RHS The Garden Anthology – A Review


I am always in two minds about anthologies.  I often find them disappointing with the assorted short articles or stories.  I think I really like to get into a subject more.  So it was with two minds that I agreed to review the RHS’s new publication The Garden Anthology.

The book has been edited by Ursula Buchan and is a compilation of a wide range of articles that appeared in the magazine from 1866 to the present day.  Buchan states that she has chosen articles which do not rely on photographs or other illustrations to make their point which immediately warmed me to the book.  I remember when my parents bought me Lloyd’s’ The Well Tempered Gardener and they were bemused why I would want a gardening book without pictures but are pictures really necessary all the time?  If you don’t know what the plant being referred to you can look it up. I much prefer reading good descriptive writing that evokes a sense of place or scene.

Unlike many recent anthologies this has not been arranged season by season or month by month which is also a relief.  There is nothing more tedious than reading article after article about winter gardens.  Of course I know you are meant to dip into a book but I prefer to read cover to cover.  In this book the sections are organised according to subjects which are quite broad. They include some obvious ones on plants, people, garden design, practicalities but then there are some more unusual sections such as ‘The International Dimension’ and ‘Inside the RHS’.

Given the broad range of writers who have contributed to the magazine over the years it isn’t surprising that their many voices can be found here from the lyrical writing of Geoffrey Dutton who in the 1990s wrote a series of articles about gardening in Perthshire to more scientific and up to date voice of James Wong.  In total there are 80 different writers included and my only real complaint with the book is that there seems to be more articles from 2000 to the present day than the period before this which I found a little disappointing.  Many of the earlier writers’ work are hard to access these days so I was hoping for more of this.

I was also interested in Buchan’s approach of trying to choose articles that reflected the changing interests in horticulture, whether it is a new scientific discovery or a move towards more environmental approaches, wildlife gardening etc. I wondered if this contributed towards the large volume of articles from the current century as it seems to me that changes to horticultural approaches have been significant since the turn of the century, far more than I remember previously. Maybe this shows a greater acceptance by the magazine’s readers to embrace new ideas rather than the traditional set in stone approach of this is how you do something that I remember from my early days of watching Gardeners World. Interestingly a subject that is often promoted, especially in social media, as a new idea – Are Gardens Art – was raised by Lucinda Lambton back in 1996.  As they say there isn’t much that is really new!

This anthology is a good substantial read.  It has a wide range of subject matter and a wealth of intelligent writing which I am sure would satisfy any gardener with an enquiring mind.  It would also make a good Christmas present for the gardener in the family and I am sure a welcome change to the usual gardening gloves and secateurs.

Book Review: The Greenhouse Gardener’s Manual

greenhouse book

As a gardener who uses their greenhouse for more than tomatoes and annual seedlings I was interested to receive a review copy of The Greenhouse Gardener’s Manual by Roger Marshall from Timber Press.  There aren’t many books on greenhouse gardening and in fact they rarely appear in the media so I thought it would be interesting to see if the author brought a different approach.

The book is fairly accessible and covers all the aspects of having a greenhouse you would expect – different types, where to locate, how to heat, ventilate, and water and recommendations on what equipment or layout you should consider.  I have one quibble with the recommendations on staging which proposes slatted benches as the best option.  I dispute this as my experience is that you have to be very careful what you put under the slats.  If like me you have trays of seedlings you are trying to accommodate in a tiny space then having an area where any seed trays will be subject to large plops of runoff from the shelf above is not great.  Although, of course, the author has a very large greenhouse so this isn’t such a consideration.

However what I found more interesting than the run of the mill setting up your greenhouse stuff and the propagation advice was the sections on the different uses you can put your greenhouse to.  There is the expected vegetable and fruit growing uses but also a significant section on using your space for growing orchids which is fascinating especially to someone, like me, who is incapable of making even Moth Orchids reflower.  Also interesting were the cactus and succulents and bromeliads.  I wasn’t so convinced by the section on herbs as I was surprised at the idea of growing rosemary and bay in the greenhouse but I suppose if you are in certain parts of the US with very long winters then this might be more normal to you.  What was very unusual and unexpected was a section on growing plants without soil, hydroponics, which goes into enough detail to give any one interested in this a good start.

The section that really interested me were the ornamentals, either flower or foliage, and a good selection were included ranging from bulbs through to shrubs such as Gardenias.  The range of plants included and the advice on looking after them under glass would make this an interesting book for someone who wanted to use their conservatory for plants.

