Book Review: The New English Garden

New English Garden

“A garden is inseparable from its legends. It needs, as well as walking, reading” Alasdair Forbes, Plaz Metaxu

At first glance The New English Garden by Tim Richardson looks like your typical coffee table book. Large, heavy and full of stunning atmospheric photographs by that well-known garden photographer Andrew Lawson. However, it soon become evident that the text is not along the lines of the predictable and polite articles on gardens that appear in the glossy garden magazines. I shouldn’t be surprised as Tim Richardson is not only a writer but a historian and wrote Oxford University’s first garden history course which I completed at the start of this year.

The introduction, unlike many that seem to go through the process, sets out the remit of the book in clear terms but also signals that the book will raise questions such are how we should look at gardens and whether they should be considered in terms of art. It is clear that Richardson is a proponent of the increasing movement which argues that gardens should be viewed in the same way as we view other works of art be they painting, books, sculptures or plays. His stance is that “Gardens bust the boundaries of art, science, craft, and hobbydom (as well as social class, on occasion), often to the chagrin of the guardians of those particular bailiwicks”. Richardson is clear in the criteria he used for choosing the gardens featured – they are all in England, as opposed to Britain, and have been made or re-made in the last decade. He goes on to set out a brief summary of the changes to garden design since the 1990 noting the move towards more naturalistic planting but also commenting that there is a quiet move back towards the more traditional English style “under the radar ‘traditional’ English garden style has been quietly developing

Turning the page from the introduction the first garden you encounter is Armscote Manor designed by Dan Pearson. I was dismayed at this point as the first three paragraphs were all about Pearson and not the garden; plus I’m not a Pearson fan. Taking a different approach I decided to read the chapters on gardens I knew. There are 26 gardens featured in the book with most of the key current designers also featured. However, I decided to look at Highgrove and The Laskett both which I know well. I chose them as they are gardens that cause a difference of opinion and some quite strong views and they are also both designed by either their owner or the owner and a collection of designers.

I have read much about Highgrove over the years, as well as visiting twice, but I found the article in this book, and they are all like individual articles that can be read in isolation, refreshingly honest. Richardson sets out a little of the background explaining how very few people had seen the garden until things changed and you could book to visit in a group. He surmises that the exclusive nature of the visits and the royalness of the owner have added to the kudos of the garden making it a ‘must see’ garden. His approach to many of the gardens is to walk you through it showing you the highlights. At Highgrove he identifies three areas which he considers excellent: The Thyme Walk, the Wildflower Meadow and the Stumpery. However, he then considers the rest of the garden commenting that its biggest issue is to incorporate the many gifts that the Prince of Wales receives which have to be included somewhere for diplomatic reasons which gives the garden “an eclectic and occasionally eccentric feel” and as Richardson says the visitor comes away “with no clear sense of the garden’s personality”. I was particularly interested in the idea that Richardson puts forward of a quiet design school in the 1980s who “promulgated a fashionable style of gardening based on a concept of the small formal garden or period garden.” The proponents of this style include most of the garden designers that have advised the Prince over the years including Rosemary Verey and Sir Roy Strong – the owner and creator of The Laskett.

I like the Laskett but I know I am in a minority. I was pleased to see that Richardson’s view of it mirrored my own (as with Highgrove) and included an acknowledgement that to understand and appreciate the garden you had to understand its references and acknowledge that it is deeply autobiographical and quite unique. Richardson describes it as “quite a disorienting garden, being in it is like getting lost in a mansion devised by Lewis Carroll” – this made me laugh as its so true. Richardson accepts that this is a garden many dislike “the relentless autobiographical focus of this garden as proved repugnant to some” but argues that we should be more open minded “surely it’s far better to be original in a garden than..almost anthing at all, in the fraught, authoritarian, conformist and class-conscious world of British horticulture.” Hoorah I say!

These two articles showed me that the book was an honest, intelligent and intellectual consideration of the gardens which made a refreshing change. The rest of the gardens are wide ranging – there are gardens which feature the mass of grasses and New Perennial style such as Mount St John and Trentham, both designs by Tom Stuart-Smith – these are seen as pictorial gardens. Then there are more intimate spaces where you become immersed in the planting such as Cottesbrooke and Temple Guiting (James Alexander-Sinclair and Jinny Bloom respectively). Gardens incorporating more symbolic sculpture are included and I wonder if this is a style which relates back to the landscape gardens of the 18th century – Througham Court and Plaz Metaxu both fall into this category and are both created by their owners. I was particularly taken with the article on Plaz Metaxu created by Alasdair Forbes, his approach (see quote at start of post) mirrors the way my own approach to visiting gardens is going.

