Weeds – Earth’s Sticking Plaster

Why do we get so vexed by what we term weeds – going to huge lengths to eradicate them from our gardens? And why do we categorise some plants as weeds and some not?

I have always suspected that it is because of man’s obsession to control everything it can; to impose its will on its surroundings and a presumption that man is a superior being that has a divine right to do what it will no matter of the consequences. We take on a piece of land, ‘tame’ it with digging and clearing, often using chemicals, and attempt to impose our order on it.  We then proceed to use a lot of energy battling with weeds and ‘pests’.  However, it is our  industry and intervention which causes our problems in the first place.  Enlightened gardeners know that gardening organically helps to build up and maintain an eco-system which results in a balance between beneficial insects and so called pests but there is still the issue of weeds.

However it is our, man’s, actions which encourage weeds to spread and proliferate. Weeds are opportunists and will colonise empty land wherever there is an opportunity.  You only have to look at the way the bombed areas of London were colonised by weeds after the Blitz to see how this works.  Richard Mabey in his book Weeds explores this further. He discusses how Agent Orange was used by the US as a defoliant in Vietnam so the Vietcong had nowhere to hide.  Once the forest was destroyed it was colonised by cogon, a tough grass which flourishes when clearings appear and then recedes as the forest regrows.  However because of the scale of the deforestation the cogon took control and has repelled any attempts to control it since.  This is an extreme example of ‘weeds’ colonising empty ground and not a positive one.

But in many cases ‘weeds’ can be seen to be earth’s sticking plaster; colonising and healing empty spaces.  In Detroit the empty lots left by the car industry are being populated by wild vegetation and this has promoted a new group of residents, young environmentally interested Americans, to move to and re-colonise the declining city.  In the UK in an area outside Basildon, the Plotlands, which was abandoned 30 years ago, the lawn weeds flourished and the perennials in the gardens initially thrived but as time went on the native trees and other plants started to take hold and the land is now reverting back to native woodland.  As Mabey says this shows that in ‘temperate Britain …, the occupation of disrupted land by weeds is rarely permanent or inexorable.” He goes on to argue that weeds’ role is to fill empty spaces, to repair the vegetation destroyed by natural occurrences such as landslides and forest fires but also the spaces caused by man’s intervention.  Weeds stabilise the ground, “conserve water loss, provide shelterfor other plants and begin the process of succession to more complex and stable plant systems.”

So whilst we may curse the dandelions, couch grass and creeping thistle that invades our allotments and veg patches and bemoan the daises and clover in our lawns as Mabey says weeds are “the tithe we paid for breaking the earth.”

If you are interested in botany or plants generally I would really recommend Richard Mabey’s book – an excellent read which I was really pleased to receive as a Christmas present.

 

Christmas Books for Gardeners

I love gardening and I love books and so most gardening books are a welcome gift at Christmas.  Here are two I have received in recent months to review which I think would make excellent Christmas gifts for a gardener.

Keep Calm and Pot On – Good Advice for Gardeners by Liz Dodds would make an excellent stocking filler.  It is a small book only 11cm x 13cm and would easily fit in a bag for dipping into on a journey. The book sets out to impart lots of advice and there is one idea or quote per page.  It is quite an eclectic mix with quotes from Epicurus (341-270BC) through to Monty Don. My favourite quote is from Christopher Lloyd and it is one I have found myself repeating a lot since reading it in this book, “In answer to the amateur gardener’s eternally repeated question ‘When should I?’ and ‘What’s the best time to?’ I’ve concluded that nine times out of ten the answer is ‘When you’re thinking about it; when you’re in the mood.’

Interspersed amongst the quotes are bits of advice and information.  These range from serious to humourous but an overriding theme to the book is how important gardening is to our health: mental and physical. It has a real feel good factor and gives you lots of little and simple ideas to improve your garden.

This is a great little book especially as a Christmas present.  Its one of those books you will want to read bits out loud from to your friends and family.

My second book is Minding My Peas and Cucumbers – Quirky Tales of Allotment Life by Kay Sexton.  This is an excellent present for anyone you know who has an allotment or aspires to have an allotment.  I don’t know quite how to categorise this book as it is a  story but also includes

lots of bits of advice and information.  Kay talks about her efforts to get her own allotment and her journey though minding other people’s plots, being secretary of the allotment association to eventually getting her own plot.  As any one who has experienced allotment life will know there are many characters at the sites and Kay has included a lovely selection within her overriding tale.  The story which runs through holds your interest to the end but on the way you learn all sorts of things from what edibles you can grow in containers, through growing watermelons to surviving an allotment inspection.