As you would expect there is a section at the back of the book on pests and diseases, some of which are illustrated although personally I would l have liked to see more photographs of these as they are quite hard to identify for the novice.

Overall I think this is a good book for someone who is thinking about investing in a greenhouse but even more so for someone who already has a greenhouse which seems to sit empty for a significant part of the year when the tomatoes have gone over.  The range and diversity of plants that can be grown and give you something to enjoy during the winter, whether edible or ornamental, is often underestimated. The Greenhouse Gardener’s Manual certainly makes you consider alternatives and is well worth a read.

Book Review: The Bee


I agreed to review The Bee: A Natural History by Noah Wilson-Rich because I was curious to know more about bees.  As a garden blogger who uses social media extensively I have felt bombarded in the last year or so about the demise of the bee and how we have to help them.  I am of course aware that recently bees have suffered from viruses but given that the number of bees seem to be increasing in my garden and also in the ‘garden’ area outside my office at work I often feel a little perplexed by this apparent contradiction.  I have also started to notice the difference between the various bees visiting my garden so I was hoping the book would help me work out who is who.

The author, Noah Wilson-Rich, as well as being a Biology academic, is the founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Best Bees Company in Boston which supplies gardeners with bee related products; profits from the business fund research into bee disease and immune function.  However, despite the academic background of the author the book is very accessible.

The book starts with Evolution and Development at which point I learnt that bees evolved from carnivorous wasps and that bees evolved as a result of plants developing flowers; I had never even thought of the origin of bees before. We then go through the anatomy and biology of bees and I have to admit I got a little befuddled when the book talked about genomics, informatics and the endocrine system! Luckily the book is illustrated  extensively with photographs and drawings so if like me you don’t have a scientific background you can still get an idea of what is being discussed!.  The third chapter focusses on society and behaviour which is really fascinating particularly when you consider, as Wilson-Rich draws to our attention, how the evolution of the honeybee society and reproduction is contrary to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest is completely at odds with the honeybees approach of all new bees in a hive being produced by one female, the Queen.  I am going to go back to read through this when I have more time as I find it intriguing.

We then trip through two chapters on Bees and Humans and Bee-keeping which I have to admit to skimming as bee-keeping isn’t of interest to me.  Then we move into what was for me one of the best chapters of the book, A Directory of Bees, which looks in detail at 40 of the “world’s most remarkable bees”.  These are divided into solitary, bumble, stingless and honey bees and there are some wonderful names out there such as the Sugarbag Bee, the Teddy Bear Bee and the wonderful black and spotty Domino Cuckoo Bee – all from Australia.

The book closes with a chapter looking at The Challenges Faced by Bees.  I was interested to see that Wilson-Rich debunks the theory that if bees were to be wiped out humankind would only have four years. Apparently this is a comment ascribed to Einstein although there seems to be little factual evidence backing this up.  Wilson-Rich argues that humankind would be able to continue albeit on a dull diet as we would eventually loose all bee-pollinated food crops and would be reliant on wind-pollinated crops such as grains.  It was also interesting to learn that in China they are already hand pollinating almond trees due to bee loses.  I would stress that Wilson-Rich does not argue there is no real substance to the environmental claims relating to bees but what this book does is to explain the issues in accessible language without an emotional overtone which I often feels comes across in the media at the moment.  He closes the book by encouraging readers to plant bee friendly plants, to get involved in Citizen Science by recording what bees they see and lobbying.  His last paragraph points us to the success story of the reintroduction of the short-haired bumblebee in the UK.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has a passing interest in bees as its presentation with beautiful illustrations will encourage you to dip in and pick up more information as you do. You can also look up bees from your country and find out what food sources and habitat they require so you can be more targeted in your approach. Many of the facts are intriguing – one of my favourites is that drones do not have a father, but they do have a grandfather; now that does get the brain cells working!



Book Review: Remaking a Garden

Remaking a garden

I wonder how many of gardeners could with all honesty look at the garden they have created objectively and take drastic actions to completely reinvent the atmosphere and flow of the space.  This is exactly what Sir Roy Strong has done at The Laskett, the garden he created with his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman, over a period of 30 years.  After her death in 2005 Sir Roy took the pragmatic approach that the house and garden had to work for him as a single individual and he started the process of really analysing the space.  The book, Remaking a Garden, charts the changes made over a period until 2013.

