The year in books

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Books on gardening have had a good year but not such a great year as British gardens themselves. As ever, they offer Christmas presents for all tastes. The fashion for self-grown vegetables has clearly encouraged a return to the soil, not the “ornamental” decking. The prices of these books are still stunningly low in relative and absolute terms. Bookshops are discounting many of the top titles’ cover-prices while online shopping knocks an even bigger hole in them. I want bookshops to flourish and continue to offer me wet afternoons of happy browsing, so I buy offline if possible. Thirty years ago colour illustrated books were already being priced at up to £13. Nowadays they can be had for £20 or less. If adjusted for inflation the books of the year in 1980 would cost £150 or more each. They are a giveaway.

Among the practical titles I like the calendar format and good pictures in Charles Dowding’s How To Grow Winter Vegetables (Green Books, £14.95). Winter is generously defined as the kitchen garden gap from October until May but there is a mass of proven advice here from a serious vegetable grower who knows what he is talking about. The subject is an excellent one as so many of us have veg patches which are blank in the colder weather except for a few pigeon-pecked brussels sprouts leaning at an angle among the invaluable purple sprouting. Dowding demystifies leeks and much else. If you gave your best beloved a Joy Larkcom or Alan Titchmarsh veg title last year, you can follow up aptly with this sequel. Anyone in the British climate zone will learn from it.

Ambitious flower-gardeners are best served by a welcome reprint. Christopher Lloyd’s The Adventurous Gardener was first published in 1983 but did not capture the general imagination. It is back now in paper at £12.99 from Frances Lincoln and has lost none of its interest. It is the book in which the great garden-writer says most about the higher reaches of his craft. I am ashamed that I missed it in its first edition but have now read and learnt so much from its reappearance. Who else will tell you that a fungus disease is the cause of the frequent ugly browning on the lovely Benenden Blue form of rosemary? Lloyd might have added that this rosemary is only marginally hardy in most areas north of his native Sussex, but hardiness is a variable on which I never fully trust him. The pity is that the book’s magenta pink cover is so ugly. It is, however, a colour which Lloyd liked to champion.

The RHS has become an admired brand for book buyers in the last 15 years. Often I think its colour and encyclopedia format glosses over more than it communicates, so I am wary of most of its “how to” titles. I was even more wary of Matthew Wilson’s Nature’s Gardener (Octopus, £14.99) because the title is such a slippery half-truth. Maybe you rally to pages on trees entitled “The Key To A Healthy Planet”. The subtitle is How to Garden in the 21st Century and from the back jacket you may well wonder why “the way” lies in yet more self seeding grasses and ruby-purple Echinacea. I do not see why peonies, delphiniums, alpines or fleeting gladioli are any less “21st century” than blue grass from Argentina. However, the contents are much more illuminating, helped by the author’s wide experience. Wilson runs London’s Clifton Nurseries and serves as a weekly radio panellist on Gardeners’ Question Time. For the RHS he has made an especial mark in dry gardens at Hyde Hall in Essex and up north at Harlow Carr. His knowledge about borders which need no irrigation shows through his text and I found plenty to interest or provoke me.

I learn even more from specialised books on individual plant-families. Janis Ruksans’s Crocuses: A Complete Guide to the Genus (Timber Press, £25) is expert, well illustrated and an admirable tribute to a family whose flowers are a delight in the winter season. This book updates even the great previous expert EA Bowles and is full of little-known beauties which can be hunted down and grown in shallow clay pans away from the ravages of winter rain and mud. A winning present, worldwide.

The most successful of the year’s garden history books is Margaret Willes’s The Making of the English Gardener: Plants, Books and Inspiration 1550-1660 (Yale, £25). The English historian Keith Thomas first alerted historians to the proliferation of English flower-nurseries across this period in his wide-ranging book Man and the Natural World nearly 30 years ago. Even then, he was drawing heavily on the specialised researches of recent predecessors. As yet I do not think this “early modern” flower-revolution has made much impact on history reading lists in our universities, but the point is still well made. Margaret Willes takes it further with a proposal that the book trade was a crucial influence behind this surge of garden-shopping. She revisits the manuals, herbals and so forth of these years in order to argue for the importance of printing and reading in the “making” of the English gardener. They are surely not the only forces, and in my view, social competition, word-of-mouth, visiting and seeing were more important. But the theory fits well with our more recent tradition of giving a gardening book for Christmas. She deserves a good readership both in and outside England.

Travellers have been particularly well served this year. There are two excellent books on Chinese subjects, both by highly experienced botanists. Christopher Grey-Wilson is a senior doyen of alpine plants and together with Phillip Cribb he has compiled an invaluable Guide To The Flowers Of Western China (Royal Botanic Gardens, £70). This one is the expert up-market book of the year and an essential item for the many who now go or dream of going to see China’s unsurpassably lovely flora in the wild. I hope that it will not read like an obituary-record in 20 years time, such is the pace of the Chinese ruination of so many natural habitats. I wonder what the great 19th century plant hunter Augustine Henry would make of it. Seamus O’Brien has written a handsome tribute to Henry’s work, In The Footsteps Of Augustine Henry (Garden Art Press, £40). I enjoyed this journey on the trail of a great collector whose name is carried by a great lily, a great white-flowered clematis and a great, but neglected, viburnum among much else. O’Brien is the director of the Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens in Ireland and is himself a collector and traveller among wild floras ranging from Nepal through China to Tasmania. He has the expertise for his fine subject.

In Europe, Italian gardens have been the best served this year. Monty Don’s Great Gardens of Italy (Quadrille, £25) accompanies the TV series which many enjoyed but is confined to classic old masterpieces which survive, up to a point, in modern Italian care. Helena Attlee is an even more experienced garden traveller and historian and has given us a sample of Italy’s Private Gardens: An Inside View (Frances Lincoln, £35). Much the best of the bunch is Kirsty McLeod’s The Best Gardens In Italy: A Traveller’s Guide (Frances Lincoln, £30) because it has a vastly wider range and is based on years of interviewing and personal travel across the entire peninsula. It is the book holiday makers have pined for. It is also very elegantly written. I declare that I wrote a short introduction to it but no money changed hands and I did so simply because this book is in a class above its competitors. Above all it shows how much has been planted and planned in Italy in the past 10 years. In this year of austerity it makes a welcome change.

Robin Lane Fox’s ‘Thoughtful Gardening’ (£25, Particular Books) has been reprinted for Christmas

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