Review: Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest by Caleb Warnock

There’s a commonly held view that growing veg is possible only if you have a large garden or access to an allotment. Tiny plots, courtyards or the balconies and window boxes of generation rent make grow your own impossible. Or do they? In Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest, Caleb Warnock sets out to prove otherwise.

tiny garden huge harvestThe American self-sufficiency expert believes it’s possible to grow in the tiniest of spaces, in fact he says a small space can be beneficial: “For busy families, a tiny garden creates a manageable and sustainable workload.”

And he tells us that in a garden of just 8ft by 8ft, he managed to harvest 207lbs of veg.

The key is choosing the right things to grow – and the best varieties – and making full use of the space available.

In Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest, Warnock, who is based in the Rocky Mountains, sets out how to achieve this and passes on the tips and tricks for using space efficiently that he’s learned over the years.

tiny garden huge harvest
The book has charts and lists to help

In a small garden, there’s no room for passengers so the first rule is to grow only what you like to eat: “This may seem obvious at first, but surprisingly, many people fail to take this into consideration.”

Crops that take up a lot of room for relatively small reward, such as sweetcorn, are also best avoided and it pays to look carefully at the time from sowing to harvesting when choosing varieties.

One good trick is to grow things that give a long season of cropping. Cut-and-come-again lettuce is an obvious example but you could do the same with many other crops, including chard, kale and celery.

He also points out that the leaves of beetroot and turnips can be harvested for weeks before the roots are used, giving two crops in one.

Every inch of a small plot needs to earn its keep and successional sowing is a good way of making sure ground is never idle. A chart giving four possible crop plans is just one of many handy charts and there are also suggestions for things that will grow in shade.

tiny garden huge harvest
Chard can be harvested over many weeks

Having outlined what to grow, the book turns to how to plan your space. This covers traditional small gardens, balconies, containers and even vertical gardens in a bookcase-sized area: “Imagine you are in a library standing in front of a shelf full of books – except instead of books, these shelves are lined with potted plants.” Even potatoes, cabbage and squash could be grown using this method, he says, while a trickle-down watering system is easy and efficient.

The book is small – just over 60 pages – pocket-sized, making it ideal for use outside, and easy to read with Warnock’s ideas clearly and simply explained. Unfortunately, while his ideas of sustainable, grow-your-own living are very current, the book has a rather dated feel due to the black-and-white photos, used, presumably, to keep production costs down.

It’s worth ignoring the initial impression this gives as the book has many easy and interesting ideas and, while it doesn’t cover how to grow, it would be ideal for novice or established gardeners who want to get more out of their garden.

Tiny Garden, Huge Harvest by Caleb Warnock is published by Familius, RRP £4.99. Buy now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Familius.

Read more book reviews here

Review: Square Foot Gardening: Growing Perfect Vegetables

It’s so disappointing to spend weeks carefully nurturing fruit and veg only to miss picking them at the right time. Turn your back for a moment and it seems tomatoes split, radish turn bullet-like and courgettes morph into marrows. Square Foot Gardening: Growing Perfect Vegetables aims to take the mystery out of just when to harvest.

growing perfect vegetables

The book has been produced by the Mel Bartholomew Foundation, which carries on the work of the American who started the pioneering square foot method of cultivation more than 40 years ago. He advocated growing in a 4ft by 4ft box that was subdivided into 16 squares with one type of plant per square, arguing that it required less work and produced just the right amount of produce, reducing waste.

“He had seen a lot of ripe produce go to waste in his local community simply because of inefficiency and gardener burnout,” the introduction tells us.

Yet, popular though his method has proved, it did not answer the problem of when to harvest and it’s this “missing link in the chain” that Growing Perfect Vegetables aims to provide.

The book begins with an overview of exactly what we mean by ripeness and how it occurs. We learn about crops that will continue to ripen even after harvest (climacteric), such as tomatoes and apples, and those that stop ripening as soon as they are picked (non-climacteric) with examples being cucumber and lettuce.

growing perfect vegetables

There’s advice on which fruits to ripen in a bag and a warning about “enemy plants” – those crops that don’t work well as kitchen garden neighbours; basil harms cucumber plants while strawberries compete with cabbages for nutrients.

The bulk of the book is the ‘ripeness listings’, crop by crop analysis of what to look for in a ripe veg or fruit and how to store it, both in the short-term – asparagus spears with the cut end in cool water – and in the long term, layering beets in damp sand for the winter. And it’s not just for the kitchen gardener as how to choose the perfect shop-bought produce is also covered.