Sir Roy provides the back ground to the garden and then a short narrative for each of the section explaining the history of that part of the garden and what changes were made and why.  I enjoy Sir Roy’s writing having also read his book on the creation of the garden.  He adopts an approach of talking to you as if you are a friend of his and although the text is littered with references to friends and colleagues, his wife’s theatrical productions and his own work it doesn’t, to me, come across as inaccessible. The narrative is accompanied by a photographic journal supplied by Clive Boursnell who charted the garden over 2013 as well as taking photographs of earlier alterations; it is predominantly a visual book.  As I write a monthly meme on this blog charting the changes in my garden through the year this kind of approach really appeals to me.

The primary changes made to the garden were the removal of  hedges that were planted in the early days of the couple creating the garden and had grown very tall and become, to Sir Roy, quite suffocating.  Sir Roy gives us the odd insight into his marriage and the character of his late wife. He tells us how Julia craved privacy, which I presume is a reaction to a very public life when they were both at work in London.  To achieve this she welcomed the high hedges and large trees blocking views of the house and garden from the road and neighbouring fields and in the house she adorned the windows with heavy curtains and plants.  In Sir Roy’s new world these are taken away and the light is allowed to flood into the garden and house, in fact reference to light proliferates throughout the text which shows how important it has become to Sir Roy.

It is interesting to see, through the photographs, how cutting into the hedges to create swags and scoops around entrances to areas draws the eye across the garden and creates vistas where previously the view was blocked.  A lot of thought has been given to the visitor’s experience of the garden with various plantings being changed and replaced with plants with a longer season of interest.  A new colonnade was built last year in order to provide a dry space for visitors when it rained. I have to admit that this new area jarred with me when I visited in 2013 and it seemed a strange addition but now having read the book I understand the motivation for the construction and appreciate that the space will need some time to mellow and settle into its surroundings.

I think, as I said when I posted about my visit in 2013, that this garden is better appreciated when you understand some of its history and the motivation behind the various sculptures and topiary and I think this is something Sir Roy appreciates too.  I don’t think I have encountered a garden before where understanding the history behind things makes such a difference to your appreciation which I think is very interesting. I visited in 2013 with a group of people who weren’t really into gardens and they were completely preoccupied with the self-referential objects that adjourned the garden finding this approach very strange.  However, I found them fascinating and to me The Laskett is a form of autobiography but in a horticultural format and why shouldn’t you have sculptures and objects that remind you of key and important events in your life.

This is a large and glossy book giving the appearance of a coffee table book.  However, whilst it is fascinating to flick through the photographs, once you start to read the text you really gain an understanding of the thought processes behind the changes made.  I found it quite liberating – why not chop down a huge tree if it is blocking out light? I think sometimes we spend too much time worrying about whether we are doing the right thing that inertia sets in and nothing happens so I found Sir Roy and his gardeners quite ruthless and unsentimental approach refreshing. It was also interesting to read how one change lead to another change and sometimes it took a serious of changes before Sir Roy felt that he had finally achieved the right effect.

However,  Sir Roy’s love of his wife and his gardeners’ respect for her also come through.  There is one area, the Christmas Orchard, which holds part of her collection of heritage apple trees under which her ashes were scattered which has only been tidied and will not be changed.  Also the gardeners had to reduce the crab apple tree collection and find homes for some of the younger trees so they  replanted some of them by bus stops around Herefordshire, which really made me chuckle.

I suspect that knowing and enjoying The Laskett has added to my enjoyment of this book making me somewhat prejudice but I honestly think it would appeal to any one who is interested in the thought process of garden creation and when is it not fascinating to have a peer behind the scenes of a garden.


Book Review: British Gardens in Time


There is nothing I enjoy more than a bit of history and when it’s coupled with horticulture I am a very happy person.  So I was thrilled to be offered a review copy of British Gardens in Time; the book which accompanies the new BBC series.

The book, and television series, showcase four well-known British gardens with each representing a key stage in the progression of British horticultural design.  As a bonus the book, written by Katie Campbell, starts with a short history of British Gardens.  We are taken on a gallop through history from the Roman influences, through the lack of any real garden interest in the medieval times to the gardens Elizabeth I’s courtiers built to try to woo her.  I particularly appreciated the approach taken by Campbell throughout the book which embraces all aspects of the horticultural world not just the design.  I spent some time a year or two ago learning about garden design history and it was quite clear that the development of garden design not only occurred due to a need for lords to impress and show off their wealth but also due to the plant introductions that were coming in from new colonies overseas.  You have to understand the whole context of the environment the garden was created in, as well as the background of its creator, to fully appreciate the garden.

