poetic fancy, plenty of hands-on experience, and occasional mad errors (like I said, not unlike a blog post!).

Gerard’s diverse collection of plants had me thinking about the diversity in my own garden. I decided to see what my quarter-acre holds, so as to get a grip on his numbers. A quick audit garnered 130 species, not counting the weeds, which made me all the more impressed with Gerard’s knowledge and skill.

Gerard’s focus was exclusively flora, but of course the diversity in a garden is much broader than that. There are creatures to count too, as long as they can be identified. I know my garden’s plants but am hopeless on its insects. ( I did recognise this increasingly rare sight – honey bee on the sedum!)

Honey bee on sedum

It’s estimated that three-quarters of Australian insect life has yet to be scientifically described so perhaps I needn’t feel too bad about the paltry number of garden invertebrates with which I am familiar. Fortunately there is help for me and the rest of the bug-ignorant among us. Bugs@home is a site managed by Entomology Australia that helps with identification. Start with legs or no legs, and proceed to ever-more detailed options until you nail your creature. Next, fetch the macro lens and join Bowerbird, an online project established by Museum Victoria and the Living Atlas of Australia. Post the weird living things in the yard and have them identified, or follow other people tracking the birds, bees, insects, spiders and fungi they come across.

I’ve joined up and started paying attention. Not just a dragonfly on the pond, which dragonfly? I feel sure that John Gerard would have been an early adopter of Bowerbird. I can’t beat his first English potato-eater boast, but who knows what previously unknown creature I might find visiting one of my 130 plants.


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