There are well known gardens including Great Dixter and Gresgarth but also strangely, to me, the Olympic Park and the Living Wall, Atheanaeum Hotel which I would not consider gardens but then you get into a whole discussion on what is considered a garden.

When I first looked at the book I was disappointed to see that there was no information about visiting the gardens or even specific information about where they were located. However, having spent a couple of evenings dipping into The New English Garden it is clear that this is not a garden visiting guide instead it is a consideration of the best and most interesting gardens created in the last decade. It ways up the pros and cons of the gardens, comments on their context and their makers. I would love to see garden articles more in this style in the glossies but maybe that is just wishful thinking.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book to review by Frances Lincoln.

Book Review: Chelsea A Centenary Celebration

Chelsea Flower Show

I was thrilled to  recently be offered a review copy of RHS Chelsea Flower Show: A Centenary Celebration by Brent Elliott.  Although in recent years my enthusiasm for the show has waned I was curious to learn about the history of the show and to see how it had evolved and whether its focus had always been so predominantly on show gardens as it is now.

The book is your archetypal coffee table book, something to browse through and dip into.  It follows the history of the show chapter by chapter and each section/chapter has not only a narrative account of the show at that time but subsections relevant to that period; so the  chapters about the early period include a section on rock gardens which were the first showgardens.  Throughout there are short profiles on people who have been and are involved with the show and their memories and feelings.

What I particularly liked about the book were its frankness.  When we get to the last 20 years there is a discussion on the idea of celebrity garden designers.  Interestingly it wasn’t until the 1987 that designers were acknowledged in the programme, before that the garden’s sponsor was only mentioned.  Once designers mentioned the idea of the celebrity gardener soon grew, although I think that this was also helped with the various make-over garden programmes that were around in the 1990s.

The story of Chelsea reflects the period it has grown up in both historically and in terms of the changes to horticulture.  It was cancelled during both the First and Second World Wars meaning that although the show was established 100 years ago there haven’t been 100 shows. It was nearly affected by union disputes in the 1960s and 70s and due to the introduction of garden centres in the late 60s which meant that the public could buy plants whenever they wanted it saw a slight fall in numbers.  Trends have come and gone – showgardens in the early days were all rock gardens now they are rarely seen.  The show has been key in creating various gardening trends, in the 1970s an interest in Gertrude Jekyll was revived due to a garden designed by John Brooks, similarly a Victorian revival was caused by a Victorian villa garden in the 1984s.

Not only have gardens caused revivals but enthusiasms for plants have been revived as Arthus Hellyer wrote Chelsea “is the richest spotting ground in the whole world for new, forgotten or neglected plants”.  Plants that have benefitted from being highlighted at the show are old roses, Begonia rex, auriculas and hostas.

Although the book is a factual account it is not dry.  The text is not only lifted by wonderful photographs showing all aspects of the show throughout the centenary but also through Elliot’s wry humour.  He comments at one point about the fact that although the Land Army had played such a key role in the Second World War and female gardeners were employed at Wisley and other gardens,  “the invitations that were issues to practical gardeners specified that they would admit ‘the gardener and his wife”.

As for the predominance of show gardens my suspicion that it had increased in recent years was right.  In the 1980s there was on average 8 show gardens, the number  peaked at 67 in 2003 and now averages in the low forties.  Personally, I would like to see the emphasis shift a little towards the nurseries more but that’s just my view.

If you would like to purchase your own copy of this book which celebrates a truly unique, and to be frank English, institution then you can take advantage of a special offer Arum Publishing Group are offering readers of this blog (and some others I think).

To order RHS Chelsea Flower Show: A Centenary Celebration (9780711234512) at the special offer price of £20.00 (inc UK p&p) please call Bookpoint on 01235 400400 and quote the code 46CFS.

I have decided to donate my review copy to my local  Hardy Plant Society for them to raffle.