The listings are divided into three: crops that will grow inside the square foot system; those that have to be grown outside, such as fruit trees; crops that are generally imported into the USA, such as avocados and bananas.

There are nuggets of additional advice scattered through: wear gloves to pick aubergines because of their spiny stems; restore limp radish by soaking in ice water; snipping off the foliage on a cantaloupe melon decreases rather than increases the sweetness.

growing perfect vegetables

Also useful are lists of the crops with the shortest shelf-life; the 10 healthiest fruit and veg and the most beautiful crops, such as rainbow chard and Romanesco broccoli. The book also suggests some “less-famous winter squashes” that are worth growing.

Some of the advice is of little use to a British audience – who has a problem with racoons? – and some of the crops lose a little in translation; I’m still not completely sure what a pole bean is, while you have to read closely to work out that cilantro is what we know as coriander.

Growing Perfect Vegetables is also, despite the title, not a guide to growing but harvesting once you’ve successfully raised your crops.

But, if you’ve ever puzzled over whether a leek is ready to pull or how to extend the ripeness of apples, this book will more than solve your problem.

Square Foot Gardening: Growing Perfect Vegetables is published by Cool Springs Press, RRP 11.99. Buy now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Cool Springs Press.

Read more book reviews here

Review: The Jam Maker’s Garden by Holly Farrell

Gluts are a way of life when you grow your own. True, staggering seed sowing of veg can help to avoid the need for ‘lettuce with everything’ but there’s little that can be done about apples or gooseberries. Even freezing has its limitations; there are only so many crumbles you can eat. The Jam Maker’s Garden by Holly Farrell offers some alternatives.

Like her earlier book, Grow Your Own Cake, it falls somewhere between gardening advice and recipe book with as much about how to grow crops as varied as blueberries and sweetcorn as there are recipes for such delights as beetroot chutney or cherry jam. All are well illustrated with photos by Jason Ingram.

Jam-making has, she freely admits, a rather old-fashioned image: “It is often used as shorthand for a small-town, small-world, small life . . .”

Yet, in Farrell’s hands it takes on a more modern air: caramelised onion marmalade is de rigour on many smart menus these days.

Despite, the title, The Jam Maker’s Garden is not just about jam and includes chutney and ketchups and she does not advocate growing merely to preserve: “I would be disappointed if you did, for you would be missing out on the pleasures of eating the fresh fruit or vegetables in season.”

jam maker's garden
Cucumbers are ideal for preserving Photo: Jason Ingram

In the same vein, there’s little point in growing anything you don’t like to eat. “Give it away and do not grow it again,” she advises.

She opens with a basic run through of how to grow: soil preparation; using compost; growing in containers; raising from seed; pests and diseases. There’s information on fruit trees, the different root stocks, how to train and pruning. For novice gardeners, there’s even a handy picture guide to common weeds.

The cooking side is equally comprehensive, covering definitions – jelly is the same consistency as jam but clear and smooth; cheese is a strained jam, dried so that it can be sliced – equipment and preparing fruit and veg.

Farrell outlines how to test for a set, potting and storage and provides answers to common problems such as dry chutney.

The recipe side of The Jam Maker’s Garden divides neatly into two: the fruit garden and the veg garden with subsections for spring and summer, and late summer and autumn.

jam maker's garden
Strawberry jam is a store cupboard staple Photo: Jason Ingram

Each then has a range of suggested uses for crops, some traditional, such as raspberry jam, others more unusual, including pear caramel, windfall marmalade, and rhubarb and rosemary ketchup.

Some of the recipes have hints borne of long experience – stirring from side to side when making curd is faster than going around and around the pan – and there are often variations on basic recipes; lemon curd could be lemon, honey and ginger curd. There’s also cross-referencing to cultivation advice or other recipes for the ingredients

And it’s not just fruit and veg: edible flowers and herbs are also included as she has concentrated more on home-grown ‘additives’ rather than exotic spices.

Farrell describes jam as “bottled sunshine” and says a “line of gleaming jars on the kitchen shelf brings as much pleasure as a line of crops in the garden”.

With this book on your shelves, you could also have the pleasure of solving that glut problem.

