Book Review: First Ladies of Gardening

first ladies

Amongst the plethora of recent books showcasing gardens one has really stood out for me – First Ladies of Gardening.  Written by Heidi Howcroft with photographs by Marianne Majerus it looks at the gardens of fourteen women gardeners.  Initially Howcroft and Majerus had intended to produce a book on gardens made in the traditional mould by passionate amateurs that they liked and admired.  They soon realised that their short-list consisted almost entirely of gardens created by women and decided to follow this path.

The book includes obvious choices such as Sissinghurst, Kiftsgate, Barnsley House and Beth Chatto’s Garden.  However it also includes some gardens which are less well-known where the gardeners have created stunning gardens often on challenging sites.  We discover Gill Richardson’s Manor Farm in Lincolnshire, Gill is known for breeding Astrantias; Lady Xa Tollemache and Helmingham Hall a moated house with a garden dating back to 1510 and Rosanna James and the hillside garden of Sleight-Holmedale on the North York Moors.

The text puts each garden into context providing some historical background to it and its creator, their approach to gardening and a description of the garden although the essence of each is better conveyed in the photographs.  At the end of each chapter there are the gardener’s guiding principles set out in bullet point form as well as their signature plants.

This book is more than a collection of pretty pictures of gardens and what some people call the vanity shot of the owners.  It is split in two with the old guard in the first half, Pioneers of Design,  and the new guard in the second, New Directions.  We start with Upton Grey Manor a Jekyll garden which has been lovingly restored by Rosamund Wallinger who learnt on the job and then by contrast we have Waterperry where the indefatigable Miss Havergal trained women gardeners.  In the second half we can see how Jekyll, Sackville and Chatto’s legacies have inspired and influenced their successors who in turn have developed and taken their gardens to a new level.  These women are quietly but surely leading the way in planting and garden design creating exuberant and beautiful spaces which are individualistic and demonstrate the highest level of horticultural expertise.

The lady gardeners featured are passionate amateurs, many have learnt as they have gone along and have tackled difficult sites and conditions, which I find inspiring and it encourages me in my own gardening efforts and dreams.   Of the 14 gardens in First Ladies of Gardening there are only one or two which do not appeal to me and I am already making plans to try to visit some of the others.  I especially would like to see Sleight-Holmedale as it is a hillside garden on a much larger scale to mine and looks inspiring. Sissinghurst and Helen Dillon’s gardens are already booked in my diary this summer and I hope to add Upton Grey Manor.

First Ladies of Gardening is a beautiful book as well as being informative and inspiring.

Book Review: Backyard Blueprints



I have to admit that Backyard Blueprints isn’t  the sort of book I would normally buy as it has a design focus which isn’t my real interest.  However, as it focusses on small gardens, or backyards, I thought it might have some interesting ideas for my garden, so agreed to review it.

David Stevens, the author, is a garden designer with 11 gold medals from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show under his belt.  He has also written many garden books primarily on design. The blurb on the cover states that the book ‘demystifies the stages of designing a garden’ and it is certainly set out in a user-friendly style with accessible language.

I liked the approach that you should ignore trends and do what is right for you. As Stevens states “It will not be some fancy and impractical vignette from a glossy magazine, rather a slightly haphazard, comfortable and electic composition.” This sounds more my style than anything featured in a glossy magazine.  The book condenses each element of design into one or two pages; so when looking at design styles you have a two page spread on formal and freeform and one on asymmetric.  The content is image heavy with lots of diagrams breaking down the elements in an associated photograph.

As with any design book which focusses on small gardens the usual suspects are present: boundaries, privacy, linking inside and out but changing levels and tricking the eye are also covered, including practical information about building steps.  Given that turf isn’t really practical in a small garden there is a sizeable section on various hard landscaping options which appears to be very comprehensive.  All sorts of garden structures are considered and instructions and advice given for many including a rather lovely arch and a slightly quirky slatted bench both of which I have started to drop hints to my son about.

