Gardeners, and their surprisingly modern colleagues – garden designers, are also great writers and communicators. More so than those of many other fields of human endeavour. There seems to be a strong urge to share and broadcast ideas, knowledge and opinions. Gardening is after all a surprisingly social business. The plantsman always seeks the new, and this is usually gained through some interaction with others: the garden visit, the club meeting, or a nursery fair. Transmitting ideas through print (or its modern digital equivalent) is the next most obvious thing.
The Gardener’s Book of Colour by Andrew Lawson
Introduced by Noel Kingsbury (Francis Lincoln, 1996)
Many gardeners accumulate as many books as they do plant species. Now that we are moving house, I face the problem of culling an extensive library that has not had a serious edit since we came to this part of Herefordshire twelve years ago. It is an interesting exercise, sometimes difficult, sometimes painful, but strangely cathartic. And it makes me ponder on the relationship between books, gardening and gardeners.
I am sure gardeners write more, read more, and accumulate more books than other hobbyists or semi-professional activities. Whereas most beekeepers, dog-breeders, potters and embroiderers probably have a good shelf or two, I don’t think they have the multiple-shelf-verging-onto-libraries that many gardeners have. Why is this?
Partly I suppose it’s because modern gardening has a great deal to do with information. Whereas the traditional core of gardening is a craft set of skills and intuitive abilities, the kind of gardening we indulge in (if hobbyists) or profess (if well … professionals) is both an art and a science. The former implies constant change and the expression of different and often rival ideas, and the latter the access to hard data. We want to know what Dan Pearson thinks of Veronicastrum virginicum as well as what conditions the Veronicastrum likes to grow in (we do not however have so great an interest in what conditions Dan Pearson likes to live in – there is no ‘Hello’ magazine of the garden world and I am not sure there is even a functioning gossip column anywhere).
Gardening and garden design are lucky in that they do seem to attract people who actually like writing and do it well. Communicating ideas in print does seem to be a real expectation at a particular point in someone’s career. The result is an awful lot of books. The garden book has become a genre in itself, and one that has benefited enormously from all the technological advances in printing technology and colour photography of the last few decades.
Inevitably the books accumulate which raises the question – when you are getting ready to move, as we are. What do you keep? and what do you give away or sell second-hand? Books are heavy, gardening books particularly so, because of all that china clay smeared over the paper to create a nice photo-friendly gloss. You don’t want to be carting too many of them up and down stairs, into and out of vans, etc. Starting with reference books, I find I’m hardly getting rid of any. The internet has of course become the first point-of-reference but it has huge limitations. Put in a plant name and very often it is nursery sites which come up; it can be very difficult to find more dispassionate sources, or which tell you anything else about the plant. Websites often just give bald data: height, flowering time, hardiness zone etc., but none of the subjectivity and opinion that gives the text in a book real character, and which is often far more useful in making decisions about whether to grow something or not. Nothing online comes anywhere near the dry wit of Henk Gerritssen in Dream Plants for the Natural Garden or the measured aristocratic snootiness of Graham Stuart Thomas in Perennial Garden Plants, Or, The Modern Florilegium: A Concise Account of Herbaceous Plants, Including Bulbs, for General Garden Use. Such a wonderfully 18th century title.
Books about gardens or by designers are a different matter. So many are inevitably in the much sneered-at ‘coffee table’ category. Publishers also have a high turnover, so the same book concept basically gets published every few years, with different authors and photographers. I shall never forget a commissioning editor saying to me “we haven’t done a small gardens book for five years, its time we did another one”, implication of “it’s your turn”. The advances in colour repro also mean that what may have looked stunning ten years ago, now looks dated and fuzzy. A lot of writing about design is fuzzy too; there is little real hard analysis of why some designs work and others don’t. Designers writing about their own work is often a disaster, they lack the perspective to ‘stand outside their own work’, to explain how it functions, let alone to look at it critically. As you may have guessed, an awful lot of these end up on the ‘go to second hand’ pile.
Old magazines are going out too. There is always the Lindley Library in London to go through anyway. And increasingly, contents are available online, as with The Hardy Plant Society Journal.
How often do I refer back to the carefully ordered copies of ‘The Garden‘ that took up nearly two metres on my shelves? Almost never. Out they go. Hortus? Collective noun for a pile of Hortuses; the classicist might suggest ‘Horti’, I would suggest a ‘smug’ – some very good writing in it, and far too nice to put out in the recycling, but always so oddly unchallenging and unquestioning – ‘gardens of a golden afternoon’ type complacency. So they are on ebay, unless someone wants to come and pick them up. Any offers?
In going through books I am reminded of some real gems, classics that stand out and in many cases, deserve to be better known: Andrew Lawson‘s The Gardener’s Book Of Colour, The Inward Garden by Julie Moir Messervy (a psychological approach to garden design, quite unique) Plant-Driven Design by Lauren Springer and Scott Ogden. The common thread being a unique approach, a singular vision, stepping outside the box. When so much in garden publishing is so samey, such individuality is all the more important.
Noel Kingsbury is a garden writer and researcher, lecturer and teacher, currently based in the near Hay-on-Wye. Follow his blog here.