Category Archives: Garden book reviews

Abbie’s book reviews

Three books (one of which has absolutely nothing to do with gardening)

Almost to the day, it is two years since we first went into lockdown in this country, when we realised – well, most of us realised – that Covid was real and like nothing we had dealt with before. Life changed for most of us. Lynda Hallinan’s book ‘The Joy of Gardening’, came out late last year but appears to have its genesis in the earlier lockdown days. It is a book firmly anchored in our Covid present.

I have written before of myself that ‘I garden so I have a lot of thinking time’. The same is true of Lynda. Most of us know her as an irrepressible, bright, bubbly person who is genuinely keen on gardening and plants. This book is more intimate, more reflective at this time when our focus is closer in, more defined by our immediate environment as we try to make sense of a world that has changed.

There is a soft focus to this book, quite a bit of nostalgia and thoughts about what gardens and plants mean at a personal level, leavened by the author’s irreverent humour. There are lots of of romantic, soft-focus photos by Sally Tagg but we know these are just mood-setters because all the photo captions are banished to the last two pages of the book and then just recorded as plant names. That is a case of a book designer thinking that the look is more important than reader convenience. That aside, it is a beautiful hardback and I do love me a book with a built-in book marking ribbon.

Lynda is a journalist and it shows. She has an immensely readable style and the words flow with confidence. While divided into ten sections (Making Memories and Love & Loss are two), each section has a number of separate pieces loosely related to the theme. It means you can pick up the book and read a page or two and it stands on its own. I have been known to refer to this as loo reading but you may prefer to think of it as coffee-break reading. It can detract from a sustained reading session because those short bits are so short and snappy but there is a surprising amount of good information included. I think it is a charming book, best savoured in smaller bites and particularly relevant at this time.

I know very little about Ethiopia which only seems to reach our news when there is famine or civil war. It did of course give us Haile Selassie with the odd spin off of the Rastafarians but well before that, it was an ancient civilisation where humans were first recorded in modern form and an early Christian nation. It is also one of the fastest expanding economies in the world today, with a predominantly rural population. This has led to major deforestation which is the subject of a book by Kieran Dodds titled ‘The Church Forests of Ethiopia’.

It is predominantly a book of photographs of the local people and the environment in Amhara Province with a lot of aerial shots showing the agricultural deserts where the only remaining native forests are patches of green surrounding churches. The Tewahedo Orthodox Christian churches are a distinctive round shape like domes or saucers and the reason why the small patches of remnant forest around them survive is because they are sacred. Think miniature gardens of Eden in a desert. It is a unique landscape.

The book is a fundraiser to support the organisations and groups involved with replanting to extend the existing forests and particularly creating links between the forested areas which enables native animal and insect life to move from one area to another. You will be supporting critical environmental work if you buy this book but also, you may enjoy having this rather gentle pilgrimage through the church forests of Ethiopia in your bookcase. The one thing it lacks is any information on what the dominant native plant species are but I guess if you want to know more, you could Google ‘woody flora of dry Afromontane areas in Ethiopia’.

Ukraine bus shelters and yes, we may well wonder if they are still standing

Nothing whatever to do with gardening, but a book I felt belonged in my bookcase in a totally random manner is ‘Soviet Bus Stops’ by Christopher Herwig. It is what it says – a collection of photographs of bus shelters throughout the former Soviet Union. These shelters date back to a time when private cars were a luxury, when the dreary conformity of the Brezhnev years spanned the era from the 1960s through to the start of the 1980s. This is apparently known as the time of stagnation and these bus shelters are a memorial to the triumph of individual creativity and flamboyance in a repressive regime.

Architects, artists and designers could unleash themselves – within a budget – and unleash themselves they did with marked regional differences and varying materials. I feel I owe it to Ukraine to show their shelters which are charming but not of the same level of flamboyance and scale as some other areas – favouring form over function as one of the brief introductory essays says. There aren’t just a few of these bus shelters, there are many although I am not sure yet whether I feel the need to buy the second volume of this odd phenomenon.

