What are the best gardening books to buy this Christmas?

Paradise and Plenty

Paradise and Plenty - Credit: Archant

Great Gardens of London is just one of the books Ruth Pavey recommends for the gardener in your life this winter.

Here are my Christmas books of interest to gardeners, that is, to gardeners prepared to come indoors and sit down to a feast of pictures, ideas, history, but only a sprinkling of practical advice.

Not that practicality is absent, there is plenty to be inferred about planting combinations, design or good practice, but these are not how-to books. Nor are they pocket-sized. Most are handsomely illustrated and heavy.

The most magisterial, Mark Laird’s A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800 (Yale £45) is a joy, scholarly, discursive, readable, and beautiful to look at. Thanks to the focus on natural history it is well populated by birds, beasts, insects, reptiles and people as well as plants. But there are two other major characters … the weather, in all its capriciousness, and science, in its burgeoning capacity to order, measure and enlighten. And the contributions of women; The Duchess of Beaufort, Mrs. Delany and the Duchess of Portland, to broadening the understanding of plants, native and exotic, is a fascinating aspect of this complex, eye-opening narrative.

Not strictly gardening but blowing in on Mark Laird’s coat tails, Weatherland, by Alexandra Harris (Thames & Hudson, £24.95) is a book many gardeners will enjoy. With the subtitle, Writers and Artists under English Skies, this well written and illustrated work has several gardening entries, references to John Evelyn, Horace Walpole, Gilbert White, William Cowper. If this sounds as though Harris is treading the same ground as Laird, her timespan is much longer, from Roman Britain to 2013. To read of the horrible weather of the seventeenth century, with melancholia and hunger in its wake, is to realize that we have nothing to complain about.

Great Gardens of London (Frances Lincoln, £30) is full of life-enhancing photography by Marianne Majerus and Hugo Rittson Thomas, with the cheerful commentary of Victoria Summerley about thirty London gardens. These range from private roof terraces, allotments, barges and houses through to grand projects like the Chelsea Physic Garden, Hampton Court or the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park at Stratford. Muswell Hill is in there, with Susan Bennett and Earl Hyde’s widely loved garden at St. Regis Close looking its bright and characterful best.

The next two very different books have the word “paradise” in their titles. Paradise and Plenty by Mary Keen (Pimpernel Press £50) with beautiful photographs by Tom Hatton is about a garden that sounds completely extraordinary. The subtitle A Rothschild Family Garden hints at its singularity, but wealth alone would not account for the perfection of gardening practice, using Victorian methods, that Keen so warmly acclaims. In this four acre walled garden at Eythrope, near Waddesdon, everything, down to how the knots are tied, is done beautifully. Keen credits Sue Dickinson, the head gardener who took on the restoration of the garden 25 years ago, and her dedicated staff with the perfection of all the cherries, grapes, apricots, beans, brassicas, auriculas, pelargoniums, nerines, that flow out of the garden into the kitchens and drawing rooms, just as they would have before two World Wars and social change knocked the stuffing out of that practice elsewhere. Like the garden, this book is very well presented.

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Paradise Gardens, Spiritual Inspiration and Earthly Expression by Toby Musgrave (Frances Lincoln, £30) takes its readers on an illustrated tour of the world, over millennia.

From the cedars of the Epic of Gilgamesh to the red ceramic memorial poppies at the Tower of London, Musgrave traces our human inclination to invest plants and landscapes with spiritual significance. Whether illusory or not, this inclination has led to the creation of some very beautiful places, to which Musgrave is a thoughtful, stimulating guide.

Finally, Monet’s Trees, by Ralph Skea (Thames & Hudson, £12.95) is a delight, especially the image of the “Studio Boat” that allowed Monet to see riverine trees from the water. And the variety of designers’ hand drawing within Tim Richardson’s Landscape and Garden Design Sketchbooks (Thames & Hudson, £29.95) is enlivening. It doesn’t do to sound anti-computer, and Tim Richardson avoids it … but all the same, these hand drawings have an eloquence all their own.