Being obsessed with plants I have to confess that this is the part of the book that I looked at more closely.  This is not the book for someone looking for lots of specific plant details.  However, if like me you are guilty of impulse buying and consequently have bitty looking planting then this book is very helpful  in making you think about how you combine and associate plants.  Planting in layers and drifts is discussed as well as how to use the shape, colour and texture of plants together.  I particularly liked this section as I have slowly been getting my head around how you need vertical accents to bring interest to mounds of plants as well has having large leaves combined with smaller more intricate ones.  The author states “even the permutations of how just six of them (plants) taken at random could be arranged are almost endless” which is true but I think it would have been nice to have seen some examples of this – a montage of six arrangements would have been very instructive; a missed trick I felt.

When it comes to colour I was grateful that Stevens did not launch into one of those complicated explanations of the colour wheel such as you find in so many books of this genre.  Instead he takes a more user-friendly approach by quoting Jekyll’s dictum that hot colours attract and cool colours recede and then explains how this works in reality.  Lastly, in the plant section there are two interesting sections on plants for shade and hot dry areas with planting plans which really are very useful in giving you a good selection of plants to choose from.

Backyard Blueprints will not show you how to actually draw a design for your garden nor how to lay your paving; it’s not a How to Book.  However, it will show you how to take the basic ideas and tweak them to create something special.  The author shows you the alternatives available and the effects each  choice produces.  I think the book shows you that you can pick and choose elements and ideas which appeal to you and create a small garden or backyard that works for you and your family and is individualistic rather than feeling you need to replicate some prescribed design in a magazine – unless of course that is what you want!

My top twenty reads


It’s always interesting where conversations on twitter can lead to.  The other day the Guardian’s top 100 reads, which it turned out was from, was tweeted which then prompted a discussion about how many some of us had read, what a strange selection they were and what we would have included.  Needless to say this led to deciding to post our top twenty reads.  There are no rules, they can be anything: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, whatever – so here  are mine.

Thing Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe – this is my favourite book.  I discovered it while studying post-colonial literature with the Open University.  Essentially it records the culture of the Igbo tribe in Africa and the destructive impact of the arrival of the arrogant colonials.  This book should make us all question the culture of the power of western colonialism we were taught at school.

The Founding Gardeners – Andrea Wulf – a recent discovery which recounts the story of the first four US presidents through their passions for horticulture.  It is an enjoyable read presenting the story through various vignettes.  Completely fascinating.

The Daughter of TimeJosephine Tey – a book I discovered via Radio 4 Book of the Week a while ago.  The person advocating the book argued that it taught you to challenge things that you had been taught.  The story is about whether Richard III was indeed the evil king Shakespeare portrayed him to be and did he arrange for the princes in the tower to be killed.  Published in 1951 it predates all the recent books arguing this theory.

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Wolf – another book discovered when studying for my degree.  I found it delightful, intellectual, intriguing and discovering Wolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’ style was liberating for me and I feel flavours my writing now.

A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry – this book was discovered through another programme where celebrities identifies books that were important to them.  It is set in 1970s India and portrays a period of political turmoil in this country’s history through one ordinary person.  It is a book that makes you think, it challenges the Western preconceptions of India and its people and it is a wonderful read

A Handful of Dust – Evelyn Waugh – I do like this author and this is my favourite of his books.  I am fascinated by this period of history, 1920s, and the book conveys that period of time between the wars when rules were being broken and society could be said to be disintegrating.  It is also incredibly sad.

The Island – Athol Fugard – a play again discovered when I was studying Post-colonial literature and another one to make you think.  The play has two characters who are in prison in a South African prison which is obviously based on Robben Island.  The cellmates spend their days in futile physical labour and their nights practising for a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone

Hatters Castle – A J Cronin – I read this book as a teenager and it was the first book to have a real impact on me and has stayed, almost haunting me, for the rest of my life.  It essentially is about a father, Hatter, and his three children. I wouldn’t want to give the plot away but it is a heartbreaking book which shows what can happening when parents pressurised their children too much.  It has been at the back of my mind while I have been bringing my sons up.