The four gardens: Stowe, Biddulph Grange, Nymans, and Great Dixter are presented mainly from a historical perspective.  However, the history of the development of each garden is given set within the context of other garden design and influences.  In the case of Stowe we learn how the development of the garden reflects its owner’s Lord Cobham’s changing political views and criticism of Walpole, the then Prime Minister.  At this time many large gardens including allegorical statues and buildings which would have conveyed a hidden message to visitors; something we now find hard to understand.

Biddulph was built on the profits of the industrial revolution by James Bateman a keen botanist and sponsor of many plant hunters.  Therefore this section of the book explores the ‘cult’ of the Victorian plant hunters but also, interestingly to me, the work of female botanical artists many who remain anonymous.  I have found this period of horticultural  history fascinating for some time far more than the development of the landscape garden under Capability Brown’s artistic hand such as at Stowe.  I suspect that it appeals to the romantic in me, all those exciting stories of exploration, as well as to my fascination with plants and where they come from.  Bateman was into orchids, they were his first love, and it is interesting to learn how obsessive and single-minded these collectors and plant hunters could be. Campbell recounts how some plant hunters collected every single specimen of a plant they would carry and destroyed the remainder so only they had the plant.  It seems that in some cases their single-mindedness destroyed whole colonies although I suppose when you consider the Victorian approach to wild game hunting we shouldn’t be surprised that this arrogant approach pervaded other aspects of life.

I haven’t read the final two chapters on Nymans and Great Dixter but if they follow  the style of the first half of the book and the quality of the television series episode on Great Dixter that was shown last week they should be excellent.

I like the way the book uses the four very different gardens to explore the subject of garden/horticultural history including other developments such as the early plant nurseries, plant hunters, plant magazines, the  acceptability of lady gardeners, the foundation of the RHS and National Trust and the influence of other contemporary gardeners and designers.

I found Campbell’s writing style easy and accessible; although relaying a lot of information in a fairly compact style it has a good flowing narrative to it.  The photographs of the gardens by a range of photographers are needless to say wonderful but it is the photographs of the owners and occupiers, particularly for the latter gardens, and the botanical drawings that I really loved.

I would recommend this book for anyone who is in love with the world of horticulture, as I am.  It is like reading about your heroes and heroines with a touch of plant porn thrown in – what more could I ask for!

Gardening Myths & Misconceptions – A Book Review


I firmly believe that a lot of garden lore derives from job creation for the legions of under gardeners that used to exist.  I have a habit of doing gardening jobs as and when they occur to me and I tend to trust my instinct more than referring to books unless it is to remind me how to take cuttings.  I believe that this is how you learn through trial and error rather than mindlessly following an instruction from a book or fellow gardener without questioning it.  So I was very pleased to be offered a review copy of Charles Dowding’s new book Gardening Myths and Misconceptions

Like me Dowding has a questioning and challenging approach to life and in his introduction he explains that he has been trying and testing various myths for some 30 years.  Hardly surprising to hear from an influential vegetable grower who advocates a no-dig approach to growing; going against the long-held practice of double digging practised by many a veg grower.

In the introduction Dowding discusses the idea of myths and how we are brought up to believe various facts which it never occurs to us to question.  He gives a number of random examples such as Marie Antoinette did not say ‘let them eat cake’ which I was taught was an example of the aristocracy attitude to the poor and lead to the French Revolution instead this apparently was said 50 years earlier by Louis XIV’s wife.  Equally the claim that Mussolini made trains run on time is based on the fact that he banned the reporting of delays rather than the efficiency of the train system!  Once the ‘facts’ you were taught at school have been challenged your mind becomes open to the idea that other ‘facts’ may be untrue and so we go to horticultural practices.

The book focuses on the growing of edibles including watering, compost making, fertilising and soil.  I only grew edibles for a short time on an allotment, where fact and lore abounded and I found the whole experience quite daunting. I consulted books and the internet and my confusion grew as one fact contradicted another and to be honest some made little sense.

