Archive for the ‘Gardens and Gardening’ Category

I just keep reading one wonderful gardening book after the other.  A Gentle Plea for Chaos by Mirabel Osler is a thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining collection of pieces on various garden-related subjects and it made for the perfect bedtime reading.  I enjoyed it so much that I tried to stretch my reading of it out as long as I could, savouring it in little 10 or 20 page bursts.  Osler is delightfully opinionated and her writing is energetic, filled with far from gentle ruminations on her experiences in the garden.

Osler talks about her own garden (a sprawling, untidy, ever-changing place that sounds quite enchanting) but most of the focus is on the experience of gardening.  She considers the feelings it provokes, from bliss to guilt; the endless quest for inspiration; and some of the many ways in which people approach it.  As the title suggests, Osler favours whimsy rather than regimentation.  She has little sympathy for that kind of gardener:

The very soul of a garden is shrivelled by zealous regimentation.  Off with their heads go the ferns, lady’s mantles or cranesbill.  A mania for neatness, a lust for conformity – and away go atmosphere and sensuality.  What is left?  Earth between plants: the dread tedium of clumps of colour with earth in between.  So the garden is reduced to merely a place of plants.  Step – one, two.  Stop – one, two.  Look down (no need ever to look up, for there is no mystery ahead to draw you on), look down at each plant.  Individually each is sublime, undoubtedly.  For a plantsman this is heaven.  But where is lure?  And where, alas, is seduction and gooseflesh on the arms?

Osler seems to have a very set idea of what ‘real gardeners’ think and do and it is not necessarily a complimentary impression.  The beliefs of the ‘real gardener’ seem to be entirely contrary to Osler’s ones and, unsurprisingly, she is confident in her status as an enthusiastic amateur.  She really does not want to know what the ‘real gardeners’ think she should be doing.  She knows what she wants to do and by God that is what she is going to do!

Real gardeners will say with a glittering eye and a surfeit of energy on some golden October or sombre November day, ‘Isn’t this perfect for being out in the garden?’  Is it?  I haven’t the faintest idea what I should be doing out there.  I don’t want to know.  For myself I’m already facing the other way; my sights are fixed on everything splendid there is to be done that has nothing whatsoever to do with gardens.  The garden should be sighing and settling itself unaided into contented slumber.  It is the season of sleep, of torpor, or a lack of sap and fecundity.  It doesn’t need me, surely?

I think it was Osler’s reflections on the winter dreams of gardeners, coming right at the beginning of the book, that so firmly pulled me in:

I imagine up and down the country during these blessed months of short days and long nights, a whole self-seeding of gardeners, with backs unbent, having put aside their boots, trowels and twine, who can now have time to let their thoughts hang out: a time when everything is possible.  Who doesn’t make lists then?  Heady, wild and totally outrageous ideas can be brought into line, maybe only momentarily, before they are banished as unrealistic.  It is the season for minds sharp as blades – agile and springing from one extravagant thought to another.

I love that last phrase: “minds sharp as blades…springing from one extravagant thought to another.”  That is certainly what happened to me this winter and goodness knows that none of my impractical fantasies will ever see the light of day but they were fun to spin.

I loved how random yet consistently fascinating these pieces were.  One of the things I in my ignorance love most about gardening books is when an author calls on all sorts of reference materials that I can then eagerly note down for future reading.  Osler, I’m glad to say, peppers the book with the names of authors, famous gardeners, her favourite gardening books, and of course the Latin names of plants I have never heard of it.  I took copious notes and that made me very happy.  I will not lack for reading material next winter that is for certain!

This is emphatically not a book to guide you through what to do in the garden but a plea to do whatever it is you want, rules be damned. The results may be chaotic and you’ll make mistakes (Osler is very up-front about hers) but it will be something uniquely and beautifully yours.  Perfection is never the goal but enchantment and happiness certainly are.

Osler manages to be funny and sharp throughout the book but the writing retains a beautiful, almost lyrical quality that I adored.  She is so full of life and confidence and enthusiasm that I was completely enthralled.  It was quite perfect.   I cannot wait to read her other books (A Breath from Elsewhere and The Rain Tree).

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Happy Easter!  Whether you’re participating in religious celebrations today or, like me, just enjoying the long weekend, I hope you’re having a wonderful time.

