‘Celebrate the Seasons: garden memoirs from New England‘ written by Liz Chappell and photographed by Kim Woods Rabbidge is a delight, with lessons for all climate types. Here is a resilient Australian gardener who will charm and gently educate you. And make you realise (in the nicest possible way) that those tough challenges you face in your garden are pretty easy really.★★★★½
As someone who owns lots of gardening books and writes many ‘how to garden’ type stories, I find that a garden book written from a personal viewpoint is more interesting to me. People’s relationships are endlessly fascinating, and that includes their relationships with the people who garden alongside them, the families and animals with whom they share their garden, and the garden itself, which inevitably takes on its own personality.
I also have lots of garden books that are great to dip into, when I just want to find something out or refresh my knowledge. But I do like a garden book to read and a gardener who can tell a good story. A book that you can curl up with on the couch for an hour or more at a time, or read propped up in bed on a lazy weekend morning. (Yes, I made that last one up as it doesn’t happen.)
That said, it’s also important to balance the upbeat with the difficulties. A long story bemoaning the constant plagues and occasional downright hostility of nature irritates, as does a relentlessly ‘isn’t everything wonderful when you have a garden’ attitude.
Liz Chappell walks that fine line with grace and care, letting us into her failures and despairs with a resignation that I’d find hard to emulate and also inviting us along to rejoice with her when she succeeds. The book follows a month-by-month journey through the seasons at Devon House, the large country garden in the Northern Tablelands of NSW that she gardens alongside her husband Elton Squires. But it’s not a diary – Chappell has obviously kept copious notes of what has gone on throughout the year over more than 20 years, cleverly weaving together those stories of early discovery, successive changes and later routines into month-appropriate entries.
As in many parts of coastal and northern NSW and into Queensland, Chappell finds it’s unwise to make assumptions about how to garden based on over-generalised climate maps, especially those that just use a temperature range. The further north you go in eastern Australia, starting at about the Victorian-NSW border on the coast, and with the triangle widening to take in more inland areas as you head north, the more does rainfall season become just as important as temperature. Those who have never gardened in subtropical latitudes just don’t get that weeks of storms and humidity through January to March can turn many drought-tolerant perennials and even trees (especially on clay soils) into soggy and well-dead mush. And then the Northern Tablelands tops that by throwing Chappell an even greater challenge, with more than 70 frost days a year, including down to -15ºC in frost hollows.
But wait, there’s more. Superimposed over this gardening year is a responsibility few of us gardeners have to consider. How do you manage a historic house and garden when you are the fourth generation of your family to garden there? Senescence and renewal, and preservation and change are big issues that landscape historians grapple with in many of our historic properties, but it’s not personal. Taking out a tree planted by your great-great forebear is.
Even a good garden story well-told could become a bit same-same after half a year or so but that’s solved by another of Chappell’s clever ruses. As the months progress she makes it a wider story with fresh characters and ideas, as we learn about other gardens and gardeners in her area – the historic ha-ha at Salisbury Court, the arboretum of Stonehenge Station, the symmetry and restraint of Brandon, the sinuous lines of Oakland and the renown garden of Carolyn Robinson at Glenrock.
Although Celebrate the Seasons is a book of well-written and interesting words, like all good garden books there has to be photographs for us to really understand what’s going on, and telling a garden story in pictures is not as easy as you’d think. What the eye sees and what the camera can take are two quite different things. In many modern garden books and magazines we now see lots of photographs with maybe just one leaf in full focus in the mid-ground and the rest of both the foreground and background artistically blurry. It can look intriguing and very arty but does it give me a clear idea about what this garden is like? Can I understand shapes and spaces in the design? Does it replicate what my eye would see? No, it doesn’t. And it drives me nuts.
Kim Woods-Rabbidge proves herself to be one of Australia’s best garden photographers with a range of shots – wide angle, close up details and lots of long vista photos with everything sharply in focus, so that the book has a combination of photographs with artistic and emotional sensibilities and those that are clear and simple. Even better, Woods-Rabbidge is a photographer who doesn’t only take pictures of ‘things’, like plants, flowers, seats and sculpture. They are the easy things to record (and you’ll probably find your own garden photographs are exactly like this) but, as a lover of good design, I know that it’s the size and proportions of the voids and the overall lines of a garden that we need to see to truly understand it. Being able to take a picture of ‘nothing’ as well as things is what sets the best photographers apart and, in this, Woods-Rabbidge excels.
Do I have any quibbles? If I said no, you’d probably think this was all too good to be true, so I will dig deep to find a small imperfection and say that when Chappell tells us about a few of the gardening things she does that succeed, I’d have liked some research to go with them. For example, most horticulturists would advise against putting compost in the bottom of a tree planting hole because of the danger of it continuing to decompose, using up soil oxygen or turning anaerobic. But then Chappell never claims to be gardening expert, and is clearly only talking about her own experience and her own Northern Tablelands garden. So I think the quibble has to be set aside.
So what else? For those of you who judge books by other qualities (like me), it’s a good weight and size, the cover has that lovely satiny feel and the paper and ink smell nice. Photo reproduction is good quality and although many are taken in low-angled early or late light, they’re never murky. And yay! the font size is just big enough for me to read without hunting for glasses. As this is a self-published book, these production qualities show that Chappell and Squires know that it’s worth paying for the best and Janet Parker’s editing and Stan Lamond’s beautiful book design are an integral part of the book’s appeal.
Who would like to read it? It’s not my climate zone and I enjoyed it cover-to-cover. If I lived in the Northern Tablelands I would absolutely have to have it.
And sorry, I can’t offer you a give-away on this book because I only have one copy and I have no intention of giving it to anyone.
[Celebrate the Seasons (RRP $39.99) is available from bookshops. More information and where to buy online HERE]