It is a lovely read which often made me laugh out loud and I am sure would be welcome by any gardener as a present.

So instead of buying your gardener friend and relative yet more gardening gloves why not buy them a book instead

A Review: Wild Flowers by Sarah Raven


I was very interested to receive an advanced information sheet from Bloomsbury Books for Sarah Raven’s new book ‘Wild Flowers’.

I have always been interested in wild flowers. I remember doing a project over the summer holidays when I was a teenager on the composition of a hedge.  The project was for a school competition and involved me looking carefully and recording all the plants in a country hedge near our house (we lived in the middle of nowhere so I was quite lonely and bored!!).  I put an awful lot of work into the project and was delighted to win first prize.

I have continued to have a basic working knowledge of British wild flowers but I know that I have forgotten an awful lot and it is one of those things that I would really like to take some time and learn about again.  My current field guide to Wild Flowers is quite old dating from the 1970s, when I was at school.  It works reasonably well especially as the plants are divided into colours which really helps with identification but all the plants are illustrated with drawings and as a would be botanical artist I know how inaccurate these can be.

From the information I have received about Sarah Raven’s Wild Flowers I think this will be a wonderful addition to the bookshelf.  The book provides portraits of 500 wild flowers all accompanied by gorgeous  photographs by Jonathan Buckley.  Each portrait has a brief introduction by Sarah, she opens the portrait of Anemone nemorosa (Wood Anemone) with “A clump of these is like a group of four and five year old girls in their tutus, going off to their first ballet lesson:”.  I think this is a wonderful description and quite atmospheric.  The portraits then record the plant type, describes the flowers, habitat, distribution and gives a brief description of the plant.

It appears from the information sheet that the plants are listed by common names such as Wood Anemone, Yellow Archangel, Fly Orchid as opposed to their latin names.  I’m not sure if this is the best approach since we all know that wild flowers often have more than one common name depending on where they grow in the country.  I would also be interested to see if other common names are listed when there is more than one and whether there is some form of index which would help people identify plants by their latin name.  My only other criticism is that this is a large book, it’s not the sort of thing you would be able to take out in the field which is a pity.  I would prefer to have a book in my bag to  refer to rather than having to pick a wild flower to take home to compare to images in the book but then I suppose you could try taking photographs.

Sarah Raven’s books are generally well received so it would be nice to think that the fans of her cooking and gardening books will embrace this new direction and in turn learn to recognise and appreciate our wild flowers.  Especially if the promised 3 part television series is as good as previous television Sarah has done.

I will certainly be dropping hints in the lead up to Christmas!

Seeing Trees – Book Review

The only way I can describe my reaction to receiving Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo from Timberpress was like a child being taken into a sweet shop.

Before you even read a word of the book you are completely bowled over by the photography.  I have never seen close up of plants with such amazing detail before.  The photographs throughout the book are by Robert Llewellyn.  I don’t make any pretence of understanding the technical side of things but it appears that Robert took between eight to forty-five images of each subject and with some clever software stitched them together to form almost three-dimensional images, you can see every hair on the leaves.  As someone who spends a far bit of time staring closely at plants for my attempts at botanical illustration I am completely enamoured of these images and suspect I will have a go at reproducing some in my art class.

The bonus of this book is that unlike some very photographic productions the words deliver on the same level.  Nancy is a complete tree addict and her passion is in understanding how trees work.  She studies every element from the structure of the tree right down to the seed leaves of seedlings.  She believes that unless we get up close and personal to trees we really do not appreciate their full magnificence, they are not just part of the landscape, “It is always tempting, especially in a broad green landscape to assume that if you can see the entire tree, from bottom of trunk to top of canopy that you have seen it.”

Nancy states “any time  you draw something no matter how successful you are from an outside point of view, you learn more about it..” This is because when you look really carefully and train your eye, as I have to with my art, you start to see things you never saw before and this is the whole premise of the book.

Seeing Trees starts with a section which explains how trees work.  The language is simple and easy to understand with the biological processes well explained. Nancy’s personality and unique style of writing really brings the subject to life: “Just as human beings have invented brown trucks and bubble wrap to help deliver packages safely trees have developed seed structure to accomplish safe delivery of seeds.”