Beautiful No Mow Yards – A Book Review


This book has suddenly become of great interest to me.  Why is my interest now piqued? Because my back ‘lawn’ is nothing more than a quagmire.  Due to the seemingly never-ending rain last year it has become very muddy and very compacted.  It slopes, quite a bit which makes mowing really hard work and it is just a green space that I cross to get around the garden.  I haven’t been happy with it for a while and feel the time has come to really consider an alternative.

Beautiful No Mow Lawns is written by a US author and has been written on the back of the growing movement in the US to move away from immaculate lawned front yards to something more sustainable and pleasing.  I was surprised to learn that in some states in the US there are laws about the appearance of your front yard and as the author, Eveyln J Hadden, states “in some places, it is nothing less than unpatriotic to think of removing your front lawn”.  Luckily we don’t have that problem here in the UK, although there are some gardens where it might be helpful if there were some laws that could be invoked!  However, I do think that there is still a feeling that if you have a front lawn, as opposed to having paved it over for parking, it should be kept well.

The book sets out to show that there is a wealth of alternatives to the mown lawn all of which will be more sustainable, environmental, interesting and enjoyable.  I was pleased to see that from the start the book sets out  to address the lack of advice and information of moving away from lawns.  The book is championed by Susan Harris, of GardenRant fame who found that her search for “‘lawn replacement’ usually yield just one solution: a big meadow.”  I have tried this approach on the back lawn last year and it was awful and just didn’t work.  Admittedly I only lasted six months before the lawn mower came out – it just looked messy and jarred with the rest of the garden.

Beautiful no-mow lawns is set out in three sections: Design Inspiration; How to get there; and Choice Ground-Layer Plants.  The first section, for me, was the most inspirational.  Most of the ideas were obvious but  only when someone points them out to you.  It is strange how replacing a lawn seems so much harder than it actually is; it’s all about changing your mindset.  The alternatives are wide-ranging from patios, ponds, xeric gardens, the inevitable meadow and prairie garden.  There is a section on play areas and as the author points out a large lawn will never provide the same stimulation and play opportunities as a garden full of plants, hidden corners, ponds, structures for a child – something worth considering when you feel wedded to that football pitch.

I looked at the ‘smarter lawns’ section in detail.  This section provides a range of alternatives to the standard grass we have in lawns and the idea is that you accept that your lawn will be more fulsome, longer, with maybe seed heads, or scented if you choose something like thyme, chamomile.  I have to be honest that this idea is just a non-starter for me, I have been conditioned from an early age that lawns need to be cut and maintained and look like lawns – a distinct difference to the borders.  This has been my stumbling block.

However, the sections on shade gardens and stroll gardens have really got me thinking.  Instead of a back lawn I could lift the grass and plant up a large border but  run paths around the edge so that the various sections of the garden are linked by a network of paths, maybe with a seating area.  Basically, it is obvious I  don’t want a lawn that always looks awful when I can dig it up and replace it with another border maybe with a new focus.

The remaining two sections of the book are on ‘How to get there’ providing advice on the stages of removing a lawn, improving the soil and drainage, how  to plant eco-friendly lawns and how to maintain it.  The last section gives a wealth of plants that can be used to replace your lawn divided into: mounding plants, mat-forming plants, fill-in plants, minglers.

I found this book an eye-opener and wished that some of my neighbours who have replaced their front lawns with gravel and a few pots would consider a different approach.  They might not have water hungry lawns but the replacement isn’t any better. As I have said there is nothing particularly revolutionary in the ideas, aside from the idea of ‘living carpets’, but what it does is bring all the alternatives together.  They are presented with a range of case-studies, some acknowledging that the first attempt at replacing the lawn didn’t quite work, but all of them showing how much better the space could be used.

When you consider how much water we use to irrigate our lawns, “‘lawn’ is now recognised as the “largest irrigated crop” in the US” and the way our climates are so variable with extremes of rain, leading to flooding, and drought, leading to wasteful use of water in irrigating surely it is time for us to reconsider the everyday lawn.  I suspect it will take a generation or two before we break the prejudices about a well-maintained lawn but I do think here in the UK we are well on the way and I hope the ‘Lawn Reform Coalition’ in the US proves to be successful.

If you are tired of maintaining your lawn or feel that you have a large wasted unused space covered in turf this is the book to get you thinking about the alternatives and maybe even encourage you to break with convention and dig up the turf.

