Book Review: The Woodcutters Story

Woodcutter

I was asked to review The Woodcutter’s Story by its author Mark Walker.  Mark is a horticulturist and garden designer who has created show gardens at Malvern, Cardiff, and Hampton Court horticultural shows.  The book has been published in aid of Cancer Research UK.  Mark wants to raise funds for the charity and indeed the show gardens he has built over the years have all been to raise awareness of the various charities which he feels strongly about. There is a short section at the start of the book showcasing his achievements in this area.  In addition the book is illustrated throughout with Mark’s drawings.

This is a very moralistic tale about the perils of over ambition.  Mark has drawn on his experiences in creating show gardens but has set his tale in times past in order to remove any immediate association with particular individuals. He has chosen to name his characters after native trees which is a charming device and allows him to include short pieces on the trees featured. The reference to native trees links to the story which is based around a Woodcutter, and his wife, to has ambitions to excel at the local show.  His ambition and drive lead him to neglect the wood whose care he is tasked with as well as his wife; with dire consequences.  It is the sort of tale you can imagine being told of an evening in days past, maybe around the fire, to teach people the perils of greed and ambition.

The strength of  The Woodcutter’s Story is the way it  puts across very clearly and succinctly its moral and ethical message; you can hear the voice of the author quite distinctly. It is also an interesting insight into the challenges faced in particular by garden designers creating show gardens  who don’t benefit from large amounts of sponsorship or support.  Interestingly it also demonstrates the addictive nature of entering the world of showing and the perilous route it can take you down. It is certainly a heartfelt book and you find yourself feeling concerned about the route the main character is taking.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Splendour of the Tree

index

 

I am catching up on some book reviews and wanted to share The Splendour of the Tree by Noel Kingsbury with you.  I had anticipated that it would be a book showing various trees, conditions needed, maybe a diagram of their eventual shape, a few photos of fruit, leaves and bark.  However, if I had looked properly I would have noticed the tag line (is that the right term?) – ‘An illustrated history’ and I wouldn’t have been so surprised when I opened the book.

The book is split into a number of sections in which the various trees are grouped: antiquity, ecology, sacred, utility, food and ornament.  Each tree has at least two pages, some a few more.  The narrative commences with a very brief list of facts including the geographical origin of the tree, a brief description, its size, potential age and climate. Then Noel Kingsbury goes on to tell us about the tree and without fail each short essay is full of interesting information and facts which make you sit up and take notice.

For example when reading about the English Elm (Ulmus procera) I learnt that the reason Dutch Elm Disease was so destructive is because without fail all English Elms are the same clone so there is no variation or mutation which can combat the disease.  The Araucaria araucana or Monkey Puzzle is so called because it is a puzzle how monkeys would climb it or even eat it; its French name desespoir des singes translates to monkey’s despair which I prefer! The Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) is not called this because Judas hung himself from one, after betraying Christ (the branches are too brittle and the trees dont grow tall enough); instead it is named after Judaea, a region of Israel and Palestine, from where the tree originates.

Kingsbury’s writing is accessible and informative without feeling like you are being talked at or taught.  He not only tells us about the use of the various trees, where they originate from and some interesting information but also in many cases he relates them to the humans that live with the various species such as the people in South East Asia who plant out seedlings of Teak (Tectona grandis) in order to maintain the supply of this tree which is so important to their economy. As Kingsbury says in the introduction the involvement of man in the history of the trees came up again and again when he was researching the book whether it was in terms of destruction or the trees ability to grow where they are not wanted – such as the Australian eucalyptus growing in the high plains of Bolivia.

The narrative is accompanied by wonderful photographs by Andrea Jones but unusually for many books of this size (typical coffee table book size) the narrative, in my view, takes precedence over the photographs rather than accompanying them.

Not only will you learn all sorts of things about your favourite trees but you will learn about trees you have never heard of.  I am passing this book, The Splendour of the Tree, onto my eldest son, the cabinet maker, who is passionate about wood and will I know love it.