The book then moves on to look at ten different trees. Being an American book the trees are all American natives but I don’t think this should put non-American readers off since we grow many of them in our gardens.  The ten are: American Beech, American Sycamore, Black Walnut, Eastern Red Cedar, Gingko, Red Maple, Southern Magnolia, Tulip Poplar, White Oak and White Pine. Each component of the tree is studied in minute detail but it is far from dry.  For example Nancy talks about seeking out and finding American Beech seedlings and her excitement and finally finding some, the efforts made in capturing seedheads at just the right moment or leaves just as they are unfurling.

Seeing Trees initially looks like a typical coffee table book but it isn’t.  It contains not only the most amazing photographs I have seen for a very long time but also prose which conveys the author’s enthuiasm for her subject so well that you just want to go out and climb the nearest tree to see what you can find.

 

On the Wild Side

I was quietly excited to receive On the Wild Side by Keith Wiley to review.  Whilst the book was originally published in 2004, Keith came to the UK’s gardening public’s attention when his new garden, Wild Side, was featured on the programme LandscapeMan.  You only have to mention the chap who landscaped his garden with a digger truck and people know exactly who you mean.

Keith’s approach is described as naturalistic and it is one which has interested me for a while.  The book was written while Keith was still head gardener of The Garden House so before he had completely free reign of his new garden which featured in the programme which explains why some of the ideas seem to be only forming in Keith’s mind as he wrote the book.

I have to admit that my reaction to the book is very mixed.  Keith starts by explaining his background and the early part of his horticultural career at the Garden House which had a very traditional garden.  He got my attention when he starts to talk about his growing dissatisfaction with the gardens he was seeing, “if I came away with one different creative idea I would consider I had had a good day”.  I can completely emphasise with this feeling.  I have found myself increasingly walking around beautiful gardens but not feeling inspired.  Keith talks about his growing feeling that part of the problem is the way we cultivate ornamental plants with intensive practices just as we do with vegetables, “the whole approach to soil management and plant feeding in ornamental gardening owes its origins to the historic practices involved in growing vegetables”.  I couldn’t agree more.  I personally feel that some of the instructions in ‘how to’ garden books are ridiculously prescriptive and gardeners should trust their instincts and give things a go. We should  be looking at how plants grow in the wild in order to provide the best environment for them.

One of Keith’s overriding guiding principles to gardening is to ignore the idea that it is necessary to have all year round colour for every area of the garden. Instead he advocates colour for specific periods of the year in specific areas.  This chimes with my thinking about my own garden exactly at the moment.  He also describes his approach to using a wide range of colours in one border.  Instead of having blocks of one plant against another and trying to avoid the colours jarring, if you mix the individual plants up you have an overall effect and the colours will work well.  I find this fascinating but I suspect it is harder than it sounds to make it work well.

The book goes on to look at various native environments that Keith has visited around the world and how these have impacted on his horticultural, and in particular his planting, practice.  I was very intrigued with his descriptions of creating a South African border through applying a thick layer of sand to the surface of a border as this replicates the conditions the plants from South Africa grow in.  I’m not sure about the idea of replicating a native environment; for me this is heading towards a theme park approach.

Whilst I find the ideas in this book refreshing and thought-provoking I have found the book hard to read and follow.  An example of one issue I had can be found in the chapter on shape and structure which wandered into mulches and was quite disjointed.  I felt that Keith had so much to say on so many things that he was trying to cram all his ideas into one book rather than making it more succinct and more accessible.  The other thing that irritated me, especially in the later chapters, was Keith pondering how different native plant combinations would work in a garden or worse still saying such and such would look nice with some perennials under it – all a little vague. I would much rather had  read how he took this ideas and used them in the garden and see how they worked.  It was all a little rambling in places.

However, Keith’s enthusiasm and passion shines through the pages and it was wonderful to read such liberating sentences as “One of the sublime beauties of this style is that there are no rules, with parameters being set only from the limitations of our own imaginations, experiences and memories…”  I do hope that Keith is right and that “we stand on the edge of perhaps the most exciting period in gardening history for maybe the last hundred years.”