The Jam Maker’s Garden by Holly Farrell, photographs by Jason Ingram, is published by Frances Lincoln. RRP £17.99. Buy Now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

Read more book reviews here

Review: Rosy Hardy – 25 Years of Chelsea

When it comes to column inches and television air time often it’s the garden designers at RHS Chelsea that get the most attention. Yet, in the Great Pavilion the nursery stands demand just as much planning and attention to detail. So, it’s good to see the spotlight being put on their contribution in this new book by Rosy Hardy of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants.

hardy'sIt charts the Hampshire nursery’s 25 years at Chelsea, including a show garden in 2016, and gives an insight into how it takes far more than just top class plants to make an award-winning display.

Seeing their success today, it’s hard to imagine the small-scale way in which Rosy and her husband, Rob, started. They came into the business “almost accidentally” when they bought some plants from a closing down nursery and sold them at a local car boot sale. Soon they had dug up their back garden to grow more and commandeered Rosy’s mum’s greenhouse for propagation before renting a walled garden for what Rosy describes as “a ‘grown up’ nursery”.

Their Chelsea debut in 1992 was similarly low-key: Rosy’s sister-in-law lifted plants from her own garden and brought them to Chelsea in carrier bags to plug gaps in the display. It’s a far cry from today’s highly organised preparations, which are described as “a military operation”.

hardy's
Rob and Rosy on their 2017 Chelsea stand

Written in a conversational style, the book looks at each of their Chelsea years with snapshots of the displays and anecdotes, from the plants they have introduced to food poisoning and a blackbird that nearly scuppered one exhibit. There is also the background to the 2016 show garden, which looked at the chalk streams that have shaped their part of Hampshire.

As they have grown in experience and confidence, so the exhibits have become more complex with the turning point in 2004 with the first of their more ‘garden-like’ stands. They are also known for their ‘walk-through’ features, which allow visitors to get close-up to the plants, such as their exhibit at Chelsea this year, pictured at the top of this page.

The book is also a record of the changing nature of the industry with the ditching of peat and the rise of the internet; in 2012 Hardy’s stopped producing a printed catalogue.

hardy's
The 2016 Chelsea show garden

But what makes this more than just a trip down memory lane is the inclusion of plant advice based on their years in the industry. Woven through the Chelsea stories are suggestions for plants for specific locations or soils and lessons in using colour effectively in the border.

Rosy admits that when they started, her beloved herbaceous perennials were unpopular with many and described as ‘weeds’ by her fellow exhibitors. Hardy’s must take some credit for changing minds.

Rosy Hardy – 25 years of Chelsea is available from Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, either at the nursery or any of the flower shows and plant sales they attend priced at £7. It can also be ordered by phone or email with a delivery charge of £1.95 per copy. Visit Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants for details.

Review copy supplied by Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants.

Read more book reviews here

Review: The Salad Garden by Joy Larkcom

I first encountered French dressing on a school trip to Paris. We were all puzzled by the idea of putting vinegar on lettuce as such things had yet to reach rural Norfolk. For us, salad was lettuce, tomato and cucumber with a dollop of salad cream. How little we knew.

My salads have been more adventurous for many years now but reading The Salad Garden by Joy Larkcom, I realise I still have much to learn. Yes, fennel, rocket and even red mustard are familiar but I’ve never thought of putting kale into salad and know nothing of Chinese artichoke.

The Salad Garden, first published in 1984, has been reissued with a revised and updated text that now includes more recent additions to the salad plate, including microgreens and cucamelon, described by Larkcom as “an edible novelty”.

the salad garden
There’s a huge range of lettuce to grow Photo: Jason Ingram

It has long been labelled a ‘classic’ among gardening books and it’s easy to see why. Packed with content, it covers more than 200 ‘ingredients’ for salads, ranging from the familiar lettuce, through Oriental greens to edible wild plants and even weeds.

Each section gives not only cultivation and harvesting directions but suggestions for varieties to grow; some to cope with particular conditions, others to give a longer season of cropping.

The advice is borne of many years of growing: Larkcom started with a Suffolk allotment, moving through potagers and a market garden to her present-day County Cork home. Many of her more unusual suggestions are the result of a year she and her family spent travelling around Europe in a caravan, learning about vegetable growing and local varieties. Later she continued her research across Asia and America.

The salad garden
Nasturtium flowers are pretty and edible Photo: Jason Ingram

But there’s far more to discover than just what to grow. Her tips include practical ways of stopping cabbages rocking on windy sites, how to water lettuces, and mixing carrots with annual flowers, such as love-in-a-mist, to hide them from carrot fly.

