A good read…

Nights drawn fully-in, blowing a gale outside, Christmas lights a-twinkling… time perhaps for reading about gardens as much as working in them?

Well, apparently – and at odds with what I asserted in a post a few days ago – gardening books are both boring (or have become so), and declining in sales. There are certainly a lot of uninspired and uninspiring books out there – usually cluttering up garden centres and discount bookshops. Which prompts me to mention garden centres – briefly, I promise. At this time of year they are impossible places to contend with, even the smaller ones which are generally alright. I visited a local centre last week to buy a couple of bits and pieces – actually, some mycorrhizal fungus to apply to bare-root plants – and had to walk past miles and miles of festive (sic) tat before I got near anything related to actual horticulture. I understand that garden centres have to make best use of their space, and not many people are buying plants, garden tools (or mycorrhizal fungus) at this time of year – but there is only so many baubles, so much pot-pourri a man can take…

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, garden books. Important, I think, to distinguish between garden books and gardening books. Let me explain my thinking… To my mind, garden books are about gardens, or gardeners, or plants, or gardening – but the pleasure is in the words and (often) the pictures. Whereas gardening books are practically-oriented, how-to guides, books to tell you what to do, when, how and where. It is a difficult distinction to maintain – there are too many exceptions – but one to keep in mind.

So which garden and/or gardening books have I enjoyed this year?

Readers of this blog (poor souls) will already know of my enjoyment of Monty Don’s The Road to Le Tholonet, which managed both to inspire and move me. It also prompted me to read Susan Cahill’s Hidden Gardens of Paris (2012), a guide to and through ‘the parks, squares and woodlands of the City of Light’. I’ve not had chance to use it as a guidebook yet, but it certainly excited me about a new dimension to a city I know and love.

On my bedside bookcase, alongside my collection of Polar literature, I like to keep ‘dipping’ books, especially those which are arranged according to the cycle of the year. Ronald Blythe’s collections of his Wormingford columns from the Church Times are, whilst not about gardens, always good. But I also have some gardening versions – Monty Don’s My Roots (2006) being one, and whileI have not yet got round to Anna Pavord’s The Curious Gardener (2011), I do have her earlier collection of Independent newspaper columns, Anna Pavord’s Gardening Companion (1992).  

Another pleasure, although I only picked it up a few days ago, has been Hugo Johnson in the Garden (2009)- a collection of his columns from the RHS magazine The Garden. Full of sensible observations and good humour this will be joining the bedside shelf for a good while. As will Robin Lane Fox’s Thoughtful Gardening (2012) which I found languishing in a discount bookshop among the celebrity autobiographies  for £2.99: a bargain.

Those are all, according to my classification, garden books. As regards gardening books, I’ve enjoyed Mark Diacono and Lia Leendertz’s The Speedy Vegetable Garden (2013), which encourages the growing of quick crops such as sprouted seeds, microgreens and mini-veg. Good for impatient GYO-ers, and – most impatient of all sometimes – children.

The RHS continues to publish a stream of encyclopaedic volumes in association with Dorling Kindersley. One such is the What Plant Where Encyclopedia (2013), which will never be read from cover to cover, but will doubtless be pulled from the shelf behind my desk whenever I am asked to put together planting schemes. It illustrates and describes ‘over 3000’ plants (I haven’t counted them), categorised by growing environment. It has been done before, but perhaps not so comprehensively.

I finally caught up with Cleve West’s Our Plot (2011) this autumn, and have found his combination of practical advice with the story of everyday life at his allotment truly encouraging. He stresses the communal aspects of allotment gardening, and the way in which the people alongside whom we garden are so important. This is a good example of a ‘hybrid’ – part handbook, full of tips and guidance; part essay, character study and narrative. It’s definitely restored my motivation to manage our allotment in the coming season.

In a category of its own, and a birthday present from my children, is Harrap’s Wild Flowers (2013), which has received rave reviews in the wildlife press. It is simply the best-illustrated, most up-to-date and practical guide to Britain’s native flora currently available: and, as we all know, that ‘native flora’ has a habit (sometimes welcome, sometimes not) of finding its way into any garden. 

Speaking of weeds (did I say that?) I have to mention Ken Thompson’s brilliant No Nettles Required (2007) about which I have written before – but a great read for any wildlife gardener, established or budding.

Lastly, I have to mention magazines, of which there are always plenty. One resolution for 2014 is to buy fewer, as one month’s advice is largely the same as last year’s version, and a lot of the ‘news’ is simply publicity and repeated across all those who received the press release. Out, I think, will go The English Garden (too much of a lifestyle magazine these days – though good if you have five grand to spend on a shepherd’s hut, or want to commission a wrought iron replica of the Great Wall of China), and perhaps Gardener’s World (rather tired and repetitive). But I’ll keep Gardens Illustrated, because it is still – in its uncritical way – a good way to see and read about good gardens, and has some good writing.The Garden will continue to come along as part of my RHS membership – and does contain at least one or two good, in-depth articles each month.

How, I wonder reading back through this, do I ever find time to do any actual gardening?

Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year to you all.

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