 

Contemporary Colour in the Garden – Review

Contemporary Colour in the Garden by Andrew Wilson is not the sort of ‘gardening’ book I would normally rush out to buy.  I tend to shy away from design based horticulture books since I do not have a design background and if I am honest I would have said it was not something that interested me, I’m more of a  plants person.

However, I have found this book fascinating although a little academic or shall we say dry in places.  At first glance you may think from the glossy photos of cutting edge design, show gardens etc that this was another coffee table book.  Not so, when you start to read the text you realise this is a book which sets out to explain how colour works particularly in a garden setting and particularly in a contemporary garden setting.

I made the mistake of reading Contemporary Colour in the Garden late at night after a long day in the office as this was my only reading time.  Since this book goes well beyond the notion of the colour wheel and opposite colours working together, in to the world of secondary, tertiary colours  and beyond you need to be prepared to concentrate in order to get the most from it.  I will probably dip back into this book from time to time to wrestle with the ideas more. I have already learnt that undiluted primary colours will sing out in a border but if you start to add secondary colours to the mix the brightness will fade and even more so when you add tertiary colours.  I probably haven’t explained that very well which explains why Andrew’s book feels a little dry in places since the concept he is explaining is quite hard to put into exciting prose.

Anyway enough of the complex colour dynamics, what I really enjoyed about the book were the small but  powerful messages and ideas that appeared from time to time.  Andrew is critical of gardeners and their approach to populating their gardens.  He says that “In our efforts to populate our gardens with colour planting for winter, we lose the very character of that season and further more, the colour intensity that might climax at other times of the year is diluted.”  I really related to this statement.  There is a pressure from media etc that a good garden has interest in it all year but for some reason gardeners think this means they need to have something in flower all year.  We should be celebrating the seasons for what they are. So in autumn we should be savouring the autumn colours and the fading shades of the perennials as they fade.  In winter we should be looking at silhouettes, plants that look stunning when frosted etc.   Andrew believes that the gardener’s insatiable desire to obtain and collect new plants means that the “colour theories, control and therefore impact or sensitivity go out of the window”.  This is true, you see it time after time in domestic gardens – one of these, one of those – I have been guilty of it myself.  Whilst it is nice to have unusual plants to show off to your horticultural friends I think I would rather have a garden with a bit of wow going on and this is what I am slowly striving towards.

Andrew talks about how colour works in terms of hard landscaping; how lighting, both natural and man-made, impact on colour and how we can learn about colour from nature.  He discusses the idea of the colour palette used reflecting the surroundings in more rural settings whilst in urban settings plantings can be more reflective of the gardener’s personality.  I think this is true. I have the backdrop of the Malvern Hills to my garden and exotic Cannas and Palms would just look wrong.  Whilst if I lived in London and had a courtyard garden I could use those plants much better.

The book is illustrated throughout with examples of contemporary garden design from some of the top current designers and it is really interesting to see how designers are embracing new materials and incorporating into their designs. There is an excellent tie in between the photos and text, although sometimes I lost the thread of the text due to it being interrupted by several pages of photographs.

As I have said this is not the sort of book I would normally buy  but I am glad it was sent to me to review since it has opened my mind ideas about colour and to beginning to understand how colour works.  This is something I have been grappling with in my garden and also my art classes and I feel that there is a glimmer of comprehension somewhere in my brain.

This may not be a book for every amateur gardener but I think that if I was a garden design student I would find it invaluable for its discussion of colour not just plants but hard and soft landscaping.  I can see it become a very well-thumbed reference book to future students.

Designing with Grasses

I have been increasingly interested in using grasses in the garden but have been slightly nervous  as they are an unknown medium for me and I have seen many badly planted grass borders/gardens so when Designing with Grasses by Neil Lucas plopped through the letterbox I was very pleased.

Neil is the owner of Knoll Gardens nursery in Dorset and is a well-respected ornamental grass specialist and it shows from his book.  It has taken me quite a while to read this book as it isn’t one you would want to skim given the amount of information it contains.  There is hardly a wasted sentence.  I have had to take it in stages as I needed time to digest all the new information and ideas I have garnered.