The Awakening – Kate Chopin – Another book from my degree course.  The OU had a thing about feminism when I studied with them and how women were portrayed and how they started to portray themselves.  Published in 1899 The Awakening explores how the main character questions motherhood and the limits of marriage. Edna rejects her domestic role in a search for her “spiritual, sexual and artistic freedom”, it shocked readers at the time and is beautifully written. Like others I encountered on the course this book gave me permission to follow an independent lifestyle.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon  – I enjoyed this book which threw away the rule book and displayed for all of us to see, in a very sympathetic and non-patronising way, the working of the mind of a teenager which Asperger’s Syndrome.  Like Mrs Dalloway the writing style broke rules and challenged which I loved.

Garden Open Today – Beverley Nichols – I have included this as I enjoy Nichols’ writing.  It is of its time and so non-PC now that it makes me laugh out loud.  It is about gardening but it is the portrayal of Nichols friends, acquaintances and neighbours that I really enjoy.

The Life of PiYann Martel – a book that confuses and produces mixed responses from readers.  I have refused to see the film as I don’t want my interpretation of the meaning behind some parts of the book challenged.  This is a book that makes you think and re-think and you end it not 100% sure you got it in the first place.

Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch – shortlisted for the Orange Prize a few years back this book surprised me.  It is an adventure story set in London in 19th century and on the high seas. There are some grim bits but it is essentially about “faith, love and friendship at their utmost limits”. It is a very atmospheric book.


Sunset Song – Lewis Grassic Gibbon – another degree text set before and during the First World War in Scotland this book follows the story of a young woman and the harshness of farming life.  Grassic Gibbon is a writer that is often included on the Scottish school curriculum and evokes a difficult time and endurance.

The Cherry Orchard – Anton Chekhov – another play, this time a comedy although I think the humour is a little dark.  It is set at a time when the Russian elite were having to accept giving up their land to the serfs.  The Cherry Orchard of the title is part of the land the family is going to lose and symbolises their loss. I found the exploration of people coming to terms with such drastic changes fascinating.

The Warden – Anthony Trollope – Trollope’s novels were the first ‘classics’ I read and The Warden is the first of the Chronicles of Barchester.  Again I love the character portrayal and the interplay between the characters.  These days I have some involvement with the local Cathedral and have to try hard not to superimpose Trollope’s characters on to the people I encounter.

The Dolls House – Henrik Ibsen – a play encountered at the same time as The Awakening and again this play explores the role of the women in the home, it is considered the first feminist play and caused a stir at the time.  I admired the main character Nora when I read the play.

The Man from Snowy River – Elyne Mitchell – this book always takes me back to my late teens when I spent time in Australia on a number of occasions and it reminds me of time I spent on the edge of the bush.  It is romantic and full of adventure and brings alive the ballad of Banjo Patterson whose work I have enjoyed. This is one of only a few books that has gone through life with me since my teens.

Wild Swans – Jung Chang – a fantastic book following the lives of three generations of chinese women throughout the late 19th century and 20th century.  Through the characters you follow the history of China and its self-destruction of its culture.  It evokes a broad range of emotions but leaves you uplifted at the power of human self-preservation.

The Women in White – Wilkie Collins – my favourite genre of books is murder mysteries and detective fiction.  I like many authors but choose The Women in White partly as it was the first of the genre and because it is such a clever thriller.

There is no logic to the order I have listed my twenty  top reads it’s really how they came off the shelf when I decided to write this post.  I haven’t thought about it long and hard just picked the books I would recommend to someone looking for something to read.  Interestingly many are from the seven years I spent studying for my degree with the Open University and I have to admit that my mind was really opened to a range of literature that I don’t think I would otherwise  encounter many of which challenges and changed my views and perceptions of many things but particularly colonialism and some that empowered me to be independent and more self-confident.

I am now going to go and re-read some of those I haven’t opened for a number of years.