The literary landscape

On afternoons too wet for work in the garden I have been reading the year’s harvest of books about gardening. They continue to be varied and like all books, they are vastly cheaper in real terms than they were 20 years ago. Actual gardening is well represented, confirming that there is no retreat from getting hands dirty and growing plants for ourselves. During economic crises more people think they would like to grow vegetables and then find them more difficult than they expected. My strong impression is that vegetable novices have now also turned to flower growing and this year, found it easier. The British weather has given vegetable growers a very hard time.

Two of my top picks are big-format paperbacks and easier to use as a result. Quite often the RHS “encyclopedias” are woolly and inadequate but the Encyclopedia of Gardening Techniques (Mitchell Beazley, £25) is more worthwhile than most. The second half on Growing Vegetables and Seeds is much better than the one on Growing Ornamentals and it is for this section and the well-illustrated ones on Pruning and on Propagation that I would gladly give the book to novices for Christmas. The predictable fatuity is the section on Wildlife Gardening. It trundles out the old chestnut that the nation’s gardens have a “beneficial effect on supporting and sustaining wildlife which is immense”. I live with eminent university scientists who calculate nothing of the sort. How, too, can any serious gardener still write about gardens as “green corridors for wildlife to move freely” without ever once mentioning the menace of rabbits in a vegetable garden, hares everywhere, squirrels among spring bulbs and unculled badgers ploughing up lawns, tulips and bedding plants on a merry night time excursion to have unprotected sex and then hunt for grubs? If garden owners want an “animal sanctuary”, not a garden, by all means let them have one. But a half-baked chapter of half-truths is no way for the RHS to go about its business just because the metro classes are thought to coo over “sightings” of barking deer or to put out saucers of milk for those future destroyers, fox cubs. At least the Encyclopedia mentions chemical controls, albeit for weeds, not moles. In the Ornamental section it ought to have stated which of its “garden” favourites will promptly die on the alkaline soils with which most of us are cursed.

Japanese maple from ‘Magnificent Trees of the New York Botanical Gardens’ by Larry Lederman

There are two particularly pleasant books from two of our most admired garden designers. Kim Wilkie is interested in the “spirit” of green landscapes and how “design needs to respond to local identity and draw inspiration from the memories of the place”. His Led By The Land (Frances Lincoln, £35) is a photographic record of landscapes, mostly by Wilkie, which attempts to address this level. Landforms are one of his specialities nowadays and I was intrigued by his curving patterns for Shawford Water Meadows in Hampshire. A previous owner had “laser-levelled” the landscape to “construct a helipad and polo pitch”, perhaps while reading the weekday FT. The next owner was more of a Weekend FT type, or so I like to imagine, and hired Wilkie to devise a pattern of water canals in curving interrelations. They look good in photos from the air after the messy long grass, or “hay”, has been cut. Their “alkaline water” is also the “perfect habitat for the southern damselfly”. Should we be thankful for this side-effect or not? Does a damselfly like to bite damsels, one more reason why southern ladies spend such a fortune on face creams?

Wilkie is more enthusiastic than I am about metal statues and patterns to help with his landscapes’ “spirit”. The photos suggest that I would prefer his new rampart at Shawford without the Gormley figure of a human watcher in silhouette, looking out over “shapes and curves”. By contrast Arabella Lennox-Boyd thinks mostly in terms of flowers and green shapes. Her Designing Gardens (Frances Lincoln, £25) is now in a big paperback and is definitely one for Christmas gardeners. The photos by Andrew Lawson are first class and the text, 10 years old in hardback, has much worth pondering. She “never plants pink and blue together – they remind me of nursery colours”. I think she misses much as a result, especially as the sunlight fades on a summer evening above Love-in-a-Mist and single pearly pink poppies from seed. Her pictures and advice on town gardens are spot on. This book is well worth reading and studying and the author is still at the top of her tree.

At a less practical level I have enjoyed engaging with Rory Stuart’s What Are Gardens For? (Frances Lincoln, £16.99). The author has travelled very widely and thought seriously about all he has seen and read. He quotes well and is not dictatorial. He likes the private Veddw Garden in Monmouthshire and the remarkable 32-acre Old Vicarage garden at East Ruston in Norfolk, a challenging tour de force, which I must try to see soon. Like Wilkie he looks for the spirit or the special atmosphere in a garden and he also writes intelligently about “taste”. He lists his World’s 10 Best Gardens and includes the garden of the Nezu Museum in Tokyo and the garden at Innisfree, Millbrook, New York State, first made by Walter and Marion Beck between 1930 and 1960. I would be fascinated to see what has attracted him to them. He then lists The World’s 10 Best Garden Experiences. His unusual list includes the experience of light and shade at Snowshill Manor in the Cotswolds, a poky sort of place to my eye, and the discovery of William Martin’s contemporary garden at Wigandia in Australia “atop an extinct volcano”. I asked two keen classical undergraduates for alternatives. Touchingly they said “kissing and more in the University Parks”. Not all volcanoes are extinct.

Joy Larkcom from her book 'Just Vegetating'

Among personal memoirs I have enjoyed one of the earth-mothers of modern vegetable gardening, Joy Larkcom, reminiscing in her memoir Just Vegetating (Frances Lincoln, £18.99). The typeface is horrible and some of the text is a reprint of past columns but the time span of Larkcom’s experience is telling. In Communist countries in the 1970s life was still fairly drab, wages very low and luxuries few. “In Slovenia, we crave greenery in winter,” a plant nurseryman told her. Flowers, she observes, were like diamonds behind the Iron Curtain. I respect all she has done for green diamonds and their fellow-lovers since.

Have trees ever been more in the news? I will conclude with Magnificent Trees of the New York Botanical Garden (Monacelli Press and the NYBG, $50). Larry Lederman has photographed some of the garden’s finest specimens and with short notes about each variety by Todd Forrest. How many English gardeners realise that Malus Harvest Gold is such a disease-resistant crab apple or so beautifully yellow-fruited, a first choice for gardens? New Yorkers would love to be given this excellent picture-record of the finest natural and cultivated woodland in their city’s boundaries.

After Hurricane Sandy it is even more of a treasure. “The NYBG suffered its worst tree-damage since its establishment in 1891,” the garden’s president Gregory Long has confirmed to me. Dozens of historic old oaks were flattened by the storms and have now been cut up into timber. Even so, the backbone of the garden is mercifully intact and as leafy as ever. This was not the year to be a mildewed British vegetable. It was certainly not the year to be a tall tree in New York.

Robin, over lunch at the Manoir, is being auctioned off for charity. Visit

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