Book Review: The Plant Lovers Guide to Epimediums

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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

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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

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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.

Book Review: The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops

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“Oh no” was my reaction when a review copy of Naomi Slade’s The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrop‘ dropped through the letterbox from Timberpress, “Not another snowdrop book”. For indeed they seem to be coming out thick and fast over the last couple of years following up on the real renaissance in galanthomania.

The book is part of the new series of Plant Lover’s Guides from Timberpress – other titles to date include Salvias, Dahlias and Sedums.  I do like the idea of this series which will make an interesting and informative collection on the gardener’s bookshelf and no doubt is hoping to be a 21st century follow on from the very successful Plant Expert series by Dr D G Hessayon.

Naomi wisely does not claim to be a galanthophile, I say wisely because as a well-respected galanthophile said to me once the term has to be earned not just adopted because you like snowdrops. Her interest in snowdrops has grown over the years and as she states whenever she found out something interesting she wrote it down.  Small bits of interesting information are sprinkled throughout the book as highlights just as the profiles of various galanthophiles from both sides of the Atlantic.  One of my minor quibbles with the book is the omission of some notable galanthophiles including Margaret Owen, who sadly died a few months ago, even in the description of Galanthus ‘Godfrey Owen’, which Margaret named after her late husband, there is no reference to her which I think is a real oversight given her legendary reputation in the snowdrop world.

The book starts with how to incorporate snowdrops into your garden whether you have the benefit of a bit of woodland, live in the suburbs or indeed only have a balcony.  There is an exploration of what plants make good companions and the various approaches to planting snowdrops in your space.  We then go on to explore the history of snowdrops, the various breeding programmes over the years and the peculiar condition that is galanthomania.

Naomi takes time to explain the various terms used in describing snowdrops – oh yes galanthophiles have their own terms for petals etc and how you can identify the different species partly from their different leaves.  I have to admit I get particularly irritated when photographs in articles on snowdrops omit the leaves since these are so important to identification and helped me to make sense of this confusing world when it was pointed out to me, so I was glad Naomi spent time explaining this with diagrams.

Then we have a section featuring a selection of snowdrops that the reader might like to consider.  This is no small undertaking as there will always be someone who thinks you should have included this or that variety rather than the ones you have chosen.  Naomi has included a nice range which demonstrate the variety available – there are species, some with green markings, some yellow markings, some double etc and this helps the novice understand that there really is a difference between snowdrops; well most of them!

The book concludes with a selection of snowdrop gardens and events on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere.  Personally I think there are some significant omission in the UK event selection as none of the society snowdrop events have been included and I believe one of the two mentioned isn’t going ahead this year – it’s a tricky thing to include an events list as it looses its currency so quickly.

Overall I think there is just about space in the current offering of snowdrop books for The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops.  It is well written, informative particularly for someone who, like me, has a curiosity about this small but revered plant.

 

Book Review: The Writer’s Garden

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There seems to be a plethora of books about gardens in various locations of the world or the UK at the moment so finding a new angle is a challenge.  Jackie Bennett has taken the approach of collecting together an assortment of gardens in the UK which either inspired or belonged to some of our best known writers and bringing them together in The Writer’s Garden

Whilst the book is essentially another glossy image laden coffee table book on gardens it has the distinction of including potted histories of each of the writers from Sir Walter Scott through Henry James to Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie and how they encountered or created the featured garden, what works they were inspired to write at this time and the current status of the garden.

The book is well written and researched and as you would expect from a garden book from the Frances Lincoln stables, includes excellent and plentiful photographs by Richard Hanson. However, I did find the premise of the book a little strained at times if you take the title ‘The Writer’s Garden’ literally.   Few of the writers were actually hands on gardeners with the exception possibly of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter.  However, many created the gardens included, through the employment of gardeners,  due to wealth generated from their success as writers including Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Hardy and they seem to have had a strong desire to create a place to escape to presumably from the celebrity caused by their writing – Kipling’s Batemans is an example.

I was surprised that Lumb Bank was  included for Ted Hughes. It was a property he bought in the Pennines where he had lived until 8, but only lived in for little more than a year.  Whilst he did not live at Lumb Bank for long he was instrumental in it being converted into a retreat for writers.  Robert Burns’ property Ellisland was also, for me, another tenuous inclusion given that this was a farm that Burns bought and worked to provide for his family and only lived in for 3 years however it is whilst he was working the land during the day that he collected the traditional songs he would rework or came up with the stories he would tell.

The tag line for the book ‘How gardens inspired our best-loved authors’ is far more relevant to the content than the title.  If you have an interest in literature, as well as gardens, this book will provide some fascinating insights into many authors you have probably read, or at least know of.  Having studied literature at degree level including the background of some of the authors featured I still found plenty of information that was new to me and which helped to provide an interesting context for books I have enjoyed in the past.

 

RHS The Garden Anthology – A Review

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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

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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.