Book Review: My Life with Plants

It was with some trepidation that I agreed to review Roy Lancaster’s My Life with Plants; after all commenting on the writing of someone who is held in such high esteem by so many in the horticultural world and beyond is quite intimidating.

My Life with Plants is a form of autobiography written by Roy Lancaster, as he celebrates his 80th birthday, looking back on his adventures in horticulture.  The book starts with his childhood explorations of the local countryside firstly due to a love of birds but progressively, due to encouragement from mentors in the local naturalist’s society, a fascination for plants developed.  These mentors encouraged Roy to pursue his interests into a career in the local Parks department.  The book continues through Roy’s national service mainly spent in Malay, what a thrill that must have been for a burgeoning plantsman, and onwards to his time with Hilliers, before launching on his speaking and media career in the 1980s and brings us right up to date with his plant hunting travels in recent years.

As you would expect from someone who has spent a significant portion of their 80 years in horticulture the book is full of plant references. Roy recounts numerous encounters with plants all over the world along with the people who accompanied and supported him.  Whilst the book is entitled My Life with Plants the people who encouraged, supported, worked for, learnt from and travelled with Roy are in fact the books  main ingredient; which reads almost like a whose who of horticulture.

My criticism of the book, and I’m afraid I need to be honest, is that due to the length of time in Roy’s life that is covered in the 299 pages it often felt that we were skimming along on the surface to include everything and I often wished there was more description of the places, or plants and especially the people.  I have to admit to not being a fan of the typical plant hunting travel log which this book often is as I find the tone too academic in approach for my taste but for those who enjoy learning about plants and where they come from and how they were originally located this should be a good read.

I certainly think My Life with Plants would be hugely inspiring for anyone thinking of embracing a career in horticulture as it demonstrates the truth behind the idea that you have to seize opportunities when they present themselves as you never know where they will lead or who you will meet.

 

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Book Review: RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants

One of the best presents my sons ever bought me was the RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants probably about 10 years ago.  A hugely valuable resource that opens the keen amateur gardener’s eyes to the amazing world of plants.  Naturally, having loved this publication for many years I was interested to be offered a review copy by Dorling Kingsley of their new edition, published on 9th September 2016.

The new edition includes an additional 5000 new plants and claims “to incorporate the latest research and know how from over 70 horticultural experts led by the world-renowned plantsman Christopher Brickell”. It’s a beautiful edition presented in a strong robust carry-box, the ideal present for that special gardener in your life.  However, it’s a weighty tome coming in at 1118 pages whereas its predecessor was split between two volumes making it much easier, in my opinion, to use.  Interestingly, despite the size and weight of the book, there has been a reduction in the information section at the start of the book. Gone are the sections on Plant Problems; Pests, Diseases and Disorders; and specific information about various plant groups such as Trees, Shrubs, Orchids, Ferns.  I presume the decision was taken to remove these sections to allow space for the additional 5000 plants. I think it is a pity as I have often found these sections as useful as the actual encyclopedia – my version is a sort of one stop shop.

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But putting my grumbles aside, which are purely based on the fact that I have an earlier version, this book really is an essential acquisition for all keen gardeners and horticulturists.  It is obviously an A-Z and each Genus is set out with an introduction, general cultivation information and then individual plant entries which start with the botanical name.  The plant entry has specific details about the plant with descriptions of flowers, leaves, stems, overall height and width, geographical origin and hardiness. The entry is then further sub-divided into variants and cultivars.  Not all plants have photographs but there are sufficient to make it very appealing.  In addition there are drawings of distinct or complex features of the larger genera which show any variations in flowers or leaves.

The price of the book is £75 but I think this is reasonable given the amount of information you get which even with the seemingly never-ending plant name changes will provide probably the most valuable resource the gardener ever needs.  I have to admit to drifting to tapping into the internet more these days for plant information as its so easy but it is also quite limited and there is never the breadth of varieties as there are in this book.

So yes if you are looking for that very special present or if you have someone who might indulge you then I would really recommend the RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants

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!

 

A timely reminder

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening

 

I read last night and into the early hours and wept. It’s rare for a book to hold me in this way. Despite its title, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening is not a gardening book although the education of a gardener is the premise for the story. Nor is it about the author’s battle with breast cancer although this cannot be ignored. No, this book is about the human condition with all its frailty and contradictions. It is about a friendship that struggles to emerge but blossoms into something truly life affirming.

The writing isn’t sophisticated nor does it try to be clever. It is brutally honest but in a quiet understated way. The author, Carol Wall, confronts all our fears.  The fear of making a fool of yourself, appearing to be racist, saying the wrong thing, and worse not realising it, the fear of losing your parents and the terror of dying yourself. But through the author and Mr Owita’s evolving relationship the author learns and grows. She confronts her fears and in turn develops a deep understanding of her new friend and his family, who it transpires are dealing with their own demons.

Despite what might sound like a rather depressing storyline, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening, is a joy to read. The characters are engaging from the first page and with their back stories slowly unfolding throughout the book we are drawn into their lives wanting to know more.

But the real message I took from this book was that the most important things in life are those that you cannot buy; the importance of real friendship, friendship and love which puts some one else first without hesitation and how we should cherish such friendships as they are very special indeed.  A timely reminder at this time of year.

I would like to thank Kathy over at Cold Climate Gardening for featuring this book on her blog as I would never have come across it otherwise on this side of the pond.  As ever the joy of blogging is the connections we make which lead us to discover all manner of things we wouldn’t normally come across.

 

Book Review: The Splendour of the Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Plant 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: The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Book Review: The Writer’s Garden

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.