Book Review: My Life with Plants

It was with some trepidation that I agreed to review Roy Lancaster’s My Life with Plants; after all commenting on the writing of someone who is held in such high esteem by so many in the horticultural world and beyond is quite intimidating.

My Life with Plants is a form of autobiography written by Roy Lancaster, as he celebrates his 80th birthday, looking back on his adventures in horticulture.  The book starts with his childhood explorations of the local countryside firstly due to a love of birds but progressively, due to encouragement from mentors in the local naturalist’s society, a fascination for plants developed.  These mentors encouraged Roy to pursue his interests into a career in the local Parks department.  The book continues through Roy’s national service mainly spent in Malay, what a thrill that must have been for a burgeoning plantsman, and onwards to his time with Hilliers, before launching on his speaking and media career in the 1980s and brings us right up to date with his plant hunting travels in recent years.

As you would expect from someone who has spent a significant portion of their 80 years in horticulture the book is full of plant references. Roy recounts numerous encounters with plants all over the world along with the people who accompanied and supported him.  Whilst the book is entitled My Life with Plants the people who encouraged, supported, worked for, learnt from and travelled with Roy are in fact the books  main ingredient; which reads almost like a whose who of horticulture.

My criticism of the book, and I’m afraid I need to be honest, is that due to the length of time in Roy’s life that is covered in the 299 pages it often felt that we were skimming along on the surface to include everything and I often wished there was more description of the places, or plants and especially the people.  I have to admit to not being a fan of the typical plant hunting travel log which this book often is as I find the tone too academic in approach for my taste but for those who enjoy learning about plants and where they come from and how they were originally located this should be a good read.

I certainly think My Life with Plants would be hugely inspiring for anyone thinking of embracing a career in horticulture as it demonstrates the truth behind the idea that you have to seize opportunities when they present themselves as you never know where they will lead or who you will meet.



A Book Review BOGOF

As I am blogging less I am feeling guilty that I owe a couple of book reviews to Frances Lincoln so I thought I would go for a BOGOF approach (Blog one, get one free).

61EcrMOgs-L._SX432_BO1,204,203,200_Shakespeare’s Gardens by Jackie Bennett
As an English Literature graduate I have a love/hate relationship with Shakespeare and interestingly having despised his writing while I was studying I now find myself becoming more appreciative.  The book charts Shakespeare’s life through the gardens of the houses associated with him and in doing so gives an interesting discourse on the Elizabethan garden as well as its society. The usual tourist trail suspects of Mary Arden’s Farm, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and New Place Garden are all featured as are the Inns of Court to represent his time in London and Kenilworth to represent the high society of the Elizabethan world in contrast to Shakespeare’s world.  Each garden is seen through the skillful lens of Andrew Lawson and his photographs are supplemented by various images, mostly paintings, to illustrate the text.  Jackie has researched the history of each property and how it came to be part of Shakespeare’s life but this embroidery the biography with a wealth of historical information, particularly around the day to day lives of normal people;  I found it refreshing not to be reading much about Elizabeth I and her court.

Jackie gives a detailed history of each garden and we learn that Ellen Willmott, she of Miss Willmott’s Ghost (Eryngium giganteum) fame was an adviser in 1911 to the Shakespeare Birthplan Trust on the improvement of Anne Hathway’s garden. Likewise,  we learn about London garden, the Globe and Gerald’s Herbal in a section on his time in London. I really liked the botanical illustrations from the Herbal which would make lovely embroidery designs.

This is a well researched book with extensive footnotes and a bibliography so if you have an interest in the life of Shakepeare or garden history it would probably be very attractive to you.

New Wild Garden – Ian Hodgson

This was a book I was looking forward to reading and it didn’t disappoint.  I am new wild gardeninterested in a more relaxed style of planting but not so keen on what I shall sweepingly call prairie planting as I find it rather boring after a while.  The premise of this book is to show you have to plant in a more relaxed style in the new style in a range of settings from meadows, woodlands, xeriscapes and ponds.  It has ideas for the largest garden to pots.

Ian talks through the book about the wildlife benefits of this approach to gardening and how you can help the declining pollinators by planting the right plants.  He looks at how you should look at the different types of ecologies and then choose the most appropriate to your own situation and then plant the plant associated with that ecology.  So you might have a warm, well-drained border which you could plant to replicate the natural landscape of the Mediterranean; this same principle is applied to pots, ponds and a wealth of border locations.

The book ends with a directory of suitable plants.  Each illustrated with details of height and spread, preferred location and what plants they will associate with. Whilst there aren’t any planting plans in the book what is very useful is that a number of the photographs of a planting combination is carefully labelled with each plant identified so you can see the elements of any combination you aspire to create.