This was going to be my lazy, do-absolutely-nothing weekend but Friday and Saturday ended up being surprisingly busy so I must attempt to cram all the laziness I can into today.  My only goals for the day are to watch “Wives and Daughters”, my favourite television miniseries and one I haven’t watched in far too long, to bake a cake, and to read.  It is going to be a good day.

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Almost as soon as I expressed an interest in gardening books, blog reader Margaret Powling recommended that I try The Laskett by Roy Strong.  Thank goodness she did as otherwise I would probably never have come across this wonderful chronicle of how Strong and his wife, designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, created The Laskett, “the largest formal garden created in Britain since the war.”  It has not only become one of my favourite gardening books – and probably the most inspirational of the ones I’ve read so far – but also one of my favourite books of 2012.

Part of what makes this book so incredibly fascinating are the plentiful photos included in it.  It is wonderful to actually see the garden progress over the years, from the bare fields that were there in the mid-1970s when Strong and his wife purchased a very ordinary early Victorian house set on four acres in Herefordshire, to the established, rather eccentric garden of the early 2000s.

Another huge part of the book’s appeal is the level of detail Strong happily goes into.  I loved how specific he was.  I need details (the more minute the better) and Strong provides them, getting into the particulars about cost and labour.  As a reader, it is very easy to win my affection: all you need do is disclose your finances to me.  Works every time.  As both Strong and his wife were devoted to a poorly paid field (the arts), The Laskett was created on a shoestring budget, with many cutting and plants donated from friends.  It was fascinating (but also a tad frustrating) to read how many trees could be purchased in the 1970s for less than £20 and equally intriguing to find out just how little cash there was to work with, Strong having received a paltry salary at the V&A (where he was the first director without a private income).  His portrait of 1970s, pre-Thatcher Britain is bleak and the creation of The Laskett, begun in the mid-1970s, was his escape from an ever-more worrying world that seemed on the brink of collapse:

I was fully conscious from the outset that The Laskett garden was a child of its time, the middle of the seventies.  When I talk to groups I am about to escort around the garden I always evoke those years on the backcloth to the making of The Laskett garden.  In front of me I often see nothing but a sea of bewildered faces, as though gardening was a world apart from reality.  I remind them how in January 1974 I went to the Victoria & Albert Museum and began my directorship in the midst of the three-day week, with the miners on strike and the imminent collapse of the Heath government.  My secretary and I sat and worked by candlelight, for government had decreed that the lights be turned off.  This was the prelude to over five years of social turmoil until, after the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1979, a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher came to power.  Even then it was not until the middle of the eighties that anything remotely resembling stability and economic prosperity returned.

Strong writes so engagingly about the creation of the garden, sharing all number of personal stories about his inspiration and adventures while making it, that you can’t help but warm to him.  I did finish the book a tad envious of his diverse circle of friends, many of whom are paid tribute to in the garden.  He and Julia had such an amazing group of gardening-inclined friends and acquaintances to draw inspiration from.  I started taking down names as I read, eager to learn more about these people if I could.  Some are well-known (Cecil Beaton and Rosemary Verey, for instance) while others sounded vaguely normal but terribly fascinating (like George Clive), the kind of people who no doubt gain mentions in all sorts of books written by their friends but who will never be the focus of one themselves.  The best thing about reading memoirs (which is essentially what this is) by interesting people is how many other interesting people they know and are able to ‘introduce’ you to.

I think Strong may have also inspired a passion in me for formal garden design, which, given the spaces I’m likely to have available in my city-dwelling lifetime, is inconvenient.  Where am I going to have the chance to indulge a passion for topiary, or even the chance to create garden ‘rooms’?  His passion for structure, for trees and hedges creating walls and canopies, was intoxicating: 

Hedges to most people are a burden.  To me they are a joy.  If I had to simplify The Laskett garden I would indeed sweep away everything and leave just the hedges and topiary.  They endow the garden with its romance and mystery, evidence too that garden is as much about placing human beings in space as are architecture and theatre design.  It is not for nothing that I sometimes like to shock an audience by saying to them, ‘Remember, flowers are a sign of failure in a garden,’ a remark that is always guaranteed to produce a reaction. 

Who needs flowers indeed!  Me, I would have said before I read this, but Strong has converted me (except for my beloved blubs – I could never give those up). 