It is a quirky little book but also a record of the triumph of human spirit, even more so in the context of what is happening in that part of the world right now.

What on earth were they thinking at the time in Kyrgyzstan?
and indeed in Kazakhstan

You Should Have Been Here Last Week by Tim Richardson

The subtitle is “Sharp cuttings from a garden writer” but eagle-eyed readers may notice that the secateurs on the front cover look as if they have been through the compost heap and are anything but sharp

Tim Richardson first came to our notice with his lavish book The New English Garden. We used it as a guidebook for our last garden visiting trip in that country because we wanted to see more contemporary work.  “You Should Have Been Here Last Week” is a much more modest publication and as a result, a great deal more convenient for reading. It is a collection of writings for various publications – Country Life, Daily Telegraph, Gardens Illustrated and half a dozen others. And what an interesting collection these are.

Topics range widely and the writer does not hesitate to put forward a measured opinion, at times well apart from the Establishment. People, places, trends, theories – he will analyse the lot. His critique of the New Perennials movement, the Sheffield School and modern directions in planting struck a particular chord with us and conveyed with clarity where he considers it has developed beyond the Northern European/Piet Oudolf movement (‘Immersive not pictorial’ was particularly succinct). But if that is not your interest, maybe the politics of self-sufficiency, gay gardening, the efforts to “Re-Vita-lize” Sissinghurst and the perils of public ownership of formerly private gardens will catch your interest. Those who are aware of my opinions on the matter may laugh when I say I feel totally vindicated by his critique of the stranglehold the Arts and Crafts garden style has held over gardens for too long. Modern design does not escape his scrutiny either – his views on Suburban Modernism (Sub Mod) gives some very good advice to those who live on smaller, town sections.

There is lots of meat (or maybe high quality protein, if you prefer) in these short pieces – plenty to think about, discuss, and to challenge your thinking about gardening. And he is a good writer rich in quotable passages, sometimes cutting, controversial even.

It is worth buying, this book and it is not even expensive. I wish there was more garden writing of this quality. I did a brief search on the author and came up with this gem:

Tim Richardson, author of Sweets: The History of Temptation, is the world’s first international confectionery historian. He also writes about gardens, landscape and theatre and contributes to the Daily Telegraph, Country Life, The Idler, House & Garden, Garden Design Journal and Wallpaper. He lives in North London.”

It is an unverified Wikipedia entry and I understand he no longer writes for the Garden Design Journal – sacked, or “let go” as they say, over a satirical paragraph in a column that was too hot to handle for that publication. If you want to read the previously unpublished column, it is in this new book. Being a bit of a flibbertigibbet, I was entranced to think of him doubling as the first international confectionery historian.  He is clearly a man of many talents.

You Should Have Been Here Last Week by Tim Richardson. Pimpernel Press 2016

A book worth buying – The Sceptical Gardener

img_2087A sign of an interesting book is when you find yourself keeping it to hand so that you can refer to it in numerous conversations. Not a showy book, in this case. There is a not a photograph in sight and the production values are what might be called utility, so it fails to fit the traditional definition of a coffee table book. Perhaps the descriptor of ‘aircraft reading’, or even ‘loo reading’ captures the format – short pieces between about 700 and 1200 words long which can be read in a few minutes. But for the last few weeks it has been sitting close to hand as we discuss many of the points made in its text.

I don’t want to over-state the case; it may not be life-changing. But if you have a curiosity for information backed up by reputable science in an easy reading style, it may appeal. It is a collection of just over 100 columns first published in The Telegraph newspaper in the UK between 2010 and 2015. These are grouped into loose categories – Garden wildlife (neonicotinoids and bees, the correlation between healthy birdlife and house prices plus more), Native and alien plants – and animals, the entertaining Not worth doing (I was quite pleased to see the author in total agreement with what I have written about planting by the moon and he is illuminating on demystifying permaculture and food forests), Growing food, Practical gardening and more.