The book opens with Lucas describing how he discovered the whole concept of growing the right plant in the right place having failed to keep rhododendrons growing on the sandy soil at his Dorset nursery!  He has obviously been on quite a journey and now believes deeply that there are more environmental and sustainable ways to garden particularly through the use of what he calls ‘functional horticulture’: rain gardens, roof gardens, native plants etc.  In particular a recurring call to arms through the book is need to review our use of clipped and manicured lawns which are resource intensive and in Lucas’s view a “green desert”.  He says that “many unsatisfactory lawns probably linger today simply because their owners are unaware of the alternative possibilities.” The book expands upon this premise asking readers to consider reducing if not removing their lawns in favour of something more interesting, more environmentally friendly and adopt the grassland principle where grasses comprise 20-80% of plants in a private garden.  I have been completely captivated by this idea and keep looking at my tired weedy mossy excuse of a lawn and wondering what the garden would be like if I just dug it up.  I have a sloping garden so mowing it is hard work another reason to say ‘Bye bye lawn’.

But the book doesn’t just focus on replacing the lawn with grasses it looks at a variety of different habits and discusses what grasses, or their near relatives would work.  I was pleased to see dry shade and boggy ground covered (as well as drought situations and pot growing) as I struggle with both in my garden and yes there are grasses that would do the job and more importantly grasses that I like the look of and can see working in those difficult locations.

The book is full of photographs to illustrate the points Lucas makes.  I think they are predominantly from locations in the US but then this is because they have the prairies and also use grasses on a large-scale in municipal planting more than we do here in the UK.  There are UK examples and Lucas’s own garden at Knoll, as well as Beth Chatto’s garden feature a lot.  He is also very good at explaining that whilst a plant would do well in a damp environment in California say, the same plant would not do so well in a damp environment in the UK.

Having been completely inspired to bring more grasses into my garden and with lots of ideas of how to do this I was pleased to see a section near the back on maintaining the plants.  I have already learnt that Stipas do not like to be lifted to be divided and you have to saw off a bit in situ – and no it isn’t that easy I can assure you.  There is then a directory of grasses which is fascinating as the wealth of plants available is mind-blowing.

Lucas’s philosophy accords very well with a mindset I have been slowly developing.  I have said before I don’t like the formality of clipped hedges and parterres and prefer winter interest from bark and also grasses.  As Lucas says “the lithe, flexing almost continuous  motion and rustling sounds….is a prime attribute of the grass family.” Give me that any day over the rigidity and solemnity of clipped box and yew.

I could go on forever with everything I have learned from this book and the ideas it has prompted but instead I would urge you if you are only marginally interested in using grasses in your garden to have a read of Lucas’s book – I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Great Gardens of Italy

As it is World Book Day I was determined to get my review of Monty Don’s Great Gardens of Italy (published by Quadrille) up today if only just!

I was apprehensive about this book because I have a growing dislike for the type of dense green hedging (box  or yew generally) that seems to predominate Italianate gardens, a dislike of parterres and topiary so I thought it would be an interesting challenge for me to try to overcome my prejudices.

The layout of the book initially surprised me.  It is divided into 6 sections, each representing a region of Italy: Naples, Rome, Viterbo, Tuscany, Veneto, The Lakes.  The book follows a sort of journey from the Naples area up the leg of Italy, generally keeping to the left and then to the top area.  The whole of the right hand side and the boot are not included.  I found this interesting, presumably it is due to the lack of ‘great’ gardens in these areas and I suspect that this is because the wealth of Italy was located in other areas around the great cities.  Each region is introduced with a two page summary and this is followed by a description of each garden along with photographs to illustrate the points made.  Interestingly the description of the garden and the photos are completely separate.  At first I thought this was detrimental to the book but having read quite a fair chunk of it I feel this is actually a good approach.  Too often when I am reading a book which has photographs  to illustrate with captions underneath, I losing the thread of the main body of the text while I read the photo captions.  I really like this layout.

The photos are excellent as you would expect from Derry Moore and they give the book, along with its larger than average size, a real coffee table book feel.  Sadly there were not as many photographs as I would have liked of many of the gardens and I found myself, having read Monty’s description, wishing for a particular feature to be illustrated, and finding an image absent.  It is also interesting that the number of photographs (as with the amount of description) varies from garden to garden.  There is no set formula.  In at least one case (Giardino de Ninfa, Sermoneta) there was a longer description and more photographs and I felt this was due to the obvious enjoyment Monty got from the garden which was only to apparent in the tone of the language he used to describe it.  Sadly, conversely, I think it is apparent when he is less keen on a garden such as in his description of La Mortella, Ischia and I wonder why he decided to include a garden that he did not seem to admire much.