I think what I loved most about The Laskett is how individual it is.  Strong was inspired by others but this is identifiably his garden, telling his and Julia’s story.  It may not gain the approval of professional garden designers, may not follow the ‘rules’ gardeners are supposed to abide by, but it is wonderfully them, from the garish paint choices to the unexpected (and abundant) statues.  It chronicles episodes in Strong’s life, pays tribute to friends and family, and celebrates both his and Julia’s professional achievements.  There’s a Shakespeare Monument, erected after Strong won the Shakespeare Prize from the FVS Foundation of Hamburg, the V&A Museum Temple (Strong spent 14 years there as director), the Nutcracker Garden (one of the ballets Julia designed for) and the Elizabeth Tudor Avenue (named in memory of a book Strong wrote about her, the proceeds from which helped finance the planting).  The garden is truly Strong’s masterpiece:

The Laskett garden was never to me anything other than a work of art in the making, one that called for vision, the exercise of the eye, the application of taste, discipline, patience, craft and knowledge over a sustained period of time to conjure up an unforgettable experience through the time-honoured application of art to nature.  It was always viewed with that higher vision in mind, one of a kind I learnt about through studying garden history.  There I read that any great garden was not only an arrangement of plants and artifacts in terms of design and composition but also a tissue of allusions and ideas.  In our case to wander in The Laskett garden was a journey of associations.  On a superficial level the garden sets out to delight and surprise but, on a deeper one, for us the resonances have always been far more complex.

It took decades to develop the garden to the impressive state it was in when the book was published in 2003, restricted by time and money, but the garden is truly a reflection of the gardener, of Strong’s personality and influences.  Every garden should be this unique, should have its own identity, complete with a memory and sense of humour.  It is an art, garden designing, and really does offer you the scope for wit and whimsy, drama and tribute.  But few, I think, recognize that and are truly able to make as much of their gardens as Strong.

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Hollyhocks by Frederick C. Frieseke

I blame these fantasies on those isolated moments when, undemanded, garden ideas germinate.  I see I should have kept my head, but a part of gardening must surely have come from losing it?  Without being led astray from the known and tried, how would Charles Bridgeman have conceived the idea for the first ha-ha in 1712?  Vita Sackville-West contrived a clematis ‘table’ so that she could gaze lovingly into the upturned faces of the flowers; and wasn’t it Gertrude Jekyll who first thought of growing ramblers horizontally as ground cover?  Lady Anne Tree has a dressing table of yew, a four-poster bed made of clipped box with a vine canopy, a bedside table of ivies and an armchair of briar roses.  As for outlandish garden eccentricities, they burgeoned from the dotty nineteenth-century Frenchman Audot, who made whimsical fantasies from sculptured trees, and his batty compatriot the conductor Louis Antoine Jullien, who cut his evergreens in such a way that a howling gale played the opening bars of a Beethoven symphony, to the giant shell in which to bask at Strawberry Hill, and the invention of glass cucumber straighteners.  Thank God there’s no limit to fanciful garden deviants. 

– A Gentle Plea for Chaos by Mirabel Osler

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I first heard of Dear Friend and Gardener by Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd in that brief period between discovering that book blogs existed (in about November 2009) and starting my own (in January 2010), when I was content to simply lurk about reading other people’s blogs without commenting (hello to everyone doing that now!).  It was while sifting through Simon T’s archives that I came across his brief and intriguing review of this gardening-focused volume of correspondence.  Now, at the time, I wasn’t terribly interested in gardening but I have always loved a book of letters, so onto my TBR list it went.  Since then, I’ve developed a keen interest in gardening and garden literature so I when I picked it up from the library a few weeks ago I was more eager than ever to read it.

The book and the correspondence came about because of a suggestion from the publisher in the mid-nineties.  Clearly, it was one both Chatto and Lloyd found appealing and the results is this collection of letters between the gardeners over the period of two years.  This is not a private correspondence being shared with the masses but a correspondence written with the audience somewhat in mind – that ‘somewhat’ holding the delightful key to this book’s appeal.  Chatto and Lloyd are definitely conscious that their thoughts are going to be shared with the garden-loving public (there are lots of little explanatory notes that neither expert gardener could possibly need) but that does not keep them from talking about other aspects of their lives.  Each letter is garden-focused, of course, but is just as likely to touch on family and friends, visits from shared acquaintances, summer trips to Glyndebourne, childhood memories, or favourite recipes.  The letters are a rich source of gardening knowledge but they are also, much more charmingly, a reflection of a long-standing and affectionate friendship between Chatto and Lloyd.