Whilst I started out expecting a book extolling the proponents of wild planting with lots of gasses and North American perennials the New Wild Garden is actually a modernised ‘how to create a garden’ book with the pristine lawns replaced with wildflower mixes, details of how and what to plant, growing tips and suggestions of plants or bulbs that can be planted in various locations.

I think this book could be a first gardening book for the new gardener who wants to take a more modern and holistic approach to creating a garden.

I enjoyed both these books; one of them purely coffee table book and the other more instructional.  I would recommend them to any one depending on their interest in Art and Film Studies in Fife.




A timely reminder

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening


I read last night and into the early hours and wept. It’s rare for a book to hold me in this way. Despite its title, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening is not a gardening book although the education of a gardener is the premise for the story. Nor is it about the author’s battle with breast cancer although this cannot be ignored. No, this book is about the human condition with all its frailty and contradictions. It is about a friendship that struggles to emerge but blossoms into something truly life affirming.

The writing isn’t sophisticated nor does it try to be clever. It is brutally honest but in a quiet understated way. The author, Carol Wall, confronts all our fears.  The fear of making a fool of yourself, appearing to be racist, saying the wrong thing, and worse not realising it, the fear of losing your parents and the terror of dying yourself. But through the author and Mr Owita’s evolving relationship the author learns and grows. She confronts her fears and in turn develops a deep understanding of her new friend and his family, who it transpires are dealing with their own demons.

Despite what might sound like a rather depressing storyline, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening, is a joy to read. The characters are engaging from the first page and with their back stories slowly unfolding throughout the book we are drawn into their lives wanting to know more.

But the real message I took from this book was that the most important things in life are those that you cannot buy; the importance of real friendship, friendship and love which puts some one else first without hesitation and how we should cherish such friendships as they are very special indeed.  A timely reminder at this time of year.

I would like to thank Kathy over at Cold Climate Gardening for featuring this book on her blog as I would never have come across it otherwise on this side of the pond.  As ever the joy of blogging is the connections we make which lead us to discover all manner of things we wouldn’t normally come across.


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: 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!

My top twenty reads


It’s always interesting where conversations on twitter can lead to.  The other day the Guardian’s top 100 reads, which it turned out was from, was tweeted which then prompted a discussion about how many some of us had read, what a strange selection they were and what we would have included.  Needless to say this led to deciding to post our top twenty reads.  There are no rules, they can be anything: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, whatever – so here  are mine.

Thing Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe – this is my favourite book.  I discovered it while studying post-colonial literature with the Open University.  Essentially it records the culture of the Igbo tribe in Africa and the destructive impact of the arrival of the arrogant colonials.  This book should make us all question the culture of the power of western colonialism we were taught at school.

The Founding Gardeners – Andrea Wulf – a recent discovery which recounts the story of the first four US presidents through their passions for horticulture.  It is an enjoyable read presenting the story through various vignettes.  Completely fascinating.

The Daughter of TimeJosephine Tey – a book I discovered via Radio 4 Book of the Week a while ago.  The person advocating the book argued that it taught you to challenge things that you had been taught.  The story is about whether Richard III was indeed the evil king Shakespeare portrayed him to be and did he arrange for the princes in the tower to be killed.  Published in 1951 it predates all the recent books arguing this theory.

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Wolf – another book discovered when studying for my degree.  I found it delightful, intellectual, intriguing and discovering Wolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’ style was liberating for me and I feel flavours my writing now.

A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry – this book was discovered through another programme where celebrities identifies books that were important to them.  It is set in 1970s India and portrays a period of political turmoil in this country’s history through one ordinary person.  It is a book that makes you think, it challenges the Western preconceptions of India and its people and it is a wonderful read

A Handful of Dust – Evelyn Waugh – I do like this author and this is my favourite of his books.  I am fascinated by this period of history, 1920s, and the book conveys that period of time between the wars when rules were being broken and society could be said to be disintegrating.  It is also incredibly sad.

The Island – Athol Fugard – a play again discovered when I was studying Post-colonial literature and another one to make you think.  The play has two characters who are in prison in a South African prison which is obviously based on Robben Island.  The cellmates spend their days in futile physical labour and their nights practising for a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone

Hatters Castle – A J Cronin – I read this book as a teenager and it was the first book to have a real impact on me and has stayed, almost haunting me, for the rest of my life.  It essentially is about a father, Hatter, and his three children. I wouldn’t want to give the plot away but it is a heartbreaking book which shows what can happening when parents pressurised their children too much.  It has been at the back of my mind while I have been bringing my sons up.

