Tag Archives: garden writing

The Bad Tempered Gardener from the Welsh borderlands

Veddw, the garden of Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes (photo copyright Charles Hawes)

Veddw, the garden of Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes (photo copyright Charles Hawes)

Anne Wareham (photo credit Charles Hawes)

Anne Wareham (photo credit Charles Hawes)

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….

She continues:

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.

The Bad Tempered Gardener by Anne Wareham

The Bad Tempered Gardener by Anne Wareham

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).

The reflecting pool at Veddw (instructions are in the book). Photo credit: copyright Charles Hawes

The reflecting pool at Veddw (instructions are in the book). Photo credit: copyright Charles Hawes

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

The Tui NZ Fruit Garden – dear oh dear.

The latest update on this article is The Sequel, a second coming for Tui NZ Fruit Garden

Sally Cameron is attempting to punch well above her weight in her book The NZ Fruit Garden. Her main experience seems to be in food writing and cooking and she runs a catering company in Auckland. Her gardening credentials are very limited and it shows in this Penguin publication sponsored by the Tui garden products company.

There is nothing wrong with using a researcher to pull together a comprehensive book as long as the editor/publisher ring-fences her with an expert panel to review the information. There is no evidence that this was done. Alas, being a keen home gardener on the North Shore is not sufficient. There are too many errors and in places the information is simply not adequate. Even worse, there are sufficient instances of unacknowledged quotes to make me breathe the dreaded word: plagiarism.

All those multitudes of fruit trees and plants sold in the past two years need attention. Clearly the time is right for a manual. And a manual is what this book is. To be fair, it is a well-presented book designed to be used often – good-quality paper, opens flat and even has a thoughtful heavy-duty plastic cover. The majority of the book is an alphabetical listing of 58 fruits and nuts, each giving some information on the origin, recommended varieties and the where, when and how of growing them. In addition to that, the first 50 or so pages give a great deal of generic information on propagation, planting and care. At the end of the book, there is a section on pests and diseases and a monthly diary for maintenance and harvest tasks. From almonds and apples to walnuts, most of the crops you will ever want to try growing are included – along with quite a few that you cannot grow, though you are not likely to learn that from this book. Tui’s sponsorship is generally unobtrusive. Superficially, the book looks really helpful and the design is good. Sadly, looks can deceive.

I went to double-check some of the information on apricots, particularly the claim that ‘‘many people think they are subtropical’’. In New Zealand, we all know the best apricots come from Central Otago and nobody ever claims that area to be subtropical. According to Cameron, apricot trees are considered subtropical, which means they can tolerate temperatures from 0 degrees Celsius to over 35 degrees Celsius and still remain healthy. Puhlease. That is not a definition of a subtropical plant. Elsewhere in the book, she recommends them as a suitable crop for Northland. But worse was when I found the Wikipedia entry and thought it seemed familiar. It was. I had just read it in the book.

Cameron: There is an old adage that an apricot tree will not grow far from the mother tree.
Wikipedia: There is an old adage that an apricot tree will not grow far from the mother tree.
Cameron: Although often regarded as a subtropical fruit, the apricot is native to a continental climate region with cold winters.
Wikipedia: Although often thought of as a ‘‘subtropical’’ fruit, this is actually false – the apricot is native to a continental climate region with cold winters

The guava entry is a worry. Actually, it’s even more than a worry when I compared it to easily tracked online sources, to which it owes a rather large debt. Cameron: The guava succumbs to frost in any area – it is a tropical fruit after all. Even if summers are too cool, the tree will die back.

There’s a slight problem here. She is writing about the large growing tropical guava, Psidium guajava, which you may have tried eating in Asia (I found it disappointing). But what we can and do grow here – and which has similar hardiness to a lemon – is the strawberry guava, Psidium littorale. The recommended varieties and some of the photos in the Cameron book are of P. littorale, but they are included under the tropical guajava and there is no indication that Cameron knows the difference. In our 30 years of experience with growing littorale, it does not suffer from any of the hideous pests and diseases she lists at length. Added to that is the propagation information, which is bizarre. Why even mention air-layering when it is not recommended and is so rarely done in this country as to be virtually unknown? The reason: because it appears to be cut and pasted from an easily traced Californian website that was all about guajava. Had Cameron known her material, she would have explained that littorale is commonly raised from seed in this country.

