Inspirational gardeners: Patrick Geddes

Dunbar Close Garden in the heart of Edinburgh Old Town, created by Patrick Geddes

Some inspirational gardeners have names and achievements that are well known.  However, the less familiar may have influenced and changed landscapes and gardening practice just as much as the famous.  

One such gardener is Patrick Geddes.  A Scotsman born in Aberdeenshire in 1854, he trained to be a botanist but was unable to carry forward this profession after contracting an illness that partially blinded him. He moved to Edinburgh where he developed a revolutionary approach to regenerating the Old Town tenement slum areas.  His answer lay in preservation of historic buildings,  at the same time as partially removing buildings in over crowded areas opening up spaces for gardens.  He believed that poorer people living in industrialised cities, particularly the children, were “nature starved”.  So he went on to promote a theory of education that advocated equal emphasis on the hand (physical/manual), heart (compassion/political) and head (learning /psychological /analytical). 

Gardening was a key part of this.  He established children's gardens that were located on more than 10 “gap sites” across Edinburgh’s Old Town that were derelict as a result of Council led tenement demolition.  The gardens were to provide an outdoor nature filled experience, including the physicality of gardening work, the head through learning skills and techniques and knowledge of food and flower production, and a lot of heart through love and response to the garden and nature.  Some of these Geddes gardens continue to exist today, although they now exist as local wildlife reserves, community gardens or private green spaces.  His ideas about urban green spaces, maintaining community and mixed housing styles, all went on to influence town planning and urban architecture. 

Geddes said 'This is a green world with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent on the leaves. By leaves we live. Some people have strange ideas that they live by money. They think energy is generated by the circulation of coins. Whereas the world is mainly a vast leaf colony, growing on and forming a leafy soil, not a mere mineral mass: we live not by the jingling of our coins, but by the fullness of our harvests.'