The Awakening – Kate Chopin – Another book from my degree course.  The OU had a thing about feminism when I studied with them and how women were portrayed and how they started to portray themselves.  Published in 1899 The Awakening explores how the main character questions motherhood and the limits of marriage. Edna rejects her domestic role in a search for her “spiritual, sexual and artistic freedom”, it shocked readers at the time and is beautifully written. Like others I encountered on the course this book gave me permission to follow an independent lifestyle.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon  – I enjoyed this book which threw away the rule book and displayed for all of us to see, in a very sympathetic and non-patronising way, the working of the mind of a teenager which Asperger’s Syndrome.  Like Mrs Dalloway the writing style broke rules and challenged which I loved.

Garden Open Today – Beverley Nichols – I have included this as I enjoy Nichols’ writing.  It is of its time and so non-PC now that it makes me laugh out loud.  It is about gardening but it is the portrayal of Nichols friends, acquaintances and neighbours that I really enjoy.

The Life of PiYann Martel – a book that confuses and produces mixed responses from readers.  I have refused to see the film as I don’t want my interpretation of the meaning behind some parts of the book challenged.  This is a book that makes you think and re-think and you end it not 100% sure you got it in the first place.

Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch – shortlisted for the Orange Prize a few years back this book surprised me.  It is an adventure story set in London in 19th century and on the high seas. There are some grim bits but it is essentially about “faith, love and friendship at their utmost limits”. It is a very atmospheric book.


Sunset Song – Lewis Grassic Gibbon – another degree text set before and during the First World War in Scotland this book follows the story of a young woman and the harshness of farming life.  Grassic Gibbon is a writer that is often included on the Scottish school curriculum and evokes a difficult time and endurance.

The Cherry Orchard – Anton Chekhov – another play, this time a comedy although I think the humour is a little dark.  It is set at a time when the Russian elite were having to accept giving up their land to the serfs.  The Cherry Orchard of the title is part of the land the family is going to lose and symbolises their loss. I found the exploration of people coming to terms with such drastic changes fascinating.

The Warden – Anthony Trollope – Trollope’s novels were the first ‘classics’ I read and The Warden is the first of the Chronicles of Barchester.  Again I love the character portrayal and the interplay between the characters.  These days I have some involvement with the local Cathedral and have to try hard not to superimpose Trollope’s characters on to the people I encounter.

The Dolls House – Henrik Ibsen – a play encountered at the same time as The Awakening and again this play explores the role of the women in the home, it is considered the first feminist play and caused a stir at the time.  I admired the main character Nora when I read the play.

The Man from Snowy River – Elyne Mitchell – this book always takes me back to my late teens when I spent time in Australia on a number of occasions and it reminds me of time I spent on the edge of the bush.  It is romantic and full of adventure and brings alive the ballad of Banjo Patterson whose work I have enjoyed. This is one of only a few books that has gone through life with me since my teens.

Wild Swans – Jung Chang – a fantastic book following the lives of three generations of chinese women throughout the late 19th century and 20th century.  Through the characters you follow the history of China and its self-destruction of its culture.  It evokes a broad range of emotions but leaves you uplifted at the power of human self-preservation.

The Women in White – Wilkie Collins – my favourite genre of books is murder mysteries and detective fiction.  I like many authors but choose The Women in White partly as it was the first of the genre and because it is such a clever thriller.

There is no logic to the order I have listed my twenty  top reads it’s really how they came off the shelf when I decided to write this post.  I haven’t thought about it long and hard just picked the books I would recommend to someone looking for something to read.  Interestingly many are from the seven years I spent studying for my degree with the Open University and I have to admit that my mind was really opened to a range of literature that I don’t think I would otherwise  encounter many of which challenges and changed my views and perceptions of many things but particularly colonialism and some that empowered me to be independent and more self-confident.

I am now going to go and re-read some of those I haven’t opened for a number of years.




The Founding Gardeners – A Review

Founding Gardeners

If you thought protecting natural species and the environmental movement was a 20th century phenomon then you would be wrong.  According to Andrea Wulf in The Founding Gardeners, James Madison, the fourth President of the US, was way ahead of everyone else.  In May 1818 in his Address to the Agriculture Society of Albemarle railed against “the excessive destruction of timber” and the affect of man increasing “certain plants an animals – crops and livestock – ‘beyond their natural amount’, thereby tipping the scales towards his own advantage.” Whilst Madison may not have been the first to talk about the destruction of the forest and conservation “he was the first politician (albeit a retired one0 to make a public speech about it,..”

The Founding Gardeners is a fascinating and engaging read.  Andrea Wulf takes what could be a considerably dry subject – the early years of the United States and brings her four ‘Founding Gardeners’ alive.  She demonstrates through a series of vignettes how Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison were passionate about ‘gardening’ of one form or another.  She does however, warn us at the start that the term ‘gardening’ is used in the loosest sense through out the book and covers a range of activities from weeding a flower border to growing crops in vast plantations.

