“Si hortum in bibliotheca habes; deerit nihil” Marcus Tullius Cicero
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need”
Glossy gardening books show you winter scenes of seed heads and grasses tastefully rimed in hoar frost. How often does that happen in Suffolk? So in winter when the winds howl and the ground is frozen solid, once you’ve counted your snowdrops, it’s time to throw another log on the fire and read about gardening. There are so many books published now, many of them with glossy pictures and pedestrian text. In this dumbed-down age it seems that many books are no longer meant to be read, merely flicked through like magazines; they are coffee table books. Some of them just give you a list of plants with descriptions.
There is also a multitude of how-to books out there, and monographs of particular species, but the books I like to curl up with are discursive books. I like books that are intelligently written with a happy combination of a good literary style, wit and a vast knowledge. I like them to be quirky and conversational. The inimitable Christopher Lloyd is always readable, and fits the bill perfectly; he is knowledgeable and opinionated and always fun to read, although I do think he must have been colour- blind. His ‘The Well-Tempered Garden’ 1970 is a classic, but all his books are worth reading.
Robin Lane Fox is an Oxford don and a man of great scholarship who writes very well. His best two books are ‘Better gardening’ 1982 and ‘Variations of a Garden’. 1986.
Miriam Ostler is not so knowledgeable but her book ‘A Gentle Plea for Chaos’ 1988 is a lyrical account of developing a garden.
If you love roses then Peter Beales‘s book ‘ Visions of Roses’ 1996’ is the one for you. It takes you on a tour of some of the great rose gardens of Europe and America and gives you great ideas for how to grow them. It has wonderful photographs by Vivian Russell.
Peter Smithers was a friend of Ian Fleming and it has been suggested he was the model for James Bond. After a distinguished diplomatic career he created a famous garden at Vico Morcote in Switzerland. He bred many plants including tree peonies, magnolias and nerines. He won the Veitch Gold Memorial medal for contributions to horticulture. His book ‘Adventures of a Gardener’ 1995 is illustrated with his own wonderful photos and it is fascinating.
My favourite gardening books though were written in the early years of the twentieth century. I love the nostalgia of garden artists such as Earnest Arthur Rowe, Helen Allingham and Alfred Parsons. It was a time of change in gardening fashion. The Victorians with their love of primary colours, bedding out, and carpet bedding were shaken up by the new ideas of William Robinson of Gravetye Manor, East Grinstead, in his innovatory book ‘The Wild Garden’ 1870. It marked the start of the craze for cottage-gardening.
The books of the incredibly influential Gertrude Jekyll, who was Robinson’s friend, are all still relevant today and are back in print. My favourite is ‘Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden’ first published in 1908. She was an artist who encouraged people to design their gardens so as to make pictures using harmonious colour, shape and form. For a selection of her writing, ‘A Gardener’s Testament’ is a posthumous selection of her work published in 1937.
The name of Reginald Farrer, famous as an explorer and plant collector, is synonymous with rock gardening. He travelled extensively in remote places of the world and like all his generation had no scruples about conservation. He died on one of his gardening trips in Burma at the age of forty. His book ‘My Rock Garden’ 1907 is a delight; informative, eccentric and beautifully written. There is also an excellent biography about him ‘A Rage for Rock Gardening’ 2004 by Nicola Shulman .
Farrer’s friend, the influential E.A. Bowles, who accompanied him on plant trips in Europe wrote a wonderful description of his garden, Myddleton House at Enfield in the three books ‘My Garden in Spring’ 1914, ‘My Garden in Summer’ 1914 and My Garden in Autumn and Winter’ 1915. They are informative and amusing. He was a plantsman rather than an artist. In response to the Gertrude Jekyll school of gardening he said that he objected to plants as ‘artistic furniture’ used like ‘ribbons or embroidery silk’. Gardeners from all over the country gravitated to Myddleton House and countless plants bear his name. Amongst my favourites are the lovely little snowdrop Galanthus plicatus ‘Augustus’, the perennial wallflower, Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ and the charming, very early, little Crocus chrysanthus ‘E.A. Bowles’ He was a confirmed bachelor and his custom of entertaining little boys in the garden at weekends seems rather alarming from today’s perspective. But still ‘autres temps, autres moeurs’.
A gardening mentor of Bowles was Canon Hestercombe who wrote a very influential book; ‘In a Gloucestershire Garden’ 1895 about his home at the Vicarage, Bitton, near Bristol. He had the easy life of a country parson and gained a reputation as an excellent plantsman. He was a great collector and botanist rather than an artist and his garden was full of rarities. He constantly exchanged plants with Kew and was very generous with his treasures. He had 10 children so apparently gardening wasn’t his only hobby.
Ellen Willmott was a friend and admirer of Canon Hestercombe. Her friendship with him lasted which was amazing as she had an endless capacity to offend and take offence. She only produced two books, one of photographs, and the other book ‘The genus Rosa’ which is ponderous and heavy going. But it is worth reading the biography about her by Audrey Le Lievre: ‘Miss Willmott of Warley Place: Her Life and Her Gardens’ 1980, if only to be amazed at the scale of her gardening. She was an heiress but managed to spend her vast fortune on gardening. As well as Warley Place, Essex, which was huge, she owned homes in France and Italy. She had 104 gardeners and her extravagance and obsession with plants were on a jaw-dropping scale.
I’ll finish with the wonderful Margery Fish from East Lambrook Manor in Somerset. Her book ’We Made a Garden’ 1956 is a classic. She gardened with her husband, the dreadful Walter, who was a tyrant and thought he knew better than her about all things horticultural, with his manicured lawn, neat rows of dahlias and manure fetish. Apparently he had a gardener who lavished love and care on his chrysanthemums, stroking their petals and neglecting the other plants in their favour. Walter taught him a lesson by cutting off their heads. When Walter died, Margery really came into her own as a gardener. All her books are the sort you go back to time and again. She was accused of creating ‘floral chaos’ but her style of ‘cram them in’ cottage gardening is one that appeals to me; an example of cottage gardening par excellence.