What I found fascinating was Monty’s introduction to the book in which he explains that the Italians are not enthusiastic about gardening like the British.  Working with the soil is seen as a rural and lesser occupation and in fact it is hard to find Italian gardeners.  Many of the gardens feature in the book have gardeners from other European countries, Britain and Australia.  Monty likens the British approach to gardening to the Italian’s approach to food – quite revealing and true I think. I suspect that this disinterest in gardens is the reason why so few of them are open to the public and why so many have been left to decay.

Monty’s writing is generally quite engaging and there is a sense of trying to recreate the atmosphere surrounding the garden and its locality.  However, sometimes I think this goes too far.  For example in the introduction to Rome there is a long paragraph, almost a third of a page, about cars and driving in Rome.  I could not for the life of me understand what this had to do with anything else and it really jarred.

Each garden’s description carefully chronologies its history and creators although this can get a little confusing when you are reading one description after another – the number of Comte’s becomes a little befuddling.  As someone who is increasingly fascinated with garden history and the evolution of gardens and garden styles my biggest criticism of the book is  the lack of a cohesive time-line running through the book.  There is a chronology at the back which identifies each garden’s creation in terms of what was happening in Europe at the time which is interesting and helps the British reader relate events to their own history.  However, personally, I would have preferred it if the book had started with the earliest garden and worked its way through to the newest.  Also knowing something of Italian history particularly leading up to the Unification of the Italian nation, I think if so much history is to be included for each garden then it needs to be placed in the wider context.  For example the description of Giardino di Boboli in Tuscany refers to the power and authority of  Cosimo de’Medici but there is no context for this, how does his power and authority compare to say Elizabeth 1 of Britain.  I think someone who does not understand Italian history would miss the significance of some of the characters that appear in the book.

It is obvious that Monty is passionate about Italian gardens and they seem to fulfill a certain horticultural need in him which is probably lacking in most British gardens.  He says “the very British ideal of the garden as a botanical showcase of varieties and collections of plants has always rather bored me.” and “What you do, rather than what you do it with, has always seemed the really interesting thing about a garden.” With this in mind I can see why he finds them so fascinating. I expect if you were to visit any of these gardens, you would not find them particular busy (in fact many aren’t open to the public) and I can imagine that with the quietness,  the clipped hedges, running water (a recurring theme along with water chains and fountains), and the mossy sculptures and old buildings there would really be a very special  magical atmosphere – not an easy thing to achieve in most gardens.

This is not really a book to read from cover to cover.  It is a book to dip into on a grey winters day when you want to dream of somewhere sunny and verdant.  The book is designed to accompany a forthcoming television series on Italian gardens and it will be interesting to see how the two tie together and whether the film of the gardens adds anything new.

Personally, as much as these gardens are beautiful, the majority of them are not for me.  I find the parterres and the endless dense greenness a little depressing and still.  I prefer things a little more disheveled, a little wilder so if I was to be lucky enough to choose on of the gardens to visit it would be Giardino de Ninfa, Sermoneta with its  abandoned decaying village, masses of roses and general romance.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is lucky enough to tour Italy, as hopefully you may be able to track some of the gardens down, to anyone who loves this style of garden, to anyone who enjoys looking at beautiful photographs.

The Wild Garden – a breath of fresh, if not old, air

The Wild Garden was sent to me by Timberpress to review along with Dear Christo. The latter got my initial interest and The Wild Garden sat on the side as I anticipated that it would be difficult to read given that it was written originally in 1870 by William Robinson and sometimes the language from this period can be, in my opinion, hard work.  However, I was thrilled to find this was not the case and I was soon totally absorbed in Robinson’s ideas which seemed to help crystallise some of the thoughts about gardens, and my garden in particular, that I have recently been having.

The Wild Garden went through 7 editions during Robinson’s lifetime and this version is a reprint of the 5th edition with the addition of a commentary by Rick Darke to set it in a 21st century context.  I did struggle with this bit of the book.  The Introduction was good as it told me who Robinson was and how the book originally came about, but then it goes on to sort of precise each chapter of The Wild Garden and give examples of how this idea or that would work now.  I found the writing a little forced and stilted and it took some determination on my part to persist.  Also, and this is probably a failing of mine, the majority of the photographs used to illustrate this part of the book were of locations in the US which made it very difficult for me to relate to.  However, this is an understandable approach as Darke is American and I think this was the original intended market.