Dowding argues that when presented with these ‘facts’ you should ask the giver why this is true and challenge them to explain the reason behind their belief.  I tried out one of the myths on twitter the other evening.  Dowding argues that you don’t need to wash and sterilise seed trays and pots.  He states that he hasn’t done this for 30 years and rarely had a problem.  Some tweeters were aghast at this idea and when I challenged them, as per Dowding’s instruction, they all argued it was to remove pests and diseases and to prevent damping off.  However, Dowding argues that the only diseases he has encountered is from sowing too closely, which I know is a cause of botrytis, and humidity.  This makes complete sense to me and I know the other tweeters were celebrating that this tedious task was not that necessary. The RHS is also now agreeing with this view.

The crux of Dowding’s arguments come down to seeing the horticultural practice as a whole and understanding how one thing connects to another.  So green manure might provide some nutrients but you also have to take into account that the it can harbour slugs as well as beneficial creatures and the decomposition of the green manure can take weeks rather than days so may remove nutrients from the seeds or plants that have been planted, if planted too soon. As with many things it is a case of weighing up the pros and cons and making an informed choice that suits you rather than blindly and unquestioning following a prescribed view.

For anyone who grows edibles or for that matter gardens intensively I would recommend this book.  You might not agree with all of Dowding’s views and arguments but you will find yourself questioning what the ‘experts’ tell you and this in turn will lead you to be a more intelligent and successful gardener.


Book Review: Backyard Blueprints



I have to admit that Backyard Blueprints isn’t  the sort of book I would normally buy as it has a design focus which isn’t my real interest.  However, as it focusses on small gardens, or backyards, I thought it might have some interesting ideas for my garden, so agreed to review it.

David Stevens, the author, is a garden designer with 11 gold medals from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show under his belt.  He has also written many garden books primarily on design. The blurb on the cover states that the book ‘demystifies the stages of designing a garden’ and it is certainly set out in a user-friendly style with accessible language.

I liked the approach that you should ignore trends and do what is right for you. As Stevens states “It will not be some fancy and impractical vignette from a glossy magazine, rather a slightly haphazard, comfortable and electic composition.” This sounds more my style than anything featured in a glossy magazine.  The book condenses each element of design into one or two pages; so when looking at design styles you have a two page spread on formal and freeform and one on asymmetric.  The content is image heavy with lots of diagrams breaking down the elements in an associated photograph.

As with any design book which focusses on small gardens the usual suspects are present: boundaries, privacy, linking inside and out but changing levels and tricking the eye are also covered, including practical information about building steps.  Given that turf isn’t really practical in a small garden there is a sizeable section on various hard landscaping options which appears to be very comprehensive.  All sorts of garden structures are considered and instructions and advice given for many including a rather lovely arch and a slightly quirky slatted bench both of which I have started to drop hints to my son about.

Being obsessed with plants I have to confess that this is the part of the book that I looked at more closely.  This is not the book for someone looking for lots of specific plant details.  However, if like me you are guilty of impulse buying and consequently have bitty looking planting then this book is very helpful  in making you think about how you combine and associate plants.  Planting in layers and drifts is discussed as well as how to use the shape, colour and texture of plants together.  I particularly liked this section as I have slowly been getting my head around how you need vertical accents to bring interest to mounds of plants as well has having large leaves combined with smaller more intricate ones.  The author states “even the permutations of how just six of them (plants) taken at random could be arranged are almost endless” which is true but I think it would have been nice to have seen some examples of this – a montage of six arrangements would have been very instructive; a missed trick I felt.

When it comes to colour I was grateful that Stevens did not launch into one of those complicated explanations of the colour wheel such as you find in so many books of this genre.  Instead he takes a more user-friendly approach by quoting Jekyll’s dictum that hot colours attract and cool colours recede and then explains how this works in reality.  Lastly, in the plant section there are two interesting sections on plants for shade and hot dry areas with planting plans which really are very useful in giving you a good selection of plants to choose from.

Backyard Blueprints will not show you how to actually draw a design for your garden nor how to lay your paving; it’s not a How to Book.  However, it will show you how to take the basic ideas and tweak them to create something special.  The author shows you the alternatives available and the effects each  choice produces.  I think the book shows you that you can pick and choose elements and ideas which appeal to you and create a small garden or backyard that works for you and your family and is individualistic rather than feeling you need to replicate some prescribed design in a magazine – unless of course that is what you want!