Note: this book was provided as a review copy by Timberpress.

I made bread


Having watched the Great British Bake Off for a few years I decided it was about time I learnt to make bread.  I have tried in the past  and produced the odd brick, even the pre-mixed packets haven’t really worked for me and I don’t have space for a bread maker.

My sons took my comments on board and for Christmas bought me Paul Hollywood’s How to Bake along with a number of Mary Berry cake books.

With no more excuses and time on my hands yesterday I set to and had another go following the basic white tin bread recipe.  I like this book as it explains  as much as is possible how to knead, what you are looking for and what to expect it to look like. I learnt that you should keep salt and yeast separate in the bowl or they cancel each other. The book has masses of recipes for all sorts of baking and I intend to work my way through it slowly by surely. The style is friendly, chatty and very informative.

As for my first attempt – the result is an OK loaf of bread.  It smells good, tastes like bread although it is a little dense in texture.  Not a bad start and it is disappearing fast always a good sign.


The Layered Garden: Book Review

If you are a fan of Christopher Lloyd and Fergus Garrett, as I am, then you will enjoy The Layered Garden by David Culp.  The title attracted me as I am interested in the notion of successional planting so I asked Timberpress for a copy as one of  my review books.  I wasn’t disappointed and I have thoroughly enjoyed  reading it.

David is an American garden designer and probably well-known across the pond but I had never heard of him.  The book is based on his own garden in Pennsylvania where he has created a garden over 20 years.  David is a huge fan of Lloyd as well as Gertrude Jekyll, Beth Chatto, Graham Stuart Thomas and there is an obvious English Garden influence in the photographs of his garden.  The premise of the book is how David Culp has used plants to create a layered garden, much like Lloyd’s successional planting. Like me he is a plantaholic and has worked hard to create a coherent and beautiful garden in which to grow his treasurers.  As he says in the Introduction

“The collector in me thinks each individual specimen is beautiful, … otherwise I would not bother growing them.  But the designer in me wants more than a botanical garden with each genus grown in its separate bed.  Plants are the basis of my garden artistry; serving as pieces in a design puzzle, as colours in a palette, as elements in a sculpture.  As with artists in any medium, the more we learn about these vehicles for our expression and the more passionate we are about them, the more ways we will find to use them and the more beautiful our gardens will become.”

At this point I was hooked.  I have often thought that there must be a way to create a beautiful garden full of interesting and assorted plants but I have struggled to work out what it was. Another aside that made me smile was Culp’s comment that the trend in his part of the US was to have gardens which were only of interest from March through to September and whilst he, like any gardener, enjoyed looking at seed catalogues etc over the winter he really didn’t want to do this for 5 months.  I totally agree – a year round garden is what I am trying to achieve.

The book takes you on a tour of the garden and its various areas and why and how they have been created,  their seasons of interest, the layers and what the star performers etc.    His approach is to have borders/beds that peak at different times of the year but that also have layers of lesser interest through the rest of the year.  I have started to try this approach in my garden and whilst it isn’t that hard to have a peak  season of interest in a bed, I am finding it harder to make the borders seem interesting for the rest of the year but this book has helped to open my mind to new ideas and approaches using bulbs, annuals, pots and in particular looking at foliage rather than relying on flowers.  It is a higher maintenance approach, again like Lloyd, but I think it may be the way forward for me.

Throughout the book there are special small sections looking at different elements of design and plants for specific area.  I particularly liked the one on colour in the garden. Culp recalls a visit from Lloyd to his garden and a conversation about colour.  As we all know Lloyd  is renowned for using clashing and bright colours; Culp feeling a little argumentative challenged his approach.  He argued that instead of having colours of the same value, as Lloyd insisted, that they should instead be of different values which would provide depth and contrast.  He describes the encounter like arguing with the Pope which made me laugh – as to Lloyd’s response to the challenge, “Suffice it to say, he was unconvinced.”

Having toured his garden he then looks at particular groups of plants that he considers the stars of his garden and these are arranged through the seasons.  I could tell David was a gardener after my own heart from a quick initial flick through this section as all my favourites are featured: Peonies, Roses, Lilies, Iris, Asters, Hydrangeas, Alliums, Hellebores, Narcissus and Snowdrops.  He talks about how to grow the plants, what works for him, how he propagates and maintains them.  The Layered Garden, like many I have enjoyed recently from Timberpress, has that feeling of having a really good chat with a fellow enthusiastic gardener.  Whilst the book is informative on plants, design, horticulture it also has short anecdotes scattered throughout it which makes the book more personal and engaging.