But then I got to Robinson’s book itself.  The book has been reproduced with the original engravings and is a delight.  Robinson’s purpose was to move gardeners away from the Victorian obsession with huge bedding displays of tender plants; he expresses concern that the fashion had got to such an extent that in some large gardens not a single hardy flower can be found.  At the time of writing Robinson was becoming involved in the Arts and Crafts movement whose ethics, as Darke explains, “was linking beauty with utility and promoting an appreciation of local materials and patterns”.  The movement had arisen as a reaction to the increasing industrialisation in Britain which was slowly destroying much of the pastoral  beauty of the countryside.

Throughout the book Robinson rails against the bedding style but interestingly doesn’t seem to advocate bringing his wild planting right up to the house appreciating that the owners of grand houses would want some form of formality to look at from their terrace.  He explains that his purpose is not to get rid of all formality near the house but to “restore to its true use the flower-garden, now subjected to two tearings up a year…”  He encourages the use of what we would now call herbaceous borders full of interesting and beautiful plants. He frequently criticises horticultural practices at the time including the annual clear of borders in the autumn and the need to dig over borders before winter and thereby leaving the soil to erosion from wind and rain, “When winter is once come, almost every gardener, with the best intentions, prepares to make war upon the roots of everything in his shrubbery.”

So how does Robinson see the Wild Garden evolving? He breaks the book down into a number of chapters each of which deals with a plant group.   There is a chapter on hardy bulbs planted in grass; on the forget me not family; on climbers for trees and bushes; on shrubbery, plantation and wood as just a few examples. In each chapter he provides numerous plants that will work in the location he is describing and how they can be cultivated.  He is generous with his advice and it is clear that he is keen to share and encourage others to his thinking without dictating.

I found his writing to be quite humorous.  In the chapter on Climbers he derides the practice of growing these plants up walls as they are “rarely seen to advantage, owing to their being stiffly training against walls, and many of them have gone out of cultivation for this reason.”   I think Robinson sees the Victorian approach to horticulture as one of demanding perfection, of every plant looking pristine and neat and if possible of having plants that others don’t have.  In the first edition he quotes from Sydney Smith (1771-1845) who was an acclaimed moral philosopher.  Smith describes how he stayed at a house with beautiful and formal gardens which were said to be “laid out with consummate taste”.  To start with he enjoyed his visit and the gardens as they appeared “so much better than Nature”.  However, “In three days’ time I was tired to death; a thistle, a heap of dead bushes, anything that wore the appearance of accident and want of intention was quite a relief.”  I found this fascinating as it is a feeling I have felt when visiting some of the gardens of the big houses. I find myself staring through the topiary and bedding schemes looking for something else, something real, something wonderful, something surprising, something magical, something a little wild.

The other attitude which came through in the book which really spoke to me and which relates to a debate that is often promoted now, particularly in some gardening blogs, is the idea of the garden as art.  I have written about this  myself and struggled to come to a conclusion but I found Robinson’s simple response as a breath of fresh air which brought everything together for me.  Robinson says that as gardeners we have the luxury of being able to choose from plants from across the world and that unlike nature we can tweak the environment to make them suitable for plants where none would normally grow.  But most importantly, for me, he says: “Foolish old ‘laws’ laid down by landscape gardeners perpetuate the notion that a garden is a ‘work of art, and therefore we must not attempt in it to imitate nature!’ true gardening differing from all other arts in this that it gives us living things themselves, and not merely representations of them in paint or stone or wood.” This makes so much sense to me plants are living and breathing things which grow, fade and die and as such a garden cannot be a work of art unless you are only seeing it for a brief moment in time.  I think gardens transcend the idea of art, we can manipulate, tweak and create but at the end of the day whatever our desire, our plan, our  scheme, our aspiration we are merely custodians of that piece of soil and Mother Nature will do as she wishes, when she wishes so we should do our tweaking and our planning but then we should sit back and see what happens and enjoy it for what it is.

I think this is the essence of what Robinson was saying. When he refers to The Wild Garden, he is not talking about turning your garden over to the countryside or letting it become a wilderness.   Rather, he is suggesting that we loosen our control,  that we stop gardening so intensively, that we recognise the beauty of the hardy plant world and reduce our  reliance on tender  exotics.  If we do this we will have beauty to look at for more of the year and we will  enjoy our  green spaces more as, unlike Sydney Smith, we will not be desperate for some respite from the “consummate taste” of bedding schemes etc.