She suggests letting landcress self-seed – “This sometimes seems the simplest way to grow it!” – advises against buying oriental veg too early in the season as it is prone to bolt, and notes that dwarf ornamental brassicas make good winter conservatory houseplants.

There are sections on compost-making, the design of kitchen gardens and the best size and shape of beds, growing in small spaces or containers and how to sow seed.

the salad garden
Cold frames can be used for winter crops Photo: Jason Ingram

The book ends with recipe and serving ideas, a directory of seed suppliers and a very useful chart to plan a year-round supply of different salad ingredients. There is even a ‘where to start’ list for novices.

As such, this book would be ideal for anyone interested in producing salads more varied, fresher and cheaper than it is possible to buy.

“Experiment . . . and grow what you like!” Larkcom urges us. Her book makes it easy to start.

The Salad Garden by Joy Larkcom is published by Frances Lincoln rrp £16.99. Buy Now (If you buy through this link, I may get a small fee and it doesn’t affect the price you pay.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

• For more book reviews, see here

Review: The Gardens of Japan by Helena Attlee

I’ve never been to Japan and, aside from Ishihara Kazuyuki’s Artisan Gardens at Chelsea, know little of the country’s gardens. Ask me to sum them up and I’d have probably muttered something about moss, rocks and gravel. So, I was hoping to learn more with Helena Attlee’s The Gardens of Japan.

gardens of japan

It definitely falls into the ‘coffee table’ category, despite being a paperback reprint of the original 2010 edition rather than a hardback glossy. This is not a ‘how-to’ book but one to inspire further research.

Attlee takes us on a whirlwind tour of Japan’s finest gardens, pausing in each long enough to give only a little historical background – vital to understanding many of the gardens – and a brief overview of what’s there. It is brief and would be insubstantial were it not for the stunning photography of Alex Ramsey, which helps to flesh out the description.

What she does do is give a sense of a different way of appreciating gardens and even of what constitutes a garden.

Many, especially the kare-sansui, dry gardens created from gravel and stone, were, she tells us “not made for touching or walking through. They were designed like paintings, to be viewed from a static position.”

gardens of japan
A representation of the Mystic Isles at Tofuku-ji

This is taken to the extreme at the Adachi Museum of Art and Gardens where the carefully constructed landscape can be seen only through specially constructed ‘picture frames’ on a viewing platform around the building.

Everything in Japanese gardens is carefully controlled from the precisely raked gravel – often done daily – to the carefully positioned rocks and, when you can enter, the route you must take; there is only one way around Katsura Rikyu. Surprisingly, a string-bound rock is universally recognised as a ‘no entry’ sign, something I cannot see being effective in open gardens in Britain.

In Kenroku-en, pine trees have their needles thinned by hand to give the trees a more transparent feel; at Heian Jingu, weeping cherries are supported by a bamboo frame and pruned annually to create a lattice effect; in Daichi-ji, azaleas are clipped tightly to produce undulating topiary.

Gardens borrow from the landscape – shakkei – and create a false perspective by using small trees to suggest distance. In some cases, the view beyond is vital.

“Without its view the garden is nothing,” Attlee says of Entsu-ji, which has one of the most famous examples of borrowed landscape.

gardens of japan
Early morning at Suizen-ji

Some have little in the way of plants beyond trees and moss – there are 48 different mosses in Ginkaku-ji – and Ryoan-ji has no plants or trees but just gravel and rocks.

There’s a sense of time slowing with stepping stones, double bridges and zig-zag paths all designed to stop a headlong rush from one end of the garden to the other.

Where there are flowers, they are revered with thousands celebrating the cherry blossom season with flower festival picnics, or hanami.

The Gardens of Japan would be a good starting point for anyone who is thinking of creating their own Japanese-style garden or planning to visit not least because it has a map and contact details for the gardens. I certainly feel as though I know a little more and will be looking at Ishihara Kazuyuki’s Chelsea entry this year with greater insight.

The Gardens of Japan by Helena Attlee, photography by Alex Ramsey, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £14.99. Buy now. (If you buy through this link, I may get a small fee and it doesn’t affect the price you pay.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

For more book reviews, see here

Review: The Thoughtful Gardener by Jinny Blom

Some years ago, I encountered a garden that has left a lasting impression. With its perfectly choreographed borders, striking design and air of romance, it was a slice of Chelsea Main Avenue style transported to the Cotswolds. The garden was at Temple Guiting Manor and it features in designer Jinny Blom’s new book, The Thoughtful Gardener.

the thoughtful gardener

Using examples drawn from gardens she has created across the world and her own modest-sized London plot, she explores her approach to the process of making gardens. The result is a beautifully illustrated and thoroughly enjoyable glimpse into the thinking of one of our top designers.