Throughout the book is illustrated with beautiful photographs of the garden and close-ups of the plants taken by Rob Cardillo.  I found the book great to flick through but also a very good read from start to finish.  I believe in balanced reviews but I cannot find any fault with The Layered Garden at all, it is my personal ideal gardening book – in fact I think it is my book of 2012.

I will leave you with a quote from the Epilogue,

Many gardeners have a stilted definition of beauty, having been lectured at too often about what we are supposed to find beautiful.  But I am an equal-opportunity seeker of the sublime, grateful to appreciate it wherever I find it.” 

The Unexpected Houseplant – Book Review

I have been looking forward, for some months, to receiving a review copy of Tovah Martin’s  The Unexpected Houseplant.  Whilst I have 8 houseplants in my house I do feel as a keen gardener and plant lover that I could do better.  Why haven’t I?  I wonder if it a lack of interesting houseplants being available or whether my compartmentalized brain focuses on outside gardening.  Whatever it is I want to sort it out and to extend my love affair with plants into the house.  So I had to smile when I read; “Green thumbs aren’t in your genetic makeup.  This myth is really just a rationale for attention deficit disorder in the botanical direction.”  As Tovah says we remember to look after our pets and children so we should remember to look after our houseplants.  I suspect the difference is that a hungry pet or child is quite hard to ignore whilst a thirsty/hungry plant just dies quietly.  However, Tovah argues that you need to establish a relationship with your houseplants.  It isn’t just a case of buying a plant at the supermarket and bringing it home and plonking it on the coffee table.

The principles we apply to growing plants in our garden apply here too.  You need to find the right spot for your plant to make sure it has enough light and the right temperatures.  However, very refreshing, Tovah doesn’t go into the whole prescribing this temperature or that light level for a plant and or include diagrams of rooms showing what to put where as I have seen before.  As she says south and west exposure are best for sun-loving, east for shade loving and probably best to avoid north.  Temperature should be whatever you find comfortable.  As for humidity, she derides the whole idea of misting plants saying that if you were to do that you would  have to mist “night and day 24/7 to have any impact”.  If you think a plant needs more humidity place it on some gravel in a saucer.  She also recommends re-potting plants when you buy them and removing them from their plastic pot into something more decorative.  For her this is part of the process of getting to know your plant and part of adding a decorative feature to the house.  You have to be attracted to the plant from the get go or you will  never form a successful relationship.  At this point I looked at the Calathea I bought this morning, having been inspired by the book, with its plastic pot hidden inside a decorative pot.  I think a good terracotta pot might look better and we need to start bonding.

To inspire and encourage you the book includes 220 plants you can grow indoors.  All of the photographs were taken of Tovah’s plants at her home so you can see she knows what she is talking about.  The plants are grouped per season with extra small sections on herbs, indoor bulbs and succulents.  There is even a section on houseplants she wouldn’t recommend as they are just to fussy.  There are also a number of omissions from the book such as the ubiquitous spider plants as they are considered just too dull.  Each plant is described and Tovah writes about her experience of growing it, where it works well etc plus there is a quick reference box on its requirements.

I was also particularly interested and intrigued about the range of plants.  My knowledge of houseplants is very limited, as limited as the selection available in the supermarket and local garden centre and it is a very traditional view.  I would never have thought of growing primulas as a houseplant or a camellia, though of course I do know that they were originally grown in glasshouses in this country.  What about Pulmonaria and Tiarella – in my head those are standard perennials in my garden border but I may just try one indoors.  Instead of putting all my succulents in the greenhouse to overwinter I have bought two Aeonium Schwarzkopf indoors and I have noticed I find myself smiling when I walk into the dinning room and see one of them gleaming on the windowsill.

When you realise that Tovah leaves in New England and has weeks when she is snowed in you can understand her fascinating and addiction to houseplants.  I found it particularly interesting what she said about an indoor garden, as she terms it, and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  She believes that by having an indoor garden and being surrounded by greenery that the winter blues don’t affect her.  If it works for her in an environment where they have real winter I am wondering if it would help lift my spirits on one of our grey and damp winter days.