As much as I’ve learned about plants and gardening over the past few years, most of the specifics Chatto and Lloyd discuss went well over my head.  My knowledge of Latin plant names is almost nonexistent and I could not keep up with all of the name dropping.  This is something Chatto would no doubt disapprove of, based on her comment to Lloyd that: “If you are unfamiliar with a plant, you can easily look, but your mind will not take it in.  Knowing it especially by name, is like recognizing an old friend.”  Her comment makes perfect sense – I know I’m always more conscious of the plants I come across that I know, while the unknown all fade into the background – but I’ve a ways to go before I’m up to standard!  I was especially delighted to read both Lloyd and Chatto’s comments about young gardeners.  Lloyd in particular seems to be surrounded by young people.  I got the impression of Great Dixter as a sort of multigenerational gathering place, more often than not brimming over with fascinating young people, who spent their visits helping out in the garden, overnighting on the floor in sleeping bags, and eating the amazing meals prepared by Lloyd.  Like any experts in their field, both Chatto and Lloyd are delighted when they come across enthusiastic young hopefuls and a tad grouchy when they find ignorant, passionless students:

I am sometimes saddened (more truthfully irritated) when meeting young horticultural students in the garden, who all too rarely exhibit a real hunger for the subject.  Perhaps I malign them, maybe they are too shy to express it.  They all seem to be studying landscape design; yet when I ask a few elementary questions I find they are astonishingly ignorant about plants.  What motivates them I wonder?  Surely some passion (a lot, I would say) is required to fuel the energies, mental and physical, to pursue a career in horticulture?  Many students seem to have chosen this career without ever having put together a few plants and then watched their performance for a few weeks, or months, let alone two or three season.  (Chatto to Lloyd)

While the plant names may have been mostly beyond me, I did get a wonderful education in what it means to run gardens on the scale of Great Dixter and the Beth Chatto Gardens.  All the people, all the tasks, all the energy that goes into them through the year made for fascinating reading.  As all the different activities were described, I found myself fidgeting as I read, inspired by both Chatto and Lloyd’s example to get out and weed or prune or plant.  I also loved reading about their approaches to garden design.  I was particularly struck by Chatto’s thoughts on the importance of other artistic influences on the design process, something that came through very strongly in The Laskett by Roy Strong (an outstanding book I hope to review soon), which I read only a couple of weeks before this:

Personally I think we may have a wider approach to garden design if we have been helped to appreciate other forms of art; to be aware of basic principles – balance, repetition, harmony and simplicity – which apply to all forms of creativity.  To look for ideas in painting and architecture, or hear them in music, has certainly influenced me as much as knowing whether to put a plant in the shade, or in full sun.

The book is definitely geared to a gardening audience but I think the warmth of their friendship, the affectionate, considerate way they deal with one another, should appeal to any reader.  It is a pleasure to read about people who love what they do, however incomprehensible that occupation may be to the reader, and the strength of Chatto and Lloyd’s passion for their work is gratifying.  I think this is a book I’ll need to reread several times in the years to come.  This time through, I was so distracted at points by my ignorance that I’m sure I didn’t get to enjoy the charms of both Chatto and Lloyd as well as I could have.  As my gardening knowledge grows (and my confusion over plant names lessens), I’m sure I’ll find it even more appealing.

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I think Bulb by Anna Pavord is my new favourite ‘picture’ book.  The photos in it are absolutely stunning, so much so that I’ve barely read any of the text yet.  I keep opening the book intending to read all about hyacinths or tulips or any of the other bulbs discussed but find myself flipping forward to the next sections, just reading bits and pieces as I go about whatever flowers catch my eye.  It’s is not an exhaustive guide (covering only 540 of Pavord’s favourite bulbs) but it offers a nice combination of the familiar and the obscure with lots of practical information about planting.  I’m finding the section on tulips particularly inspiring – I’m already keeping a list of which ones I want to get in the autumn!

I took a few photos of my favourite pages to share with you all.  If you click on the photo, you should be able to see a larger version of it.

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Signs of Spring

Snowdrops and crocuses are popping up everywhere, the first cheerful daffodils have come out and a few brave rhododendrons are bursting open.   How I love February in Vancouver!  (Apologies to the rest of Canada, which still has a few cold, grey months of winter to look forward to.)

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