The creator of four Chelsea Flower Show gardens with a gold medal in 2007, Jinny came into the business obliquely. She describes her life as one that “unfolded as I walked” and it has taken a varied route encompassing drama college and work as a psychologist, a “career I loved”.

Then, on a holiday in Northern Spain, she discovered an unspoilt area in the Picos Mountains, full of wild flowers.

“Always obsessed with plants I was now on fire with them,” she tells us. She left her safe job and “armed with energy, enthusiasm and blind faith,” began her design career, choosing not to study the subject but to learn by doing.

Her initial emotional response to the Spanish countryside still underpins her work. Despite utilising the nuts and bolts of garden design from surveys to determine levels, exhaustive lists of what to include and even marking out a site with sticks, it is more a visceral feeling for the space that seems to drive her.

the thoughtful gardener
A tantalising glimpse at Temple Guiting Manor. Photo Andrew Montgomery

“More often than not when I arrive somewhere new I get to grips with what needs altering within hours. It’s a sort of fact-based intuition.”

Nevertheless, she will have carried out detailed research first into not only the geography and geology of the site but also its history and even what is growing in neighbouring plots.

Sometimes, as in Temple Guiting Manor, this research will form the blueprint of her plan; the garden at the manor house is laid out on the ancient framework of old farm buildings and animal enclosures.

Yet, her approach is not sentimental: ‘First we must destroy!’ is often her opening line, although she adds that her numerous ‘death warrants’ can be alarming to garden owners.

And it’s not just plants, trees and shrubs that are cleared, any building or structure not worthy of inclusion is swept aside. Conversely, she is quite prepared to build to perfect her design; a ‘little piggery’ was the solution to the meeting point between two sets of box-headed limes in one project. And she lavishes as much care on these constructions as she does on plant choice.

the thoughtful gardener
Vines housed in pots in Jinny’s own garden. Photo Andrew Montgomery

Some elements are regular features: she likes to include water; plants a hedge on every project “as a matter of course”; and ensures there is always something edible, telling us “There is no solace like a freshly pulled radish!”

While she admits to being nervous initially, Blom is now confident in her own judgement, although she believes fear is an essential ingredient in the design process: “only when this heightened state starts to calm down do you understand that a good design is within grasp”.

Written in an engaging, conversational style, The Thoughtful Gardener is also peppered with good advice from the choice of plants – “Plants that are popular are popular for a reason, so don’t be too clever – just plant them and enjoy.” – to the need to prepare the ground well – “Good soil is a reward beyond words.”

Above all, she is concerned with what we leave behind: “Making gardens well means leaving a legacy far in excess of our own short lifespan”.

At one point, she advises: “If you want to be seduced by the subject [gardening], then just look at the pictures and stop reading!” To do so would be to miss a treat.

The Thoughtful Gardener by Jinny Blom is published by Jacqui Small, RRP price £35. Buy now(If you buy through this link, I may get a small fee and it doesn’t affect the price you pay.)

Review copy supplied by Jacqui Small

For more book reviews, see here

Enjoyed this? Do leave me a comment and share the article.

Review: The Community Gardening Handbook and Grow by Ben Raskin

Aside from the ravages of slugs, the menace of ground elder and the weather, two topics often crop up in my conversations with gardeners: how to encourage the next generation and the difficulty of growing in towns where space is short. So, it seems appropriate in the midst of National Gardening Week to be looking at two new books that tackle those issues.

gardening

The Community Gardening Handbook and Grow have been written by Ben Raskin and draw on his experience both as Head of Horticulture at the Soil Association and as a father of two.

In them, he seeks to encourage us all to discover the joys of growing – whatever the space available or whatever our age.

The Community Gardening Handbook is a comprehensive guide on how to join a fast-growing movement in towns and cities across the world.

“There are plenty of ways to get your hands on some growing space,” Raskin assures us before going on to outline some solutions.

gardening

Although he includes the more solitary individual allotment plot or rooftop garden, it’s clear his real passion is for group gardening and even the allotment section has ideas on how to collaborate with other growers.

