So often, gardening books slot neatly into a pigeonhole. There are the coffee table tomes, low on content but packed with glossy pictures, ideal for daydreams on a wet afternoon. At the other end of the shelf are the how-to-do manuals, slightly dull but worthy, the sort you reach for when puzzled by something outside. Mary Keen’s latest book defies such easy categorising.
‘Paradise and Plenty’, her first book for 20 years, explores the work that goes on behind the walls of Eythrope, the private garden of the Rothschild family. It’s somewhere that Keen knows well: she redesigned it 25 years ago and suggested Sue Dickinson for the position of head gardener, while Keen’s daughter, the poet Alice Oswald, worked there for a time.
Eythrope is a rare surviving example of the sort of all-encompassing, high quality gardening that was once the norm in large country houses across the country. The four acres of the Walled Garden keep the house almost self-sufficient in fruit and veg, and we are told “Cut flowers are never bought, even in winter.” despite the staggering size of some of the house’s floral arrangements.
All this is accomplished using traditional methods that have been handed on down the generations, refined and strictly recorded; each of the six gardeners keeps detailed records of each day’s tasks, the performance of crops and the weather conditions. Some techniques, including using ‘manure water’ for potted trees or banning under-gardeners from the glass houses, have been abandoned but there’s the impression the garden would be familiar to any time-travelling Victorian.
Keen tells us that her intention is to “share the secrets and delights” of Eythrope, not least because cultivation in this style and on this scale is unlikely to continue for ever.
And this is where the book crosses boundaries. Alongside descriptive sections conjuring up images of the rose borders or the joy of an autumn walk past phlox and Michaelmas daisies are detailed explanations of the techniques used, ranging from how to double dig – a practice Keen admits is questioned by many – to the best way to grow auriculas. Some of the practices, such as pollinating cherries with a rabbit’s tail, are unlikely to be of much use to the average gardener but there are nuggets of wisdom: how to get rid of pollen beetles in cut sweet peas; the best way to protect brassicas from pigeons. At the back, are lists of varieties grown and when to sow.
Surprisingly for a gardening book, it’s Tom Hatton’s black-and-white photographs rather than the colour pictures that are the most memorable, while the fold-out pages, sometimes showing the same area in different seasons, are a great addition.
In her introduction, Keen states that she believes that if readers take away only 50 per cent of the advice offered, they “will have better gardens”. What makes this book different is the way that advice is wrapped up in a celebration of what she describes as a “remarkable garden”.
• Paradise and Plenty by Mary Keen, photography by Tom Hatton, is published by Pimpernel Press, priced £50 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 Pimpernell Press.
• Photographs © Tom Hatton.
• For more book reviews, see here