Book Review: The Plant Lover’s Guide to Tulips

 

index2I have to admit that I didn’t greet the new The Plant Lover’s Guide to Tulips by Richard Wilford, published by Timberpress in association with Kew, with the same incandescent excitement as I did the one on epimediums but then I am a bit of an epimedium nut.  To be fair tulips have had a hard time in my back garden thanks to the tulip crazed badger that visits in the winter.  It became so soul destroying that I gave up growing them apart from in the front garden when the evil stripy fiend can’t get to them.

Anyway, back to the book.  It follows more or less the same format as the other books in this series from Timberpress and positively groans with sumptuous photographs, the majority taken by the author, leaving you in no doubt that your world would be a much better place with the addition of some tulips even if they are only in a pot.  Richard Wilford is well placed to write about tulips.  He has worked at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for 26 years with a particular interest in bulbs and is a member of the RHS’s Bulb Committee. This is not his first outing as a writer since he wrote Tulips, Species and Hybrids for the Gardener, also for Timberpress, which was published in 2006 as well as Alpines: From Mountain to Garden (2010) and Growing Garden Bulbs (2013) both published by Kew.

Richard starts out by giving a little bit of a history lesson and then explaining that there are 3 main ways you can grow tulips in your garden: mass bedding, in a mixed border or in pots.  For each approach he gives examples of which tulips best and illustrates his advice and recommendations appropriately so for bedding you have the obvious choice of the Keukenhof Gardens in Holland and for mixed borders and to a lesser degree containers he turns to Great Dixter for inspiration. There is a discussion on what plants would work well with the tulips in pots and the mixed border but to me of more interest were the paragraphs on planting tulips in a gravel garden, rock garden and unexpectedly a woodland garden.  I was very surprised that there were some tulips that would take some shade so welcomed a list of suitable varieties and the advice given about using tulips in this way.

The book then goes on to explain tulips as a genus and describe each of the 15 classification groups of tulips giving examples and some illustrations.  The language is straight forward and accessible so you don’t get in a muddle with petals, tepals, sepals and other such botanical lingo.  This section also identifies which groups generally flower when and interestingly which groups of tulips are good for naturalising.  I was interested to learn that tulips, unlike most other bulbs, do not bulk up their bulbs each year but produce a new bulb each year.  This means you need to ensure that the plant isn’t allowed to dry out before the foliage has died naturally or the plant will not have time to produce and bulk up the new bulb.  Understanding this helps you to understand why many tulips don’t do well if left in the ground year on year or even lifted and stored, unless you can given the bulbs the right conditions.  It left me thinking that in future I will concentrate on those groups of tulips which might naturalise.

Then you have 100 different tulips set out for you, arranged in colour groupings, with each variety given a page and well illustrated. The entries give a little history of the variety and detailed description as well as telling you the classification group, height, bloom time, preferred growing conditions and suggestions for ways of using that variety in your borders, which other tulips or plants would work well with it and also some alternative but similar looking tulips.  I particularly liked the inclusion of alternatives as it does really depend on which bulb merchant you go to as to which variety might be available.

The final section covers planting tulips, including advice on growing in containers and also growing species tulips, what conditions they need, propagation and pests.  I was surprised that there was no mention of the predilection that badgers and many other rodents have for tulip bulbs, the section focussed on the tulip fire virus and slugs.  I suspect Richard may not have experienced the disastrous combination of tulips and badgers, indeed I rarely meet someone who has,  but I would have expected the book to mention the problems of mice and squirrels. As with all the books in this series there is a short section on where to buy and see tulips at the back including sources outside of the UK.

I enjoyed reading this book more than I was expecting to, I learnt some interesting bits of information and I found myself rethinking  the possibility of growing tulips in my garden albeit in containers. I know from social media that tulips seem to have become increasingly popular in recent years so if you are into your tulips or thinking about giving them a go I would recommend this book as it helps to demystify those classifications which you see in bulb catalogues and on websites and provides planting of inspiration on how to use these jewel like flowers in your garden.