I have really enjoyed The Unexpected Houseplant.  I like Tovah’s no nonsense writing style, she writes as if you were having a chat around the kitchen table.  As she says why should there be a mystic about houseplants, why do gardeners say they can’t grow houseplants – it is just a lack of attention.  I am feeling buoyed up to have a real go and this is just the right time of year to collect a few choice plants around me and see how we get on.  If you are at all interested in growing houseplants you will enjoy this book, even if you aren’t I would recommend it as it is a good read – charming, engaging, witty and you never know you might have a change of heart.






Book Review: The A-Z of Plant Names

My reaction on receiving The A to Z of Plant Names by Allen J Coombes through the post from Timberpress was one of fascination and interest.  I always find the stories about how plants were found and by whom interesting so to see ‘Who discovered them’ etc on the cover really caught my attention.

I have spent a little time learning about how plant names are constructed so I have a very basic understanding but I did struggle to make the leap to the next stage where this book seems to sit.  The section on origin and meaning of plant names was very interesting, explaining that for example where chinensis is part of the plant name it probably comes from China. I found the section on how the epithet of the name – that’s the second word – is often an adjective and therefore being Latin has to follow the gender of the species interesting.  I must admit that I re-read this section many times and was completely bewildered although having just re-read it sentence by sentence I think I have cracked what the author is saying.  I suspect this is a case of the author being very familiar with his subject and not necessarily realising that he may need to take a step back when explaining what are to many quite complicated ideas.  I also think the book would benefit from a short section which breaks down plant families, explaining all about species and genera etc.

There is also a short section on Common Names and Name Changes explaining why the powers that be choose  to change the names we are familiar with.  I particularly liked the section on Pronunciation section, in this the  author observes that Latin is rarely spoken and that the best approach is to pronounce every vowel separately except when there are two vowels together which are pronounced as one. The example given is that Abies is pronounced as ab-ee-ayz not ay-beez.

The final section of the introduction is a list of common epithets and their meaning which is interesting and very helpful when you are reading about a plant in a book or catalogue and wondering what it may look like.  So ruber/rubra/rubrum (don’t forget the adjective follows the gender of the species!) means red and tortuosus/tortuosa/tortuosum means twisted.

The remainder of the book is a quick reference to some 4000 garden plants and it was at this point I became completely mystified.  I had read the ‘How to use this book’ section but still couldn’t decipher the first entry without a lot of referring back to the how to section.:

Abelia R. Br. (Linnaeccea) uh-bee-lee-uh. After Clarke Abel (1780-1826), British surgeon and naturalist who discovered and introduced A. chinensis. 5 spp shrubs. China, Japan

So this shows me how the pronounce the name and that the plant was named after a Mr Abel who had discovered it and when he lived.  But what is ‘R. Br’ – the how to use section says each entry has the species epithet followed by the author – is that the mysterious R Br and if so who are they. Sadly there is no list that I could find of what these various abbreviations stand for and I am now intrigued.

Anyway, this irritation aside it is quite fascinating to have a mooch through the book looking up plants you know.  I discovered that Delphinium got their name for the Greek for dolphin since each flower is supposed to resemble one.  Lobelia is named after Mathias de L’Obel a Flemish botanist (1538 – 1616) and it goes on. You can also discover from where plants originate and this is very useful in deciding if they might be hardy, half-hardy or tender.  So Canna originates from the Tropics and subtropical America so more than likely not very hardy in my UK garden.

I suspect I will use  this book from time to time but I think for it to appeal to a wider audience it needs some additions of basic background information on plant name structure and families.


Landscaping for Privacy – A Review

If there was ever a book written for an anti-social recluse like me it is this one.  Well so I thought, but actually Landscaping for Privacy changed my way of looking at creating privacy and has certainly given me food for thought.

The author, Marty Wingate, starts from the point that we are all living more closely together, that our outside space is more and more precious and that we really don’t want to see, hear, smell or be aware of what many of our neighbours  are doing or have them know our business.  Some people may say that this is a negative comment on society and shows how it is breaking down with us not engaging with our neighbours but in my opinion society has been always been like that.  Most of us are happy to engage with our neighbours but on our terms not have it forced on us.

