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Book Review: ‘Lessons from Great Gardeners’

Anne Latreille

Anne Latreille

September 3, 2015

Lessons from Great Gardeners‘ is an inviting book. First, in terms of content. Forty ‘gardening icons’ – gardeners, garden designers and/or garden owners – are profiled, many with emphasis on one garden to which each has devoted a significant part of his or her life. You absorb their practical skills in terms of knowledge and experience. You respond to their creative ideas and their passion for gardens. You learn from them.

Lessons from Great Gardeners coverSecond, in size and format. It’s small, thus not too heavy to hold, and so clearly laid out that you immediately know it will be easy to read (these days, this is important).

The chosen icons hail from past and present. They’re arranged chronologically, beginning with Somai, who is thought to have practised in the late 1400s and early 1500s in Japan, and finishing with an American, Dan Hinkley, who explored for plants around the world before creating (and occupying) two fine gardens in the state of Washington from 1987 onwards (not Washington DC as first indicated). He is the youngest to be covered, having been born in 1953.

Lessons from Great Gardeners - sample page on Jeremy Francis. Reproduced from 'Lessons From Great Gardeners', with permission.

Sample page on Jeremy Francis. Reproduced from ‘Lessons From Great Gardeners’, with permission.

Somai and Hinkley bookend a long line of famed experts and of much lesser-known identities. The experts range from André Le Nôtre (from France) to William Robinson (England), Beatrix Farrand (United States), Roberto Burle Marx (Brazil) and Piet Oudolf (Netherlands). The lesser-known … well, I have never heard of many of them! All 40 are very different people from different places, but with common threads. A love of plants, or a passion for gardening, or a deep-seated desire to perfect the art of the garden. Or all three!

The love of plants is deep and meaningful.

For some, such as James Veitch (1915-1869) this dates from early childhood in England; for others – like Margery Fish (1892-1969) who began her English garden in her late 40s – it’s a sudden awakening that takes over their life. Railway and real estate magnate Henry E Huntington (1850-1927) develops an (ongoing) 48-hectare garden in California and an enormous appreciation for cacti and succulents; Princess Greta Sturdza (1915-2009) grows between 8000 and 10,000 magnolias, cherries, rhododendrons, roses and clematis in France, and Rae Selling Berry (1880-1976) acquires 61 species of primulas, the largest collection in North America.

The passion for gardening reflects in varying ways.

Several ‘icons’ learn how to work with difficult soil and challenging climates. Sir Frederick Stern (1884-1967) makes a garden on ‘almost solid chalk’, while Beth Chatto (1923 … ) designs and maintains her famous England garden with some 50cm of rainfall per year, in soil that’s both waterlogged and a mix of dry sand and gravel. Some revel in fine soil – at Jeremy Francis’ ‘Cloudehill’ garden in Australia (1951 …) it is unusually deep, fertile and volcanic.

Lessons from Great Gardeners - Cloudehill

‘Cloudehill’ designed by Jeremy Francis. Reproduced from ‘Lessons from Great Gardeners’ with permission

Some are very practical; Rae Selling Berry extracts weeds without fail each summer afternoon, Greta Sturdza doesn’t have a tree or shrub in her garden that hasn’t been transparently pruned, while Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959) advises ‘never be without your secateurs’. Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006) says ‘never be in (any) garden without a weatherproof notebook to record your observations’.

Some share skills and knowledge with fellow gardeners and students, either through writing books (especially Philip Miller 1691-1771, William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll 1843-1932, Christopher Lloyd), or through teaching and demonstrating (Penelope Hobhouse 1929 …. for whom this is one of many skills).

Terrace above the Orangerie at Versailles, designed by André Le Nôtre

Terrace above the Orangerie at Versailles, designed by André Le Nôtre. Reproduced from ‘Lessons from Great Gardeners’ with permission.

The information and advice in Lessons from Great Gardeners is always useful, often interesting or stimulating. But for me it’s the book’s emphasis on perfecting the art of the garden that shines out.

William Robinson (1838-1935), ‘a pugnacious paradox’, does away with the formal planting and arrangement for which André Le Nôtre (1613-1700) achieved a fine reputation, and focuses on a democratic style of wild garden, free of discipline and control.

Claude Monet's garden at Giverny

Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny. Reproduced from ‘Lessons from Great Gardeners’ with permission

Claude Monet (1840-1926) ‘paints the earth with flowers’, Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) ‘paints the (garden) rooms with plants’, and Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994) – ‘the real creator of the modern garden’ – uses principles of abstract art to create landscapes and gardens that look almost like paintings.

Bev McConnell (1931 ….) says that in her famed New Zealand garden Ayrlies she needs to ‘think like a painter, walk the garden all the time and watch the light’. Piet Oudolf (1944 ….), practising in Europe and America, views nature as inspiration, values plants for their form as well as flowers, sees ‘the beauty of decay’ (he doesn’t crop plants in winter but lets them die back in shades of grey, bronze and parchment), and describes his own garden as ‘a place of experimentation and change’.

Knot garden with Forget-me-nots and Parrot tulips. Design Piet Oudolf. Reproduced from 'Lessons from Great Gardeners' with permission

Knot garden with Forget-me-nots and Parrot tulips. Design Piet Oudolf. Reproduced from ‘Lessons from Great Gardeners’ with permission

I note that half the 40 ‘icons’ are based in Great Britain, with regular mention of that country’s important and long-running Royal Horticultural Society; ideally I would have liked a broader perspective. But this is not to criticise Matthew Biggs’ research, the way he explains the development of gardens and gardening, and the food for thought (and activity) that is provided in the book. Even as gardening space around the world is diminishing, especially in cities, the relevance and potential inspiration of gardens remains strong. You can always learn! As Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) wrote more than two centuries ago:

‘Though an old man, I am but a young gardener’

[Lessons from Great Gardeners by Matthew Biggs: Hardback, 224 pages, full colour, 227mmx170mm, ISBN 978-1-921966-92-7. Available from September 1, 2015, from Exisle Publishing and wherever good books are sold. RRP $34.99]

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8 years ago

I’m sold! It sounds like another to add to my very long wish list of books (it’s almost as long as my wish list of gardens to visit). Thanks for a great review, Anne.

Anne Latreille
Anne Latreille
8 years ago

And thanks for feedback, sorry to take a while to reply! Yes, there is plenty to learn from it.