 

Book Review: Outwitting Squirrels

 

index 2

I was asked to review Anne Wareham’s latest book – ‘Outwitting Squirrels, and other garden pests and nuisances’. The book’s strap line intrigued me “101 cunning stratagems to reduce dramatically the egregious effects of garden pests and honest advice concerning your changes of success“. Knowing Anne I knew she would not hold back with her views and although I may not agree with her at least they would be well argued.

I hadn’t expected the book to be so amusing.  Anne has a way of presenting herself as quite a serious person, intent on debate and improving the way people write about and criticise gardens but there is real humour between the covers of this book right from the introduction.  And I was surprised to discover myself laughing out loud and agreeing with her from the get go.

The book looks at a range of pests and diseases but also nuisances which the gardener has to endure in their bid to achieve their idea of paradise. She has only written about those that she has personally encountered so sadly for me there is no reference to the dreaded badger.  In the introduction she states that many gardeners bring problems upon themselves in one of three ways either by growing vegetables and fruit, growing things in a greenhouse and/or by being a perfectionist or gardening with one. I have to admit my gardening life is a lot less stressful since I gave up growing edibles, a bit of slug damage doesn’t send me over the edge in the same way as caterpillar damage on the cabbages did.

We then have short chapters on various pests from deer down to slugs and snails and red spider mite.  Each chapter is a chatty amusing narrative full of anecdotes of situations Anne has encountered or heard about but at the same time you learn all sorts of interesting information such as your garden has on average 200 slugs per cubic metre (yuk!) She presents various solutions to the pest and her take on whether indeed they work and at the end of each chapter there is a quick reference dos and don’t of dealing with that pest.

Now what you need to realise is that this book is not a reference book with colour photographs of the pest or disease and step by step instructions of what to do.  Instead it reminds me of conversations I have had at local gardening clubs where people share their horror stories and you quickly learn that really there is no solution to whatever it is that is plaguing your garden so the best approach is to learn to live with whatever and to try to control it through observation and good gardening.  There are no quick solutions in gardening, what might work for one will not work for someone else and this is really Anne’s message.  Yes you can try all sorts of things to keep the deer/rabbits/cats out of our garden but at the end the day the only solution is to install a fence (over 6ft for deer!) or to learn to live with the problem.

I was particularly pleased to read the chapter on slug and snails where Anne points out that the real problems are the tiny earth dwelling slugs and that the only real solution is a small application of slug pellets early in the season which is followed up every couple of weeks – hooray at last common sense prevails! All this collecting slugs at night, beer traps, copper bands etc is a waste of time.  What you need is to keep your border tidy, encourage birds etc and to stop fussing about the danger of slug pellets as if you use them very sparingly they won’t harm the wildlife.

The book goes on to look at other problems such as box blight, clematis wilt and algae.  Having battled with algae for many years Anne has learned to accept it and to take a relaxed approach to fishing it out on a regular basis or alternatively adding black dye to the water.  The final section is on human related problems – people, experts, noise, legal problems, garden machinery etc.  The what to do conclusion under experts really sums up the ethos of the advice Anne is giving “Value your own opinion and experience; there are people who experiment and thereby save you having to do it – but it’s not a bad approach for you either. Talk to your neighbours. They may know some useful things about gardening conditions , but do add a pinch of salt, as they may know less than you do”.

I think the benefit of this book is it makes you laugh at the problems which can drive some gardeners insane.  It puts things into perspective and almost gives you permission to trust your own instincts and not to care quite so much.  After all gardening is meant to be relaxing and enjoyable not a daily challenge. It is a good read not to heavy in content, light-hearted but with a serious message.