Whilst Marty looks at a range of issues: fencing out wildlife, preventing trespass, buffering sound, reducing pollution and creating windbreaks there were two areas that really grabbed my attention.  Firstly the whole business of screening unwanted views or from my point of view giving me some privacy from my neighbours.  I live on a housing estate which when it was built was designed to be very open, no hedges or fences in front gardens etc.  However, I like my privacy and so to address this I have planted a laurel and beech hedge and some trees in the front garden.  They went in around 5-6 years ago when I was more horticulturally and design ignorant and they just don’t work (see photo below); consequently I avoid the front garden.  However, the answer is in this book.  Putting a large hedge in isn’t the answer; it might hide the view but it creates a large block of planting often monotone which you have to look at and not get any joy from. Instead Marty suggests creating buffers which are consisted of “a mixture of evergreen and deciduous shrubs to provide a year-round green strip and to let in some extra light during the winter months’. Add some bulbs and perennials and you have something interesting to look at all through the year and you are creating a screen from your neighbours.  It is just so obvious I don’t know why I didn’t think of it.  This idea has fed into my plans for the front garden which will include formalising and reducing the lawn, creating deeper beds and adding layers of shrubs.  I may even pull out the laurel hedge which just isn’t, and never has been, happy.

The second really interesting idea I took from the book was how planting can help improve the ‘climate’ in your home.  I had picked up on this idea earlier in the year in a report on urban gardening by the RHS but this really set it out in a clear way.  You can insulate the house with plants which helps to keep it warm in winter and cool in the summer.  “A ring of shrubs planted within a few feet of the house creates air space that acts as an extra layer of insulation, keeping in the heat during the winter and providing cooling shade in the summer”  This is quite fascinating to me as my house is surrounded on all four side by paving – not my doing it was put in when the house was built – and I have been wondering about lifting some in order to try to plant some climbers up the walls.  Also if you think longer term you can plant trees in such a way that they will provide shade for the house in the summer. “For best results, plant a deciduous tree at least 1oft away from the side or sides of your home that receive the most sunlight.”  You need to choose a tree with a round shape and broad canopy to maximise the shading.  It’s all food for thought and there are plant lists throughout the book to help with that thinking.

Landscaping for Privacy is aimed at an American audience; I hadn’t heard of some of the plants and there are references throughout to sidewalks, city ordinances etc terms we don’t use.  However, the problems are the same wherever you live so it is easy to look at the ideas and transplant them to your garden using different but similar plants.  I particularly liked the ideas for hiding wheelie bins and began to wish that our council would introduce them just so I could have a stylish cupboard!

If you want to hide certain views, stop people or animal walking across your garden, beautify existing boundaries then this is certainly a book worth a look.

Review: Encyclopedia of Flowering Shrubs

The arrival of a review copy from Timberpress of the Encyclopedia of Flowering Shrubs by Jim Gardiner was very timely.  I have recently realised, a bit slow off the mark, that having a larger garden than I have previously had I can think about buying shrubs.  This is a whole new world to me as generally in the past my plant purchasing has been limited to annuals and the odd ubiquitous shrub bought from the nearest large DIY store.  However, now my horticultural knowledge has expanded I want to put more thought and consideration in to my shrub purchases.

Jim Gardiner, the Director of Horticulture and Chief Curator of all the RHS gardens in the UK set out to create a photographic version ofThe Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs.  He states in the introduction that “choosing between different species and cultivars is that much easier by means of a photograph of each plant along with a description of essential data”.  I have to agree with him completely, I have been frequently frustrated at long and wordy description which have been so dry that I have struggled to visualise the plant.  What Gardiner doesn’t highlight in his introduction is that many of the photographs show the whole plant not just the flowers.  I think this  is invaluable, whilst it is nice to consider the flowers, you really need to be able to see the eventual shape and height of the whole plant.  I believe Christopher Lloyd also lamented the fact that catalogues often just show the flowers and not the whole plant which is what you live with 12 months of the year, whilst the flowers are often only there for a few weeks.

What is quite striking about this encyclopedia is the lack of text compared to other plant encyclopedias I have seen.  On reading Gardiner’s introduction you discover that he has decided to take the approach that as shrubs are generally easy to grow there are no cultivation instructions unless there are very specific instructions relating to that plant such as: special pruning instructions, if the plant can be used for specific uses such as hedging or  whether it can be used in a specific location such as up a wall.  After my initial surprise I found this approach quite refreshing as I have wasted far too much time wondering what is meant by “well draining, moisture retentive soil” which the majority of plants seem to need and I am not convinced exists.