Cranberries: what is grown widely and successfully in New Zealand and indeed is now branded the New Zealand cranberry is, in fact, Myrtus ugni. Most New Zealanders wouldn’t even know that it is not the true cranberry and that the fruit used for Ocean Spray cranberry juice and dried or frozen cranberries is, in fact, a vaccinium.We have never heard of proper cranberries being grown in this country, though presumably you could grow them in Southland, because they need cold temperatures and may be happy in the southern peat bogs. Presumably the author didn’t know about cranberries, because the book doesn’t even mention Myrtus ugni, which you can buy from pretty well every garden centre here, but instead is all about vacciniums. That is the problem with using overseas references without local knowledge. Even then the information given is contradictory. In one sentence, vaccinium is recommended for growing around ponds and other soggy areas. In another, it is recommended that you plant it in the coldest, wettest spot in your garden, but adds that the ground should never be waterlogged. Has the author never heard of the cranberry bogs in North America and seen the deliberate flooding of them? And honestly, what rush of creative frivolity led to the recommendation that they are suitable for growing in hanging baskets?

Gooseberries: according to this book, gooseberries need 800 to 1500 hours of chilling in order to fruit well. Really? What constitutes chilling? Is it temperatures below 5 degrees Celsius – 3 degrees, maybe – or below freezing? Nowhere is that information given, which means that it is very hard to start counting your hours of chill. And the huge range is questionable. Does the author mean that gooseberries require a minimum of 800 hours of winter chill below a certain temperature, but if your hours are much more than 1500 (which presumably takes you to alpine areas in this country), the growing season may be too short?

What the New Zealand reader really needs to know is that because gooseberries need a cold winter to fruit well, you are probably wasting your time unless you live in the centre of the North Island or from Christchurch southward. Measuring winter temperatures in hours of chilling is an American custom not usually seen in this country.

Avocados: the advice is that avocados do best inland away from ocean winds. This could be interpreted as suggesting that they will grow more successfully in Inglewood than Waitara, but we can tell you that in this part of the country, you can only grow avocados successfully in mild coastal areas. In fact, even in warmer areas of New Zealand, you can get frosts if you’re more than 5 kilometres inland. So in this country, avocados have to be grown in coastal areas. Again, I tracked the source of Cameron’s information to a Californian website.

The entry on lychees is lifted pretty much word for word from a copyrighted website belonging to the California Rare Fruit Growers (I started with Wikipedia and found it one click through.)

Under quinces, one of the photographs labelled quince blossom is in fact chaenomeles blossom. And while one of the photos of the fruit is indeed a quince, the other one is chaenomeles. And the photo by the quince header is, we suspect a crabapple. It is certainly not a quince. One is left with the uncomfortable suspicion that nobody involved with this book realised that quinces (cydonia) are an entirely different plant to japonica apples (chaenomeles).

I could keep going, listing the glaring deficiencies in this book. It is riddled with them. You can spend $45 on it if you wish and I am sure it will receive glowing reviews in other media because, superficially, it looks good. It is a book that was probably rushed out to meet a market demand and escaped anything but the most perfunctory of editing. It lacks rigour in every aspect. Near enough is close enough and it all looks just lovely, darling.

I don’t wish to be accused of going on a witch-hunt, but I turned back to Cameron’s earlier volume, The NZ Vegetable Garden, also published by Penguin and sponsored by Tui. I actually gave it a good review in this publication. I randomly inspected the garlic entry and went to check a rather odd piece of information. It took me all of two minutes to find a copyrighted website, http://www.garliccentral.com/varieties.html, which contributed at least some of the exact wording for page 116 in that book.

It should be an embarrassment to a credible publishing house like Penguin, but presumably nobody bothered to check for relevance, accuracy, or plagiarism. Looks are all in this current world of publishing and cut and paste has a lot to answer for.

POSTSCRIPT: My, but Penguin acted quickly to recall the book from sale. Given an advance copy of this column, they issued a recall within 24 hours.