The author is both a keen gardener and a scientist – a plant ecologist – with an eye for information which is often not brought before the general public. He has the ability to communicate this information with clarity and wit to the lay person. I have come to the conclusion that, as with the best of UK gardening television, UK newspapers are capable of delivering some really thought-provoking garden writing. I wish I could say the same for New Zealand but too often we seem determined to head in the opposite direction and gear our mainstream gardening media towards absolute novices and newbies.

I bought my copy through Book Depository and it was ridiculously cheap at $NZ16.21, delivered to my letter box within a few days.

The Sceptical Gardener by Ken Thompson. Published by Icon Books ISBN 978 178578 038 7

All About Roses by Diana Sargeant

d68458bf-8598-4fc7-9e33-200637668d7c - CopyI approached this book with a little trepidation because it seemed to be part of the trend to release Australian publications in this country, assuming that they will be equally relevant here with no significant difference in conditions and plant varieties. In this case it works. This is a charming and helpful book written by somebody who combines vast experience with a genuine love for the topic. The author ran a rose nursery for 25 years where they chose to go to organic production well before many others came to realise that our growing of roses had become bad practice environmentally. There is no doubt it would be easier in Australia to grow good roses without chemical intervention because of their dry climate, but her experience is invaluable. I am not sure how readily available some of her alternatives are in this country yet – but they are stocked even by Bunnings in Australia so if the demand is here, I am sure we will see them soon. That is eco-fungicide, eco-oil, eco-neem and eco-amingro.

There is a wealth of information and ideas in this book in a deceptively simple presentation. She gives a very clear explanation of the different types and, surprisingly, the genetic breeding lines. Recommendations are given on good varieties – thornless ones, pillar roses, scented varieties, cut flowers. As far as I know most of the varieties are available in this country. Growing information is down to earth and practical.

For once, the photos are not just an endless array of close-ups of a single bloom but they also include clear practical photos as well as some lovely mood images.

It is a book for the amateur enthusiast, not the experienced and knowledgeable expert. My one gripe has to do with the publisher, not the author. Where is the index? It needed one and its absence is a glaring omission.

All About Roses by Diana Sargeant. (New Holland; ISBN: 978 1 92151 732 7).

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

The Splendour of the Tree by Noel Kingsbury

58195Despite the subtitle, An Illustrated History, this handsome book is more for the coffee table than a library reference. The selection of trees – and there are about 100 different tree species, each given at least a double page spread, sometimes more – is a little too random and eclectic to make this useful as a reference book. It is more testimony to a love affair than a work of scholarship.

The entries are put into six categories – antiquity (trees with very long histories including gingko and magnolia), ecology (such as the swamp cypress or Taxodium distichum), sacred, utility, food and ornament. Sometimes the tree species is generalised. The Japanese cherry is described as ‘Prunus x yedoensis and related varieties’ which is pretty broad. Yet the magnolia entry is limited to just one species, M. sprengeri. I was perhaps a little surprised to see the jacaranda missing from the section on ornamental trees given the international focus. But any selection is going to be arbitrary when the world of trees is to be narrowed down to 100.

The photography is beautiful at first glance, with many full page spreads. Some are magnificent images but not all. At times the field of focus is not sharp throughout. The selection of image is sometimes more about looking good than being helpful. The carob tree, for example, has a full page shot of a carob bean only which is in sharp focus on the bean itself but blurred top and bottom. The appearance of the tree itself remains a mystery.

The text is engaging and filled with some wonderfully random, fascinating pieces of information. While one can be picky (well, I can be picky I admit), in the context of a handsome coffee table book, it is unreasonable to expect the rigour of a work of scholarship. In terms of an interesting and rewarding browsing experience, it delivers well.

The high quality, large format, hard-covered coffee table garden book has all but disappeared in this country so it will come as no surprise that this is an English production. In fact, Mark met the author briefly when we were over there last June.

The Splendour of the Tree by Noel Kingsbury, photography by Andrea Jones. (Frances Lincoln; ISBN: 9780711235809).

First published by the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.