Book Review: The Plant Lovers Guide to Epimediums

Book Cover-cr-230x230

I adore Epimediums.  If there was a plant that I might collect it would be these so when I was asked by Timberpress if I would like to review Sally Gregson’s new book The Plant Lover’s Guide to Epimediums I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

I met Sally some years ago when I spent a day at her home learning about plant propagation so I knew she was a good plantswoman but I didn’t know she was a fan of epimediums like me.  Well not like me as she has been researching and collecting them for a number of years now whilst I only really discovered them two years ago.  The book opens with an introduction in which Sally shares her passion for this dainty plant and explains how she discovered the wealth of new varieties that have become available particularly since the Chinese varieties were introduced.  In her view Epimediums are about to take the gardening world by storm. They are already popular with some designers like Dan Pearson who recognise that the plants are excellent for providing ground cover even in tough dry shade whilst at the same time providing interesting foliage with the added bonus of flowers in the early spring. And what flowers.  If you look at one of the newer Chinese species such as Epimedium ‘Egret’ the flowers can be the size of a 10p and they hang from long arching stems just like a fine fishing rod.

Anyway enough of my obsession and back to the book.  Essentially it follows a similar style to the other titles in this series.  Firstly you have a section in which Sally describes different groups of epimediums so ones for good ground cover, ones for acid soil, with small flowers, large flowers, good autumn foliage.  She talks about what plants they associate well with and how to create a woodland setting particularly to show off the plants off well.

Then the main bulk of the book is an alphabetical reference of 123 varieties which are easy(ish) to come by in the UK and USA.  I say easyish as I was particularly struck by Epimedium acuminatum ‘Night Mistress’ and I have yet to source one.  Each description is over one or two pages per variety and has a good size colour photograph, the background of the plant ie: where it was found or who bred it, and a description of the plant and its preferred conditions. 123 varieties! And I thought I had a good range with 12!

The next section is on Growing and Propagating including improving the soil, all epimediums even the drought tolerant ones need improved soil, how to plant, how to maintain the plants, even how to grow them in pots and containers, which hadn’t occurred to me, propagating by seed and division.  We also have the obligatory section on pests and diseases which seem to be mainly limited to vine weevils and rabbits.

Finally, in  my favourite section Sally talks about the history of epimediums, how the Japanese and then the Chinese varieties were introduced into the West and the future of hybridising.  We finish with an introduction to the various plants men and women around the world who are breeding new varieties and, for me, some new nurseries to seek out.

I can see this book becoming a bible for me.  I have already made a list of the varieties I have in the garden, well the ones that I still have labels for, and I will be reading up on them to learn more. But what I really like about this book is that it is clear that Sally is passionate about epimediums.  You can always tell when the writer knows their subject or when they have just done a bit of research before hitting the keyboard and Sally is definitely in the first category.

I suspect that the lovers of epimediums are currently few but if you like woodland or shade plants or are into foliage then you really should consider looking at this book as I am sure you will be stunned at the variety of epimediums available both in flower and foliage colour, shape and size.

Book Review: First Ladies of Gardening

first ladies

Amongst the plethora of recent books showcasing gardens one has really stood out for me – First Ladies of Gardening.  Written by Heidi Howcroft with photographs by Marianne Majerus it looks at the gardens of fourteen women gardeners.  Initially Howcroft and Majerus had intended to produce a book on gardens made in the traditional mould by passionate amateurs that they liked and admired.  They soon realised that their short-list consisted almost entirely of gardens created by women and decided to follow this path.

The book includes obvious choices such as Sissinghurst, Kiftsgate, Barnsley House and Beth Chatto’s Garden.  However it also includes some gardens which are less well-known where the gardeners have created stunning gardens often on challenging sites.  We discover Gill Richardson’s Manor Farm in Lincolnshire, Gill is known for breeding Astrantias; Lady Xa Tollemache and Helmingham Hall a moated house with a garden dating back to 1510 and Rosanna James and the hillside garden of Sleight-Holmedale on the North York Moors.

The text puts each garden into context providing some historical background to it and its creator, their approach to gardening and a description of the garden although the essence of each is better conveyed in the photographs.  At the end of each chapter there are the gardener’s guiding principles set out in bullet point form as well as their signature plants.