This book follows on from The Brother Gardeners in which Wulf explores the connections between the early plant hunters in the US and other colonies such as John Bartram  and the keen plantsman back in the UK who commissioned the collecting such as Phillip Miller.  The Founding Gardeners moves forward a little in time but shifts its focus to the US.  Wulf shows how important agriculture was to the creation of the country we know now. The two party system evolved out of a disagreement between those who thought the country’s economy should be based around agriculture, the Republicans, and those who beleived that banking and trade was the US’s future, the Federalists. Even before this time Benjamin Franklin, a representative of the American colonies, was a key figure in encouraging the Founding Fathers to move for independent based on his belief that the US could be independent due to its ability to grow vast crops – it was essentially at this time the bread basket for Britain.
However, away from  the political scene each of the four Founding Gardeners was passionate about plants and gardening.  We learn that Adams and Jefferson went on a tour of English gardens to kill time while they were waiting for the British government to repay a loan.  They visited Stowe but Jefferson was particularly taken with the idea of the ornamental farm which he saw at Wooburn Farm and The Leasowes.  He was to later take this idea and develop it at Monticello, his own property in Virginia.  I knew that Jefferson was a keen horticulturalist but I didn’t realise that Washington was as well.  Like Franklin, Washington saw that America’s wealth was in its cultivated land but he also realised how important it was to preserve the country’s native flora.   Wulf argues that whilst Franklin valued the country’s flora by how productive it was either through feeding the people or providing timber for fuel or building; Washington, being of a younger generation, “was also more susceptible to the sheer beauty of the American flora”.  Just as Jefferson and Madison would do in later years Washington set out to plant only native species at his property and they all were clients of John Bartram’s nursery, now run by his sons.  Adams, not being as wealthy as the other three, gardened on a more modest scale but he too set out to acquire land and planted orchards. He also thwarted Washington’s grandiose scheme for the gardens and parkland around the new White House in Washington opting instead for a more informal and smaller garden.  Wulf describes how Adams struggled with the pressures of his Presidency and how creating the garden at the White House was more important to him than furnishing the interior as it was his way of dealing with the pressures of government.These are but a few of the stories that Wulf presents us with to show how Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison’s “passion for nature, plants, agriculture and gardens shaped the birth of America” and I have to say I  found it a compelling read.Personally, I think Andrea Wulf is one of the most readable of garden historians.  Her writing style flows well despite the factual content, she has an inate ability to bring the lead figures to life and you forget you are reading a factual account.  Whilst she makes assumptions based on the sources she has researched she is clear and obvious when she is making these and there is no sense of feeling there is a hidden agenda or you are being talked  down to.  This post was not written as a result of receiving a review copy of the book.  I bought it myself as I enjoyed her previous book so much and I have a passion for history as well as gardening.  I would recommend The Founding Gardeners to anyone who shares my passions and I am sure that my gardening friends in the US would find it fascinating to discover that many of their approaches to gardening were shared by their Founding Fathers.

Bedside Reading – 18th August


I have to admit to being a compulsive reader and the pile of books, magazines etc is always at a precarious point of tipping over.  I have a tendency when I am interested in something to read a lot about it, acquiring books from here and there.

This is my current reading.  For fiction I have just finished reading John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy.  I originally bought this for my trip to San Francisco back in June but was so busy I didn’t get a chance to read it.  I remember watching the television adaption many years ago and being somewhat confused, I also know that I have read this book before but again was confused.  Anyway, I have this morning finished it and this time there was no confusion.  Maybe I am older, wiser and more educated reader, maybe I took more time, who knows.  A very good read and a reminder of a previous fascination I had with the cold war and spies.

For non-fiction reading I am pouring over bulb and roses catalogues.  I love Peter Nyssen bulbs.  They present a wide selection at fantastic prices especially if you are buying in bulk and the quality has been great in previous years. I have a list compiled now and honed down but the total price is somewhat scary so I am dithering.  I also like Avon Bulbs although I find them a little pricey for the everyday bulb.  However, they do have a great selection of the more unusual and again there is a list I am pondering.  Can you have too many bulbs that is the question.  I already have an order on with Minature Bulbs and I plan to go to the Whichford Pottery bulb sale in a couple of weeks so the Avon Bulbs order might go by the wayside although they do have some gorgeous irises!!

Then there are the rose catalogues.  I decided last weekend that I need more roses in the garden.  I love roses and I don’t grow anywhere near enough.  I have identified a few locations for them and the potential for an arch.  I was doing really well with the Peter Beale catalogue having made a small considered selection then the David Austin one arrived and I have no idea now which ones to go for!

My other distraction at the moment is Pinterest which I have rediscovered this week and now understand how to use it properly.  Its wonderful but I am finding so many inspiring images that my head is buzzing even more than usual with ideas – phew