Reading the Garden

Those who can’t garden, read.

On grey winter days, nothing beats sitting by a fire and reading garden books. For the last few days, I’ve been devouring Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. This 2016 publication by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher was top of my Christmas wish list; I’m only partway through but I’m enjoying every page. The book lays out sensible ways to garden ecologically, and, as it turns out, I was already applying its principles of natural evolution to guide the transformation of  the Big Lawn into the Big Meadow. It’s nice to know that what made sense to me is supported by research and years of practical experience.




John Dixon Hunt is a landscape historian, the author of many books that provide insights into garden history and how that past influences present-day gardens. A few years ago I received the six volume Cultural History of Gardens which he edited along with Michael Leslie and I have slowly read my way up to Volume 6, Modern Gardens. I’ve benefited from many of his other books, most notably Nature Over Again about Little Sparta and Gardens and Groves about the impact of Italian gardens on those in EnglandThis year’s gift was Hunt’s most recent collection of essays, titled Site, Sight, Insight. Considering that the title of my website is Site and Insight, is it any wonder that I enjoyed this book? His scholarship is impressive and his analyses of complex ideas are clearly expressed. I gobbled up this book and will return to it many times.




Next on the stack of Christmas presents is a book published originally in 1958, one that looks to be a good, solid read. Garden Design by Dame Sylvia Crowe examines various principles of design, using as examples such famous gardens as the Alhambra in Spain, Villa Lante in Italy, Vaux-le-Vicomte in France and Stowe in England, all of which I have visited. The author then moves on to works of Roberto Burle Marx, Lawrence Halprin and Sven Hermelin which are less familiar to me. I asked for this book and am confident that I will learn a lot from Dame Sylvia’s comments. How could I fail to? Amazon calls it ‘compulsive reading’ and compulsive is a trait I identify with quite readily.




As well as new books, I’m dipping back into some old favourites. Top of the favourites list is Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England by Tom Wessels. This is a ‘must read’ for anyone who wants to understand the evolution of forests in the northeastern part of North America. The book is eminently readable and packed with so much information that it repays multiple looks.




Also on the favourites list is Roses, A Celebration by Wayne Winterrowd. This book contains essays by 33 eminent gardeners, each writing about his or her favourite rose. Rosarian Peter Beales chooses the “temperamental, once-flowering, wet-weather hating, but stunningly beautiful” ‘Maiden’s Blush’, a rose he fell in love with as a child. Jamaica Kincaid picks ‘Alchymist,’ a rose that entered her gardening life when she was at the “most feeble and ignorant stage.” Christopher Lloyd, having ripped out his parents’ rose garden at Great Dixter, still manages to write favourably of the single apricot-coloured ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’ that came from Vita Sackville-West. Ken Druse, Dan Hinkley, Fergus Garrett,  Graham Stuart Thomas and, of course, David Austin: all share their favourites. What makes the book so special, though, are the extraordinary watercolours illustrating each essay. These are by the very talented Pamela Stagg, winner of the Royal Horticultural Society Gold Medal, the world’s top prize for botanical paintings. Each portrait is so luscious that I stop and sniff. With only a bit of imagination, I can smell each one.





Along with these books, I’m reading my own garden journals. In the late 1990s I started taking notes about plans for the garden and I’ve been keeping the journals ever since. Over the years I’ve written regularly, noting when the lake freezes and thaws, listing plants I order, marking the date when they bloom, tracing progress on projects underway and sketching ideas for new ones. Reading early entries reminds of things I’ve almost forgotten: the summer we spent sorting out drainage problems with The Aqueduct, the misguided planting I attempted, called TheFold in the Field. More fun was reading and remembering the 99 hours I spent with my friend John Hay, cutting and glueing pieces of glass to make a mosaic map of the garden. (Yes, the total is accurate: I added up the hours as we went along.) mosaic-map-1200x740

The garden journals remind me of how much I’ve learned and reading them now is like re-living almost twenty years of head-aches and triumphs.  The form and detail of a sculpture like Webster’s Column seem obvious now, but the journals remind me that I considered many options along the way. And that, in turn, reminds me that the obvious is obvious only in retrospect.

What garden books are you reading? Are they old friends or new acquaintances?