Tag Archives: Garden book reviews

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

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.

Dig Deeper by Meredith Kirton

dig-deeperThe subtitle of this book is “ Seasonal, sustainable Australian gardening” and therein lies a problem which I do not think the distributors, Allen and Unwin, understand. While only three hours away by jet, Australian gardening might as well be a world away. It is different in so many ways that it is difficult to understand how a publisher might think that it is appropriate to claim this book as “the definitive gardening manual for the modern gardener” in New Zealand. It isn’t.

To be brutal, it is not likely to be a definitive manual for Australians either. We left this book sitting on the table for a week, browsing it in passing on frequent occasions and every time both of us came to the same conclusions – this is the most random collection of gardening information we have ever seen in a book. I think the reason why it seems random is that both author and editor lack sufficient technical expertise to make the decisions on sifting information. Mark couldn’t get over the referencing of obscure camellia species like C. amplexicaulis and C. assimilis. I was surprised to see the better part of a page promoting Cornus mas as a fruiting cherry substitute without a single mention of either taste or yield. Given it seems to like similar growing conditions, why wouldn’t you grow a good Black Dawson cherry instead? Then there are the sweeping statements, for example on growing mushrooms and fungi at home: “…more of the exotic Asian types, such as shiitake and oyster, coming on the market daily.” Daily? Oh really? If you want to know how to grow these, buy a mushroom kit and then all you need is a cool, dark place. That is the advice.

This is a big book and it must have taken a great deal of work by the author. There are many photos though most are small and of patchy quality. It is eclectic rather than definitive. Its recommended retail price in New Zealand is $75 so it is expensive. Despite the fact we have two gardening daughters living in Australia, I do not think I will be carting this book over to them. With only 10kg baggage allowance, there are other items I would rather be taking.

Dig Deeper by Meredith Kirton. (Murdoch Books; ISBN: not given).

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

100 best native plants for New Zealand gardens by Fiona Eadie

9781775536512If this book looks a little familiar, it is because it is a new edition of one first published in 2001, updated in 2008 and again for 2014. It is a handy book, not comprehensive because it only covers 100, but many are varieties of native plants that you may want to know about. Credit to both author and book designer for having a flexible approach where the sections on each plant can vary in length rather than dumbing the content down to fit a formulaic lay-out of the style seen in recipe books.

The author is head gardener at Larnach Castle in Dunedin and a passionate advocate for using our native flora. Her information is useful. Plants are given their botanical name, Maori name (which is often the name we use most widely) and any common names. General information is given about each plant – identification, location in the wild, important botanical information such as whether both male and female are required, followed by handy info on using these plants including preferred garden situation, pests and problems, landscaping suggestions, a short list of some different cultivars available and related species. There is plenty of information, delivered in a user-friendly form. All plants are photographed, though the photography is a bit patchy in quality.

If you have earlier editions of this book, the 2008 version changed 17 plants from the 2001 edition and this one changed a further 16 plants so it is about one third of new content over the original. I notice the price has not changed in the six years since the mid edition. The only thing that really annoyed me is the sales hype on the back cover (for which the author has no responsibility). “An expert guide to the top 100 New Zealand native plants…” it trumpets. What a cheapening effect one word can have. Not “THE top”. It is “an expert guide to 100 top plants”. There is a difference.

100 best native plants for New Zealand gardens by Fiona Eadie. (Random House; ISBN:978 1 77 553 651 2).

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

The Essential Plant Guide

???????????????????????????????The subtitle of this large book is “Every plant you need for your garden” and the cover, presumably generated specifically for the NZ market by the publisher and the NZ distributor, New Holland, boldly states “For New Zealand Gardeners”. It isn’t. The authors are Australian and American and the text has not been adapted for NZ conditions which are very different. Including plants like meconopsis (which will seed down and naturalise, don’t you know?) and trilliums as great garden plant options is problematic. There are reasons why you don’t see many crepe myrtles (lagerstroemia) growing in this country (they need hot, dry summers) and cornus are not great in the mild north and mid north. Arisaemas – we know quite a bit about arisaemas here. A. sikokianum is incredibly difficult to keep going as a garden plant but that is at least better than the recommendations for some which we think aren’t even in this country. Recommended camellia and rhododendron varieties are often (mostly?) ones more popular in the authors’ home countries and are not the NZ market choices. I would not be sure that they have all been imported to NZ, let alone in production.

It is a nice looking book which runs to over 800 pages. There is a double page spread on most genus, cheapened by the ubiquitous “Top Tips” which sometimes aren’t. The organisation into sections (trees, shrubs, fruit trees, cacti and succulents, orchids etc) makes it a little clumsy to use. Ferns are lumped with palms and cycads.

The bottom line is that a book for NZ conditions would take into account what performs here and what is available here. This is just a generic plant reference book with no specific application to gardening in this country.

The Essential Plant Guide by Tony Rodd and Kate Bryant (Global Book Publishing; ISBN: 978 1 74048 035 2).

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

Big Ideas for Small Gardens – Clever ways to enhance New Zealand outdoor spaces

003While I am a big garden specialist, I recognise that the allotted outdoor space for most people is getting ever smaller and tiny urban sections, teensy courtyards or even a balcony is now the lot for many. This is an excellent book of ideas for those who want to make the most of turning small outdoor areas into attractive living spaces.

The photography was always going to be high quality because it is by Sally Tagg, one of our most professional garden photographers and stylists. Unlike their previous joint venture (Contemporary Gardens of New Zealand), all photographs are now fully captioned and the book has the usual good production values one expects from Penguin. There is a bit of contrived urban chic and big budget show-garden stuff going on, but not too much.

What sets this book apart is the sure hand of the author. She is a fund of information for the DIY enthusiast, rendering into simple language the strategies for gaining privacy, blurring the tight boundaries, avoiding an over-stuffed parlour outdoors, how much space you need around your outdoor dining setting, getting shelter, even managing an edible garden in a tight space. It is all about design principles relayed at a thoroughly practical, hands-on level. I was won over as soon as I read: “To create more unity, consider painting …. (pretty much all vertical surfaces) the same colour, or colour tones.” The italics are mine but that was a light bulb moment. Instead of the obvious technique of using one colour everywhere, the subtle change of tone can give complexity without clutter. There is plenty of that type of useful advice along with a wide range of different ideas.

The Plant Directory chapter is the weakest aspect of the book. Essentially, it contains lists of recommended plants which are random, decidedly eclectic and often best suited to gardens in the warmer north – Auckland, really. The author’s skills lie more in the design and planning stages than in the wider world of plants. Those 17 pages might have been more usefully given over to the conundrum of the washing line, the compost bin, hiding the wheelie bin and recycling bins, managing taps and hosepipes and general storage solutions. These mundane matters have to be accommodated in some manner and with good planning there must be ways to minimise the visual impact without sacrificing practicality. I felt it was a wasted opportunity because I suspect the author has more to suggest in this area than in plant lists.

Despite that reservation, this book as a really useful resource for people struggling with ideas on how best to utilise small spaces to create something both practical and aesthetically pleasing, life-enhancing even.

Big Ideas for Small Gardens – Clever ways to enhance New Zealand outdoor spaces by Carol Bucknell, photography by Sally Tagg (Penguin; ISBN: 978 0 143 56884 1).

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