This book is more than a collection of pretty pictures of gardens and what some people call the vanity shot of the owners.  It is split in two with the old guard in the first half, Pioneers of Design,  and the new guard in the second, New Directions.  We start with Upton Grey Manor a Jekyll garden which has been lovingly restored by Rosamund Wallinger who learnt on the job and then by contrast we have Waterperry where the indefatigable Miss Havergal trained women gardeners.  In the second half we can see how Jekyll, Sackville and Chatto’s legacies have inspired and influenced their successors who in turn have developed and taken their gardens to a new level.  These women are quietly but surely leading the way in planting and garden design creating exuberant and beautiful spaces which are individualistic and demonstrate the highest level of horticultural expertise.

The lady gardeners featured are passionate amateurs, many have learnt as they have gone along and have tackled difficult sites and conditions, which I find inspiring and it encourages me in my own gardening efforts and dreams.   Of the 14 gardens in First Ladies of Gardening there are only one or two which do not appeal to me and I am already making plans to try to visit some of the others.  I especially would like to see Sleight-Holmedale as it is a hillside garden on a much larger scale to mine and looks inspiring. Sissinghurst and Helen Dillon’s gardens are already booked in my diary this summer and I hope to add Upton Grey Manor.

First Ladies of Gardening is a beautiful book as well as being informative and inspiring.

Book Review: Secret Gardens of The Cotswolds

Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds

I am lucky to frequently receive books from Frances Lincoln to review but I have to admit that I was thrilled to be asked to review Secret Gardens of The Cotswolds written by my friend Victoria Summerley. I did tell Victoria some time ago when we were discussing her book that I wasn’t going to review it as I like to be honest and I would feel inhibited reviewing a friend’s book.  However, when it came to it the offer was too good to refuse but I will try very hard to be impartial.

Victoria’s approach to the book, which is clearly articulated in the introduction, is quite simply what we all love to do, if we are honest with ourselves, and that is to have a nose behind the walls of people’s gardens.  We want to have a look round the garden, learn a bit about its history and background, maybe meet the owners or the gardeners and get their views and possibly take a few ideas away.  This book sets out to try to achieve most of these objectives for 21 gardens set in the Cotswolds.  These are not the ‘go to gardens’ you might think of when you consider visiting the Cotswolds – so no Hidcote or Kiftsgate.  Instead we are presented with a range of gardens that we might not be so aware of. They range from the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens which is beginning to get a real reputation for its planting schemes as well as the wildlife it looks after to Walcot House owned by the book’s photographer Hugo Rittison-Thomas.

Most gardens have a view that grabs your attention more than any other view and these have been used as the frontispiece for each description of the garden.  Hugo has then included other views of the gardens in some cases, such as Sezincote, focussing on the oriental sculpture or in the case of Colesbourne, focussing on the plantings with close up of the flowers.  This approach helps you get a real feel for that particular garden whether it be a landscape garden, strong on planting, topiary or sculpture.  But what I particularly liked was the inclusion in the majority of cases of a portrait of either the owners or the head gardeners and in some cases both.  Their voices are heard throughout Victoria’s essays on the gardens so it is nice to have faces to put to the stories, trials and tribulations.

Victoria argues in the introduction that she isn’t an academic but I know she spent many hours researching each garden, tracking down their histories and in at least one case telling the owners things about their garden’s past that they didn’t know.  Having had a career as a newspaper editor you can rely on the text being well written but I think this is added to by Victoria’s own style which flows well and she manages to combine sometimes dry facts and details with humour and a personal point of view.

It is a pity that 4 of the 21 gardens are not open to the public even under the National Garden Scheme, personally I would have preferred if there were opportunities to visit all the gardens featured in a book but of course not everyone who reads the book will be planning to visit some people just enjoy a good read and nice photographs.  However the opening details of the remaining 17 gardens are included at the back of the book along with a map showing where they are all located so you can plan your trips if you are that way inclined..

This is an enjoyable book – a nice coffee table book but also an interesting read to dip in and out of.