I found myself nodding along with this book and as Darke says it is a book that begs to be dipped into and read and re-read.  The fact that its message is as relevant today as it was in 1870 is interesting.  I think we have moved a long way from the position Robinson was confronted with but we have other issues to address.  I think we can take the book as encouragement to work with the environment we are in, to choose plants that are right for it and to let them grow as they wish.

I do believe that this is the way forward and the ethics of the book will be key to my thinking about my garden, and others in the future  I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is interested, even mildly,  in this approach to gardening and even if you aren’t you might discover that Robinson challenges your thinking.

The Brother Gardeners

I have been most distracted recently with a book my brother-in-law gave me for Christmas.  Admittedly I had told him that I wanted the book or I wouldn’t have got it.  The book? The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf.  His response to the book – “What sort of gardening book is that with no pictures”!

But it isn’t a gardening book; it is a garden history book and a pretty fantastic one at that.  I am terrible at skim reading books. I have always done this unintentionally even when I was studying my for my degree in literature.  It was especially helpful the year I read 19th century novels helping me get through the likes of Middlemarch and Dombey & Sons quick enough to submit my essays on time but it means that I sometimes miss out on the nuances of language particularly descriptive passages. However, I have found myself really reading The Brother Gardeners, savouring every word and taking my time – a testament to the quality of Andrea Wulf’s writing.

I think she has done a wonderful job of bringing the 18th century early horticulturists to life.  She has obviously spent a considerably amount of time researching her subject, pouring over manuscripts, letters etc and somehow she has managed to bring all this information together in such a way that you find yourself not reading a dry factual non-fiction history book, and I have read a few, but a lively, intelligent, engaging story of 6 men who were fundamentally instrumental in making England the gardening nation that it is today.

The book covers the 18th century a period which included the American War of Independence, territorial disputes, the discovery of Australia and the introduction of the Linnean system of nomenclature.  If I am honest I have never really considered the Americas and Australia in the round and I was amazed at how closely these events all happened in time.  It must have been an amazing period to live in.

So  who are the six, who Andrea refers to as “‘my’ six men”?  They are Philip Miller the curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden who at the start of the century was publishing his Gardeners Dictionary, the model for all future plant encyclopedias. Peter Collinson,  the trader who was importing and exporting to America but because of his thirst for new plant species located John Bartram, a farmer, who plant hunted for him.  Bartram was responsible for introducing to Britain such plants as Magnolias, Thujas, Rhododendrons, Maples, Juniper, Liquidambar and the Tulip tree.  Then we have Carl Linnaeus who saw that Miller and Collinson were key to having his new system of nomenclature accepted in England.  Whilst Linnaeus was apparently not that popular his student Daniel Solander soon became a firm part of the English horticultural world and accompanied Joseph Banks on his trip to discover Australia.  Banks then went on to become President of the Royal Society, a post he held for 40 years, as well as founding the Horticultural Society.  He was instrumental in seeing how plants that grew in one part of the empire could be useful in another for example the ill fated trip* to collect breadfruit from Tahiti to take to the West Indies to produce food for the plantation workers.

These six men and to a lesser degree their friends were fanatical about plants, horticulture and botany.  Their thirst for new plants, more knowledge was insatiable.  Through their work, their connections, their persistence new plants were introduced firstly to the places like the Chelsea Physic Garden and Kew but then sold to wealthy landowners with similar interests.  Then as with everything these plants were seen and admired, propagated successfully and were soon being sold across the country to a new breed of gardeners. I was amazed that at the start of the 18th century there were only a handful of nurseries in existence by the end of the century there were 200 in London alone and we need to remember that the London of the 18th century was smaller than that of the 21st century!

I could go on and on about the ideas and impressions I  have drawn from this book but I don’t want to take the enjoyment away from anyone who shares my fascination with our plant history.  All I can say is it is a very good read not just if you are a British Gardener but also if you are an American, Australian, South African gardener who is interested in how your native plants travelled the world, or someone who wonders where the system of naming plants came from.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

*Bank’s ill-fates sponsored trip to collect bread fruit was the journey that ended in the Mutiny on the Bounty