Review: The Company of Trees by Thomas Pakenham

As a writer trees worry me. Faced with an herbaceous border, I’m in my element but charged with talking about a garden based largely on trees I start to flounder. First, there’s the tricky question of identification: I’m fine with the obvious but start to struggle with anything other than ash and oak. Then there’s simply what to say beyond the clichéd adjectives of stately, magnificent and graceful? Given this I was intrigued to see how Thomas Pakenham could fill a whole book talking about trees.

The Company of Trees

The Company of Trees’ isn’t his first foray into the subject: he has published several titles, starting with the popular ‘Meetings With Remarkable Trees’. This featured 60 portraits of trees notable for their age, size, history or simply shape.

Whereas that was a book for dipping into, his new publication is far weightier with fewer of his beautiful photographs and a more obvious narrative thread following a year at Tullynally, his Irish estate, and his travels, collecting rare seeds. What the two volumes share is a writing style that sparkles with his passion for the subject. Early on he states that “Like most sensible people I find them [trees] irresistible” and by the end I was beginning to see why.

To Pakenham, trees are more than just a horticultural exercise and his descriptions bring them alive. Young seedlings are “pushy adolescents”, ancient specimens are “old retainers” while a group of beech are known as ‘the Ents’ and have, he tells us, “very different personalities”.

Each tree death or removal, either through storm, disease or simple necessity is for him a personal loss. Needing to thin his arboretum, he watches as 16 oaks are felled – a process he likens to “murdering your friends”. He describes how the “bigger ones fought back” while the “small ones died without a struggle”.

Thomas Pakenham
Thomas Pakenham

Woven into this delightfully evocative prose are solid horticultural facts and historical detail, often about the great plant-hunters in whose footsteps he literally travels in his search for rare specimens.

He rails against the slow response to the threat of the ‘Four Horsemen’, his name for the new diseases afflicting many of our trees, worries about the effect of climate changes and condemns ‘the Talibans’, as he calls some environmentalists, for what he regards as their puritanical and narrow view of what constitutes a native tree.

Explorations of other great tree collections, including the envy-inducing maples at Westonbirt Arboretum and sumptuous magnolias at Mount Congreve, are set against the account of his own work to both restore and improve the planting at Tullynally.

With lively chapter headings – ‘Knicker-Pink’ is particularly memorable – and a self-deprecating style that does not gloss over his planting mistakes, this is an engaging account of a lifetime’s work and a life-long passion.

The Company of Trees by Thomas Pakenham is published Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced at £30.

Review copy supplied by The Suffolk Anthology

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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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Review: Paradise and Plenty by Mary Keen

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.

mary keen

‘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.

The herbaceous borders in late summer

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.

Cherries are grown with a painstaking attention to detail

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.

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Review: 365 Days of Colour in Your Garden

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told a garden is planted for year-round colour. In truth, it’s something very few achieve. Wanting to fill a plot with interest in every season is a laudable ambition but one that’s rarely realised with any degree of confidence.

It’s a challenge that Nick Bailey, head gardener at Chelsea Physic Garden, squares up to in his new publication, ‘365 Days of Colour in Your Garden’. In it he shows how with careful plant selection it is possible to make borders noteworthy even in the depths of winter.

365 days of colour

He opens with an explanation of why colour is important, how it can make the senses sing, affect our mood and how it has evolved in gardens from the landscape movement of Capability Brown where form rather than colour held sway, through the painterly borders of Gertrude Jekyll to the often controversial plant partnerships of the late Christopher Lloyd.

The science of colour and how our eyes perceive it is briefly explained in easy-to-understand layman’s language and Bailey shows how the colour wheel can be used to plan striking combinations, although he warns against slavish adherence to rules, preferring to experiment.

It is choosing the right planting scheme that is vital for success. Putting together pairings where one plant enhances the other and then choosing a third to carry on the show not only results in memorable displays but makes the most of every available inch of soil.

365 days of colour
Salvia and Cordyline australis ‘Charlie Boy’ syn. ‘Ric01’

With this in mind, the picture-packed chapters offering ideas for the different seasons include a companion and a successor for every plant suggested. There are the usual suspects, among them Geranium ‘Rozanne’, but also some rarely seen performers, such as Chrysosplenium macrophyllum. Nor is Bailey a plant snob, recommending Forget-me-nots and Centranthus ruber, although he admits many consider it a weed.

Stopping the book degenerating into a mere list of plants are interspersed chapters on prolonging the seasons either by judicious use of the ‘Chelsea chop’, or by choosing varieties that are the earliest or latest to bloom. There’s advice on everything from soil improvement to staking, using containers to plug gaps and tackling difficult sites.

With an easy-to-read style – some evergreens are described as ending the summer with a “wet-dog-after-a-walk look – all damp and slumped in the corner” – this book is entertaining as well as informative. There’s a good balance between the basics and more specialist knowledge making it suitable for both the novice starting out and the more experienced gardener wanting to improve their plot.

365 days of colour
Nick Bailey

Adding to the temptation to rush out to the nearest nursery, are beautiful photographs by Jonathan Buckley of successful planting combinations, including those by Cotswold nurseryman Bob Brown and at the Gloucestershire’s world famous Hidcote Manor Garden.

365 Days of Colour in Your Garden by Nick Bailey, photography by Jonathan Buckley, is published by Kyle Books, priced £25. Photographs by Jonathan Buckley, supplied by Kyle Books.

Review copy supplied by  The Suffolk Anthology

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Review: The Writer’s Garden by Jackie Bennett

book review writer's garden

This was always going to be a book that appealed, based as it is on my two great loves: literature and gardens. And it didn’t disappoint.

It sits somewhere between a glossy coffee table tome and a more scholarly work with Richard Hanson’s beautiful photographs a complement to Jackie Bennett’s careful research.

She takes us on a tour of the country through the gardens of such literary luminaries as Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy. For some, the garden was a source of inspiration, for others a place of refuge.

We learn of Dickens’ penchant for scarlet pelargoniums, which he always wore as a buttonhole, while Roald Dahl developed a passion for orchids.

John Ruskin used his garden on the shores of Coniston Water as an outdoor laboratory, exploring ways of working with nature. For others, including Dahl and Jeffrey Archer, the garden was a place to write, while turning land at Abbotsford in rural Scotland into a “wooded Eden” became an all-consuming project for Sir Walter Scott.

The gardens’ influence can be seen in much of the writers’ work: the Battery in Agatha Christie’s Devon plot features in several of her novels; Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top country garden is the backdrop for many of her stories and who can forget Rupert Brooke’s yearning for The Old Vicarage at Grantchester in the poem of the same name?

These references are placed in context by Bennett, who includes in each section a timeline of the author’s work while associated with the garden in question.

With short, easily digested chapters and details on visiting the gardens, most of which are open to the public, this is a book for dipping into and the starting point for further exploration.

The Writer’s Garden, by Jackie Bennett, photography Richard Hanson, is published by Frances Lincoln.

Review copy supplied by The Suffolk Anthology

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