Review: The Sceptical Gardener by Ken Thompson

Don’t judge a book . . . 

Despite being a paid-up member of the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ brigade, I must confess to a slight sinking feeling when given The Sceptical Gardener to review. With its understated style, close type and no photos, it’s a far cry from the usual gardening book. How wrong I was and how true the old adage; this book is a delight.

sceptical gardener

For regular readers of the Daily Telegraph, Ken Thompson and his quirky look at the world of horticulture will be familiar. For those who have not encountered him, he is a former lecturer at the University of Sheffield and a man determined to put science under the microscope.

As the title suggests, he approaches each new scientific claim with a degree of suspicion and sets about determining firstly whether it is true and, secondly, what that means for gardeners. Thus we learn that the colour of bird boxes is less important than their orientation and how ‘hot beds’ could bring earlier vegetable crops.

This wide-ranging book, made up of articles published over the past five years, is divided into themes, such as ‘Growing Food’, ‘Garden Wildlife’ and the wonderfully named, ‘Not Worth Doing’, which encompasses buying bees, planting by the moon and compost tea.

Some articles are strictly scientific: ‘Neonicotinoids and Bees’, ‘Breeding for Flavour’ and ‘Soil Type’. Others verge on the more whimsical: there’s an exploration of the popularity of floral names for girls, is there anyone, he wonders, “called Ramonda or Azara, and if not, why not?” Elsewhere, we learn how to sex an earwig, discover the macabre eating habits of the New Zealand flatworm and are warned about the dangers of flowerpots.

What could have been a dry subject is enlivened by the lively writing style and occasional personal observations: “That’s what I love about the internet – its ability to prove that all your worst fears were justified” while his exasperation at hyphens and commas in plant names is as entertaining as it is sound.

This is definitely a book for dipping into, ideal for that mid-digging coffee break and perfect as a stocking-filler for your green-fingered loved ones.

The Sceptical Gardener, The Thinking Person’s Guide to Good Gardening by Ken Thompson is published by Icon Books, priced £12.99.

Review copy supplied by The Suffolk Anthology

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Christmas turns copper

Innovative Gloucestershire florist Hans Haverkamp is predicting a move away from the traditional when it comes to Christmas colours this year.

While the familiar red and green will still be in evidence, Twyning-based Hans believes turquoise, copper and striking black-and-white will also be on display.

“There are a few trends coming along that are going to be popular in the UK,” he says.

Top of his list for 2015 is white and gold, although he stresses this is likely to be soft gold and champagne colours rather than anything brassy.

Christmas flowers
Copper is used as an accent colour this year

“I’ve already seen snowy white coloured trees with gold decorations, maybe some silver,” says Hans, who last month won Best in Show at the NAFAS national competition and has previously come top at Chelsea and the World Flower Arranging Show.

Copper is also likely to be a dominant colour, particularly in baubles.

“A very big trend statement this year will be the use of copper as a real accent colour.”

Pastels in the form of pinks, mint, turquoises and blues are likely to be another popular choice as is the ‘natural look’ with cones, acorns, bark and driftwood.

“Cones are a fairly big feature with oversized cone ornaments.”

A more niche trend is black and white: “It’s for those who want to make strong statement.”

Christmas flowers
Chunky candles are set in felt-wrapped holders

Hans, who trained as a Master Florist in Holland, is using some of these ideas in this season’s workshops, which will cover festive floral decorations including table decorations and door wreaths.

“I’m picking and mixing them a bit. I try to look at the trends and then try to work them into something that’s exciting but not scary.”

His ‘Twinned Candles’, an arrangement using chunky Scandinavian candles, will mix white, taupe, browns, cinnamon and chocolate tones and is wrapped in felt.

Door wreaths this year draw on the cone theme with natural and white-sprayed cones and twigs giving a textured finish.

His party arrangements will be in white and grey with the copper accent, while the table arrangements will feature white, natural wood, greys, champagne and natural tones.

Christmas flowers
Texture is an important element in Hans’ work

When it comes to flowers, he is planning to use white spray roses, copper carnations, nerines and kochia.

“It’s like a little, grey Christmas tree,” he explains.

Yet, he says despite these new trends there will always be a place for the traditional.

Hans Haverkamp
Hans Haverkamp

“You will always have reds and golds because that is the traditional colour. But slowly people are looking to make more of a personal statement with what they do. They are daring to leave the golds and the reds behind.”

Workshops, priced from £55, run from December 2 to 22 and are held in Twyning. To book and for more information, call 07818 040312 or visit