Flowers

Flowers

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Book review: First Ladies of Gardening

I wrote two books about gardens last year (the second one, Great Gardens of London, is published on 1 October), so - ungrateful and unbelievable as it may seem - I'm feeling a little bit jaded when it comes to looking at pictures of beautiful gardens. I'd rather look at my own garden for a bit, chaotic though it may be.
However, out of a sense of loyalty to my publishers, Frances Lincoln, and photographer Marianne Majerus, who worked with me on the London book, I agreed to review First Ladies of Gardening, by Heidi Howcroft, which is published on Thursday, 5 March.
The book arrived in the post, I ripped off the packaging and ... what followed was reminiscent of the scene in When Harry Met Sally, when Meg Ryan does her impression of a woman in the throes of ecstasy. Open the book at a random page: "OOOHHHH!" Turn to another chapter: "OOOHHH!"
This book is beautiful. It's so beautiful, it is almost edible, from the end-papers which show Himalayan blue poppies growing among aquilegias and cow parsley at Sleightholmedale Lodge in Yorkshire, to the glowing asters in the long herbaceous border at Waterperry, near Oxford.
Whenever an author produces a selection of gardens or gardeners, this choice is always the subject of debate. Why didn't he or she choose this person, or that person? Why include this garden and not that garden?
Publishing insiders will know that the reasons for this are many and various, and not always within the author's control. It could be that a particular garden is to be featured in an upcoming book, as yet unpublished, and the publishers don't want their books to seem too repetitive.
It could be that the author found some gardens or gardeners more inspiring to write about, for whatever reason. (For example, I like writing about gardens where I can really get under the skin of the owner or designer. In some very "grand" gardens, this is quite difficult.)
It could be that there were practical problems; the National Trust, for example, charges photographers by the hour to photograph their properties. If you are on a tight budget, and everybody in publishing is,  you don't tend to include many National Trust properties.
There doesn't seem much point, therefore, in quarrelling with the author's compilation - but if you were in the mood for a debate, then Heidi and Marianne have set out their reasoning in the Foreword to the book.
Essentially, what they have done is to trace the development of domestic garden design in Britain during the past 100 years, using the women who have done most to influence it as milestones. They concentrate specifically on women who have created their own gardens, whether they are amateurs, such as Gill Richardson and Sue Whittington, or professionals like Mary Keen and Beth Chatto.
Perhaps because all these gardens are personal conceptions, the results are very inspirational and surprisingly easy to translate into your own plot. Sue Whittington's garden in Highgate, north London, features a hornbeam hedge, clipped into arches, which masks a high blank wall. It's a great idea for anyone with a town garden surrounded by tall buildings to copy.
Gill Richardson's garden, Manor Farm in Lincolnshire, offers some mouthwatering vistas, but one of the most effective pieces of planting involves just two plants - Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldtau' and Gaura lindheimeri. The white flowers of the gaura seem to be suspended in thin air amid the golden stems of the deschampsia, or tufted hair grass.
Indeed, what strikes you as you leaf through the book ("OOOHH!! OOOHHH!") is how much we have loosened our gardening corsets when it comes to our planting styles.
I'd love to know what Beatrix Havergal's students at Waterperry (pictured on page 46 in their regulation uniforms of jackets, hats, collars and ties and tunics over breeches and woollen stockings) would say if they saw us gardening today in running gear, T-shirts and trackies.
It would be equally fascinating to know what they thought of the way that the traditional Arts and Crafts template for British gardens has been softened and smoothed out by the addition of wildflower meadows, grasses, and borders where plants are allowed to billow and sway.
I do have one criticism of this book, which is the omission of captions here and there. Each chapter opens with a one and a half page picture of that garden, but there's no caption as far as I can see - not on the opening spread nor on the next page. The end-papers, featuring the blue poppies, aren't captioned either. Where they have provided captions, Heidi and Marianne are very good at giving full details of the planting, so it would be nice to have one on every single image.
I know from experience that Marianne works incredibly hard on her shoots. You don't get to be an award-winning photographer by rocking up, taking a few snaps, and drifting off again. She has an ability to make a garden that already looks good look even more fabulous, which is a very special talent if you are including gardens that have been photographed hundreds of times before.
I don't mean that she Photoshops her pictures or uses any photographic trickery - she just seems to make the garden look even more ideal, if that doesn't sound too Platonic.
The White Garden at Sissinghurst, Rosemary Verey's Barnsley House, Mary Keen's garden, and Kiftsgate are all gardens I know well, and yet Marianne seems to be able to provide a new perspective; to make them jump out of the page at you.
If you want an overview of some of Britain's most influential women gardeners; if you want to look at gorgeous pictures of gardens; if you just want to sound like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, then First Ladies of Gardening might be just the book you need.