Anne Wareham had my attention from the first page of her book, bravely titled “The Bad Tempered Gardener”. Her second sentence opens:
I have to make my way in a world which is totally alien to me. A world where people are inevitably passionate, always ‘green’ and always terribly concerned about the little furry things….
I began to get tired of hearing every garden described as ‘lovely’. I visited many of them and often found them to be banal and uninspired. I began to wish for writers who would tell the truth about the gardens and gardening and found only ‘garden stories’ and discussions of gardening techniques…. The problem is the fond idea that gardening is inevitably nice but dull…. ”
What is interesting about Anne Wareham’s work is that this is contemporary thinking about gardening from a hands-on perspective. I have also been reading Vita Sackville West’s collated newspaper columns from the early 1950s. She is renowned for creating the garden at Sissinghurst. There has been a proud tradition of garden writing by gardeners – Russell Page, Beth Chatto, Penelope Hobhouse and other great names, particularly in the world of English gardening. Not to put too fine a point on it, they are all either elderly or dead. Where is the current thinking?
Garden writing at this time seems to fall into three categories. There are academic treatises out of institutions where gardening has been hijacked by higher status landscape design. Then there are all the novice wannabe books which are of no interest at all to the serious gardener. All that breathless naivety and ingenuous enthusiasm wears very thin if you are not in the target demographic. The rest tends to be either prosaic description or praise in purple prose. There is no attempt at critique and very little in the way of ideas.
Apparently it is the same in the UK though I did think that the writer of the BBC Gardening Blog was guilty of gross hyperbole when he or she babbled of this book that: “Everyone, but everyone has been talking about possibly the most controversial book ever written about gardening.” It is not that radical and actually slots quite nicely into the tradition of garden writing. It is thought provoking and a breath of fresh air.
That said, it is not highly polished and the forty five chapters stand independently, almost as if they are a collation of pieces published previously, though there is no reference to this being the case. So there is not a cohesive argument but more a case of recurring themes. What I can tell about this book is that there is a great deal of thinking time that has gone into formulating the ideas and opinions. The author has two acres of intensive garden which she started from scratch and two acres of woodland which she maintains with her husband. Much of gardening is repetitive and takes little concentration so there is a lot of solitary thinking time. It takes one to know one. It is how I operate so I recognise it in someone else. And I have never before read a book where I have so often felt as if I was in conversation with the author. I kept wanting to say: “Exactly. I wrote about this very thing here.” Whether it is water maintenance, show gardens, rose gardens, scented plants, the impact of devaluing the garden visit experience by bringing it under the amateur and charitable banner, the hyperbole of garden descriptions – this is all familiar territory.
Thought provoking chapters are interspersed with short pieces on plants. These have little relevance in New Zealand. Erigeron is that highly invasive daisy that is actually on the banned list here. Tulip mania has never struck this country in the European manner (to buy fresh bulbs every season seems profligate). Alchemilla mollis is not the easy, frothy plant here that it is in the UK. These are just little interludes, breathing spaces, between the more opinionated pieces. Of interest are the chapters on the creation of her own garden, Veddw, on the Welsh border and the principles which drove her in design and plant selection. We are not in agreement on plants, but that is fine. To disagree with a well thought out and strongly held position challenges one’s own thinking.
Best guess is that the author has cultivated a certain prickly persona. I doubt very much that she is inherently any more bad tempered than the rest of us. The title of her book is probably as much a nod to the late Christoper Lloyd (he of Great Dixter fame) with his book titled “The Well-Tempered Garden” and maybe to Germaine Greer. Readers here may not be aware of the latter’s enthusiasm for gardening. She wrote a newspaper column under the pseudonym of Rose Blight and a collation of these were released in book form under the title of “The Revolting Gardener”.
Indeed, I am wondering about extending the theme with my own book – “The Opinionated Gardener”. Don’t hold your breath, however. I am unlikely to find a publisher any time soon.
I sourced my copy through Amazon though Touchwood Books or good bookshops will be able to order it in. As far as I know it is not on the shelves in this country.
The Bad Tempered Gardener by Anne Wareham. Photographs by Charles Hawes. (Frances Lincoln Ltd; ISBN: 978 0 7112 3150 4).
First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.