Book Review: The Gardeners Companion to Medicinal Plants

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Sometimes a book comes along that is just a bit different to the everyday coffee table book on gardens and plants  and The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants is such a book.

It is strange but there is something in the book not having a glossy slip cover that makes it feel more grown up, more serious, containing information of substance.  At the same time the delightful botanical illustrations hint that there will be all sorts of artistic joys to behold.

The premise for the book is simple as set out in the straightforward and matter of fact introduction – to give “gardeners an overview of plants used in traditional medicine”. The gardener is not encouraged to go out and create a herbal garden based on the book but instead the enthusiast is reminded to consider ‘right plant, right place’ before investing any of the 277 plants included in the book. Nor is the book “a medical manual or a guide to self-diagnosis or self-treatment.” Rather it is a book for the curious gardener and plant lover who wants to understand a little bit more and maybe try one of the simple recipes included.

Each plant is illustrated with a botanical drawing, has its Latin name and any common names, a brief description and then a description of traditional uses and a description of medicinal discoveries. So if you take Gardenia jasminoides as an example you learn that in Asia it is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, to detoxify the blood, stop bleeding, and treat anxiety, agitation and depression. Under Medicinal Discoveries we learn that research is being carried out to see if the plant has any antidepressant effects.  I find this particularly interesting as I am increasingly coming to a view that our dependence on synthetic drugs is not the way forward. Whilst in the West we lost our reliance on plants for primary health care during the 20th century, only now beginning to rediscover their possibilities, in Africa, South America and Asia plants still have a key role in primary health care.  I frequently use calendar cream on burns, with no scaring, and often make a tincture of thyme for sore throats. I have friends who swear by Arnica for bruises and sprains and I really must get some for the medicine cupboard.

Of the 277 plants profiled in The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants, there are 24 which have been particularly highlighted and a recipe included which you can try at home.  I am quite taken with the Rosemary infused oil which is meant to be good for muscular problems and I love the idea of using plantains to make a balm to relieve the itching from bites, stings and nettle rash although having got rid of my lawn I’m not sure where I will find enough plantain.

It has been interesting leafing through the A-Z of the 277 plants spotting ones I have growing either intentionally or as weeds and seeing what I could use them for.  It is also interesting to learn little facts about plants for example Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) is said to be named after King Solomon as he discovered its wound-healing properties.

The book is published on behalf of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and understandable the authors are all connected to the botanic garden. Jason Irving is a forager and qualified herbalist, Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes is a phytochemist at Kew and Professor Monique Simmonds is Deputy Director of Science at Kew.  Despite their obvious academic backgrounds they have struck an ideal balance between giving good information in an interesting and accessible way. The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants is definitely a book that I will enjoy dipping into to and maybe trying some recipes from.

 

The Art of Gardening – Book Review

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Very occasionally I receive a book to review and the timing of its arrival seems to be very serendipitous. This is true of The Art of Gardening, a Timberpress publication which focuses on the approach to gardening at Chanticleer, a garden in Pennsylvania, USA.

The book is written by the staff of the garden, with the bulk written by Bill Thomas, head gardener but supported by substantial contributions from the rest of the team.  The text is supported by sumptuous photographs mainly by Rob Cardillo, but also with some taken by the gardeners.  This is not your standard coffee table book to flick through enjoying pretty pictures.  This is a serious and practical gardening book but presented in the form of discussions and conversations with the reader.  There are no ‘how to’ sections and only one list of suggested plants (annuals for the cut flower garden) but throughout the text, sprinkled amongst the paragraphs are all sorts of bits of advice and encouragement just as if you are standing in the garden chatting to one of the gardeners or at a very good garden talk.

The other striking thing about the book is the garden itself.  Chanticleer is a historic garden, originally created by the Rosengarten family in the 1920s. The typical large family estate, funded by commerce, of the USA at the start of the twentieth century.  Its creation was continued by a number of generations before a Foundation was created in the 1970s to maintain the house and gardens.  The foresight of the last Rosengarten in setting the mission as “Operate the property as a beautiful public garden…..and educate amateur and professional gardeners” has allowed the garden to develop and grow and not become stultified as so many historic gardens in the UK become, stuck in a time warp and slowly declining.  Not only do the gardeners have the opportunity to develop the garden but each specific garden area is owned by one of the gardening team who manages it and develops it and takes ownership.  This then gives the garden a personal feel, or as I have so often said about gardens, a soul.  Maybe a lesson to be learnt by our National Trust and other such organisations.

The book itself is a joy to read with the voices of each of the contributors shining through.  There is a little history of the garden, then a section on design which explains how the various components are set out, managed and how the garden team work together to connect their various elements.  There is a lovely section on art showcasing the various garden ornamentation from obelisks to exquisite sculpture that the garden team have created over the years with each learning various crafts supported by the foundation.  Then the majority of the book looks at plants and how they are used in the garden.

I have to admit to skimming the section on trees as I will never be in a position to plant the sorts of trees referred to but I enjoyed the highlights on the birds that inhabit the garden.  We then move on through bulbs, perennials, plants for all types of shade, plants for sun, vines, climbers, edibles.  There is discussion on colour showing the various approaches in different years taken by gardens – sometimes vibrant, sometimes soft and calming.  As I have said throughout the text there are little nuggets of information, asides, which make you stop and think ‘oh yes I see that now’ or ‘what a good idea I must try that’.

There is a section on assessing plants which particularly interested me.  I have attended many a talk by people like Fergus Garrett where they have said this but I have never really quite got what they meant.  Emma Seniuk gives a lovely example of how Aquilega chrysantha ‘Denver Gold’ forms rosettes of frilly foliage when it emerges hiding the soil, whereas Aqulegia ‘McKana’s Gold’s foliage is fanned out and you look through it at the soil – how true and I shall be taking that into account in the future.  Another idea I might try is sowing something like wheat or rye around my bulbs to hide the soil and stop muddy splash back.  Of course our climates are different so it might be that the crops wont grow at the right time for this to work for me in the UK but its worth investigating.  I could go on, and on.

I said the book’s arrival was serendipitous for me.  I have been feeling lost with my garden, I have drifted from my original careless enjoyment of all things horticultural into a place where I over think everything to the point I have had periods of complete despondency.  A few weeks ago I realised what was happening and why and took the mental step to go back to my gardening roots, so to speak, and try to rediscover my love of all things planty.  The Art of Gardening conveys that sense of joy that I have lost.  The closing paragraph sums it up well In your own garden, trust your instincts.  Design to please yourself and make the garden your personal expression.”

I can see me coming back to this book time and time again and I suspect it will quickly become my second favourite gardening book.  My first is ‘The Layered Garden’ by David Culp – interestingly also based in Pennsylvania.  There is something about both books that is exuberant and pushes at the boundaries in a gentle way but is at the same time liberating – its something I have yet to find in English garden writing, apart from maybe Christopher Lloyd.  Maybe I should visit Pennsylvania….now there’s a thought!

 

Book Review: The Plant Lover’s Guide to Tulips

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Book Review: Outwitting Squirrels

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Plant Lovers Guide to Epimediums

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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: Secret Gardens of The Cotswolds

Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Founding Gardeners – A Review

Founding Gardeners

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

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

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

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.