Top gardeners inspire with new books

imageHow to get fired up by reading the successes and failures of gardeners.

If you are looking for a good gardening read now the cold, wet weather has set in, there are some fascinating new books on the shelves to choose from. The ones that caught my eye describe the creation of gardens by gardeners themselves. These titles are quite different to the more aspirational, picture-led gardening books, which can leave you feeling inadequate and unsatisfied. Quite the reverse, the tales of triumphs, setbacks and backaches will inspire you to start hatching plans for new projects.

As anyone who has designed a garden knows, this is a stimulating experience and one you learn a lot from. You feel there is part of you in the garden, giving you a strong bond with the place.

The first book, The Barn Garden: Making a Place, by Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith, tells the story of the creation of their garden from 1986 till 2011 and is full of helpful design pointers as well as a wealth of acquired horticultural knowledge. Tom and Sue (a doctor) have written separate identifiable sections so there are two definite styles which reflect their totally different standpoints. This is helpful as most gardens are the product of two different individuals. They describe the nuts and bolts of the garden’s journey. It is as interesting to read about failures as successes. “In the first 10 years I was learning about plants and wanting to experiment all the time,” says Tom. He went back through the file of what was bought and “was shocked to see that perhaps only a quarter of any of the plants I bought during this period are now in the garden. Bergenias, chrysanthemums, cimicifugas, all gone.” Now Tom uses more perennials and bulbs: Eremurus ‘Joanna’, achilleas, cardoons, astrantias and many grasses. This is a book to devour in a few sittings, then dip into regularly. All proceeds go to charity.

Dan Pearson’s book, Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City is a huge volume, describing the creation and development of his garden in Peckham which he acquired in 1997. Dan writes beautifully, has a great knowledge of plants and a passion for his subject and his garden. The text is heavily broken up with photographs and headings for various plants and gardening activities which allows you to use it as a reference book as much as a straight read. Due to the hefty weight of the book, those without big biceps might prefer the Kindle edition.

Our Plot by Cleve West and his partner Christine (an artist), describes his allotment journey from 1999. It is not intended to be the definitive guide to growing fruit and veg (he freely admits to not being an expert), but tells the story which is interspersed with simple creative ideas that embellish the allotment. He starts off talking about the design of the allotment — which makes perfect sense to me and many vegetable gardeners I would think. An unusual approach perhaps, as most allotment gardeners would gear the layout to a factory-like production system. Their tool shed has a loft space for nesting birds; the beehive compost heap is made from reclaimed bricks laid loose and is perfect for growing courgettes, cucumbers and so forth. They have even built an earth oven (described in detail) which will no doubt give rise to a whole raft of these popping up all over gardens as baking, cooking and sharing bread appeals to our basic instincts.

Sir Roy Strong’s book, The Laskett, on the creation of his garden, was published in 2003 but it is a captivating read and covers far more than his garden as it weaves in his life (social and other) amongst many decisions about dahlias and delphiniums. It is highly informative too: details on his negotiations with the Midlands Electricity Board and how to get cables buried and poles removed at their expense and other nuggets you only ever find out as a result of experience.

Roy and his late wife, Dr Julia Trevelyan Oman (a distinguished theatre designer), created and maintained much of the three-acre garden themselves and only employed an almost full-time gardener after 20 odd years. Before that it was just one day a week or so. The Laskett Garden “was a child of its time, the middle of the Seventies”. Among all the constrained financial turmoil of that time, they planted a huge garden for hope value. The whole garden looks inward, no views are allowed out in case they may be ruined by an adjacent development — a very different approach to many today.

Finally, less horticultural but an entertaining read is The Luberon Garden by Alex Dingwall-Main (, which was published in 2001 and describes his hair-raising work as a garden designer in Provence when he moved there in the Nineties.

Reading books by other gardeners is a brilliant way to acquire new approaches and be introduced to exciting new plants. As a teenager I was inspired by Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book, an anthology of her Observer articles from 1947-61, gleaned from her years creating the gardens at Sissinghurst. We may not all go on to create gardens of international renown, but I bet we get just as much pleasure from our rather more humble plots.

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