Instead of the normal density of text you get in such books there are photographs and photographs and photographs; in fact over 2000 of 1700 different plants.  There are 16 varieties of Forsythia which surprised me as I thought there was only one, though to be honest I did struggled to spot the difference between them all.  I was particularly interested in the pages relating to Hydrangeas, nine pages in total, as I was planning this weekend to buy one for a particular spot in the garden.  I had discovered back last autumn that there were more to Hydrangeas than the big mop heads and I had been particularly won over by some Hydrangea serrata that I saw in a garden.  They have very delicate flowers by comparison.  On looking through the encyclopedia a number of Hydrangea serrata were shown and Shirofuji went to the top of my list.  Luckily there is a specialist nursery near me and a plant was secured this weekend.

The other thing that surprised me was the sheer variety of flowering shrubs available.  I was particularly taken with Asimina triloba which has wonderful purple maroon flowers that reminded me of chocolate decorations or maybe Jovellana violacea which has pale violet bell-shaped flowers or even Paliurus spina-christi with racemes of pale yellow flowers but also bright  green leaves which turn yellow in the Autumn.  I could go on but I will definitely be looking more carefully at this book as I want to add more shrubs around the boundaries of the back garden and also in the front garden to create a sort of baffle to the outside world.

At the end of the book there is a quick reference table where you can quickly select shrubs via their type of foliage, flower colour, size, aspect, flowering season or soil requirements.

This is not a book I would ever have gone out to buy due to ignorance of the importance of shrubs in the garden and a previous experience of very wordy dull books on the subject but I am glad that I received it as it goes against the norm of this genre and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in flowering shrubs.  I am sure I will refer to it over and over again in the future.


Book Review: Making A Garden

If you are confronted with a blank canvas of a garden or want to drastically change an existing garden and don’t know where to start then reading Matthew Wilson’s Making A Garden would be a good starting point.

The book sets out to talk the amateur gardener through the thought processes of designing a garden.  It considers all the usual areas such as soil, aspect, colour, garden style, light and texture.  The writing style is warm and friendly as if you are chatting with Matthew over a cup of tea and each subject is condensed into one or two pages and reads as a stand alone essay or article.  Definitely an easy book to dip in and out of.

To illustrate the topics in the first section of the book, ‘Thought Process’, brief cases studies have been included of many of the gardens featured in Landscape Man, the series Matthew recently hosted.  I felt that the case studies could have been expanded upon.  I would have liked to have seen some after photographs as well as the before photographs and sketches.

The second section, ‘Vision’, gives advice on considering space, focal points and journeys.  I was particularly interested in this section and quite taken with Matthew’s description of the typical garden as a ‘washing machine’ garden.  With a big hole of lawn in the middle and all the plants flung to the edges.  This describes my front garden which I know I need to sort out and having read the book my mind has started to ponder various schemes  for it.  Who knows maybe I will redesign it completely instead of taking my usual haphazard letting it evolve approach which has obviously failed this time.

The final  section, ‘Realisation’, is made up of a number of sketches of various gardens that Matthew has  worked on with information on how problems and difficulties were addressed.   Each garden has a planting plan along side demonstrating how plants can be combined together to create an effect.  I felt that as the book was aimed, in my opinion, at amateur gardeners  then it would have been helpful to illustrate more of the plants in the plans with photographs to help the reader imagine the overall effect. This last section also provides advice on whether to do the work yourself or employ a designer, how to draw out plans simply and how to break down the project into achievable chunks.

There is a lot of sound and sensible advice in Making A Garden.  This isn’t a ‘how to’ book in the sense that it gives instructions on making a pond, building a wall, laying a patio.  This is a ‘how to’ book that makes you sit down and think about what it is you want to achieve: do you really need to gut the whole garden or are there some plants you could keep; if you dig up those large plants it may let in more light but could also mean your neighbour is looking into your garden (something I discovered the hard way); where is the best place to site the patio?.  If you take the time to ponder, consider and aspire you should hopefully avoid the mistakes that are illustrated in some of the gardens featured in the book and end up with a garden that does everything you want and is wonderful to be in.

Disclosure: I was provided with a copy of this book by Quadrille