The best books for gardeners in 2016
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Ruth Pavey rounds up the most beautiful or useful books to give a gardening enthusiast this Christmas.
... without warning I find myself encountering an effusion of ladies in my garden. It seems to be open for the National Gardens Scheme, and visitors are streaming down steps that are not normally there, intent upon seeing everything. The garden is bigger than in waking life, but no better kept. I try to play along, but know that the game will soon be up...
I already admired people who show their gardens to the public, but that dream, arriving one night between reading these books, has increased my respect. Come rain, come shine, they work like mad, share their gardens, then enjoy or endure the company of whoever happens along. Many of the Londoners among them appear in The London Garden Book A-Z (Abigail Willis, £16.99, Metro Publications) a cheering well-illustrated guide covering all sorts of London gardens and gardeners.
The book had the launch of its second edition in the lantern-lit surroundings of the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, an enchanted glade/community space that stays open late and offers mulled drinks and hot water bottles at this time of year. It is but one of the many places you will want to visit, once you have this guide to hand.
Chris Baines’s Companion to Wildlife Gardening (£25, Frances Lincoln) and Ian Hodgson’s New Wild Garden (£25, Frances Lincoln) give advice on related subjects. Chris Baines, the environmentalist long in favour of gardeners being in partnership with wildlife, rather than at war with it, published How to Make a Wildlife Garden in 1985. Now revised and updated, the current book is thorough, lively and informative, but also an engagingly personal account of Baines’s own practice, in a not very big garden in the not very wild Midlands.
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Even just looking at the (abundant) pictures, you can see a difference in the approaches taken to “wild” gardening by Chris Baines and Ian Hodgson (former editor of The Garden magazine). In Baines’s book, nearly every page shows creatures, from stag beetles to otters, with meadows, ponds, woodland gardens in between, but in Hodgson’s New Wild Garden, natural-style planting and practicalities, plants are the undisputed stars. Whether they are golden rod and rudbeckia naturalized among grasses, marsh marigold and iris in a bog, field poppy and cornflower making a potted mini-meadow on a balcony, Hodgson’s focus is on how to provide them with their suitable conditions. “Remove perennial weeds” is his most succinct instruction.
Emma, Duchess of Rutland, during a radio interview about her book Capability Brown and Belvoir (written with Jane Pruden, McCann Associates, £35) made the bracing remark that when difficulties arose over finding a publisher, she thought ‘Stuff it, I’ll publish it myself’. The resulting book is big and beautiful, with marbled endpapers and lavish illustrations. A professional editor might have been stricter, fewer hunting hounds perhaps, but the hounds only add to the sense of vigour and fun about her whole great undertaking, to bring to fruition forgotten plans for the grounds of Belvoir Castle. Capability Brown died shortly after drawing them up. The book makes you long to see the outcome.
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Shakespeare’s Gardens (Jackie Bennett, £25, Frances Lincoln) is an exploration of what may have been, and how Shakespeare became so knowledgeable about plants. The gardens that visitors can now enjoy, around Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Hall’s Croft, Mary Arden’s Farm, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage all look wonderful, whether or not he would have recognized them.
Speaking of being knowledgeable about plants, Susan K. Pell has compiled A Botanist’s Vocabulary (£17.99, Timber Press) with numerous clear drawings by Bobbi Angell. Admirable and well produced as it is, the target audience is unclear. Does the reader who needs to look up what evergreen means also need to know about obdiplostemonous?
Wittily written and wide-ranging, Travis Elborough’s A Walk in the Park, the life and times of a people’s institution (£18.99, Jonathan Cape) restores this review to the realm of dreams. Starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh, Elborough veers into an hallucinatory visit to Le Petit Trianon and Marie-Antoinette, before returning to England via Charles II’s fantasy of a Le Notre garden of his own. It takes more than a century’s worth of royal, aristocratic and then commercial pleasure gardens to arrive at the Victorian era, with its bold, imaginative creation of public parks. Idealistic and moralistic from the outset, these parks face a very uncertain future. This book underlines how precious, and vulnerable, they are.