Forget January, for most gardeners the calendar starts in spring and, like most new years, comes with a raft of good intentions. Top of those resolutions is finally sorting out that problem border – I’ve yet to meet a gardener who was totally happy with their plot. Yet like losing weight and going to the gym more, it’s often the one left unfulfilled. The biggest challenge is knowing where to start and it’s getting those garden ideas that Matt James tackles in his latest book, RHS How to Plant a Garden.
His aim, he says, is to “demystify the planting design process” and help anyone, from the novice to the old hand, transform their plot “from the ordinary to the extraordinary”. It’s a task for which he is well qualified: an established designer, he leads the degree course in garden and landscape design at the Eden Project and is a regular on radio’s Gardeners’ Question Time, while television viewers will remember him from The City Gardener on Channel 4.
So, it’s hardly surprising that this book is comprehensive, taking in not only how to choose the right plants for situations as varied as dry shade and the side of ponds, and what constitutes a particular style, such as formal or exotic but everything else you might possibly need to know.
Before a single plant is identified, we are invited to consider elements of the garden that are just as important to its eventual success. These range from the microclimates created by existing trees and shrubs or buildings, to the amount of time available for upkeep. “Honesty is essential,” he tells us.
James then moves on to an exploration of what he calls ‘The Plant Palette’, which is divided into easy to follow sections, such as trees, shrubs, grasses and herbaceous perennials. The chief characteristics of each are noted, there’s advice on their use and suggestions of possible varieties.
This thoroughness is evident in subsequent chapters, which cover garden styles, how to combine plants using colour and form, and finally how to draw up a planting plan.
Woven through is advice from a warning to embark on a cottage-style plot only if you have time to tend it to how to adapt a new perennial planting scheme to a small garden.
Some of the advice – the colour wheel, types of roses and how to identify soil types – is fairly basic for anyone who has gardened for any length of time but this is acknowledged with a suggestion that only novice gardeners, or those wishing to understand the thinking behind professional designs, should start at the beginning. Others are given permission to skip to later chapters where common garden problems are solved and a designer’s plant calendar is explained.
Plenty of high quality photographs make this book attractive as well as informative, though the credits system makes it difficult to identify individual gardens pictured, which is important when some of them are ‘show’ rather than real gardens. Also irritating is the continual use of common plant names, presumably part of the ‘demystification’ process. It works up to a point but I’ve yet to come across anyone who routinely refers to a hosta as a plantain lily.
But they are minor quibbles. Overall, this is an easy-to-follow insight into design, offering plenty of garden ideas, just the thing to kick-start those planting resolutions.
• RHS How to Plant a Garden by Matt James is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £25 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)
• Review copy supplied by Octopus Publishing Group.
• For more book reviews, see here