Novel space solutions include ‘portable gardens’ in skips, sand delivery bags or trailers while he suggests land awaiting development or the corners of parks could yield growing room.

Guerrilla gardening, where otherwise neglected public space is cultivated, is also considered, although he concedes planting up potholes would be more a statement on road repairs than a horticultural benefit.

Having established the parameters, each with practical considerations that would need to be considered and often with an example from across the world of where it has worked, he goes on to lay down a route to a successful community garden.

gardening

And it is thorough. Everything is covered from how to drum up support and, importantly, money to legal issues and how to ensure the project lasts more than one season. There’s even advice on running a public meeting.

More practical advice comes in sections on how to grow, including planning, watering and crop rotation, and what to grow with a list of his favourite crops complete with cultivation notes.

Despite the wealth of advice packed into the book, it is an easy read thanks to the layout and numerous photos.

As a handbook, it would provide a firm foundation to any new community project but much of the growing advice, such as saving seed and calendar of tasks, is suitable for any new gardener.

gardening

It’s new gardeners that Raskin is particularly concerned with in his other book, Grow. Billed as a family guide to growing fruit and veg, it is obviously designed with younger members in mind.

Colourful, illustration-heavy pages and a chatty style give it a children’s book quality. Yet, again it is packed with sound advice ranging from the structure of plants and what they need to grow to planning a veg garden and how to sow seeds. There’s even a simplified version of the periodic table showing what chemicals plants need and a checklist for spotting deficiencies.

gardening

Pages of stickers – ‘Top Gardener!’ and ‘I Dig Fruit and Veg’ – add appeal for younger readers and there are two games, a gardening version of snakes and ladders and a card game pairing fruits, to encourage participation while a recipe for pizza suggests using vegetables from the garden for the topping.

gardening

With a list of his top ten crops to try and a great ‘growing wheel’ showing how long things take to mature, there’s plenty to inspire and the book would be ideal as a starting point to getting children growing.

The Community Gardening Handbook (buy now) and Grow (buy now) are written by Ben Raskin and published by Leaping Hare Press. Both are priced at £9.99 RRP. (If you buy through the link, I may receive a small fee and the price you pay will not be affected.)

Review copies supplied by Leaping Hare Press.

For more book reviews see here

Enjoyed this? Do leave me a comment and share this article.

Review: My Life With Plants by Roy Lancaster

my life with plantsI first met Roy Lancaster when he led a guided tour of Plas Cadnant gardens as part of the North Wales Garden Festival. It was a slow procession not because the 80-year-old is unsteady – far from it – but because every time we moved a few feet along the path he found something else to talk about. Latin and common names, cultivation needs and where to find things in the wild were all delivered with such fervour I was left wondering what his reaction had been the first time he’d seen them.

This enthusiasm for his subject colours every page of My Life With Plants, which follows his life from a childhood roaming the countryside around Bolton to becoming one of the country’s most respected plantsmen. It seems that far from being a mere job, hunting out plants and then cultivating them is an all-consuming passion.

my life with plants
Roy on National Service in Malaya

Such is his obsession he dried plant samples under his mother’s carpet, turned down a ‘safe’ teaching job during National Service instead opting to fight in the Malayan jungle because of “its rich tropical flora and fauna” and once there turned his Bren gun ammunition pouches into collecting vessels, stuffing ammunition into his trouser pockets.

Yet, as we discover, it all came about by chance. His first love was bird-watching and on a trip led by a teacher he “spotted a strange plant growing as a weed in a potato patch”. It was eventually identified by the British Museum as the Mexican tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), the first found growing wild in Lancashire and only the second recorded in Britain.

my life with plants
Roy in his garden with Cordyline indivisa, photo RHS/Neil Hepworth

More importantly it sparked an interest in the young Roy that has led to him obsessively plant-hunting all over the world with many leading horticulturalists and the book is as much a who’s who of the plant world as it is about his life.

Although technically an autobiography, My Life With Plants doesn’t follow the usual style. True it charts his progress from an apprenticeship with Bolton Parks Department, through work at Kew, and Hillier Nurseries to television, radio and a successful freelance career but it doesn’t follow a strict chronological line. Nor is there a lot of the personal life that occupies many autobiographies. His wife, Sue, does feature and their children are mentioned in passing but it is the plants that are foremost.

my life with plants
With fellow panel members of Gardeners’ Question Time in 2000

Thanks presumably to the journals he has kept since childhood, he is able to recall exactly where and when he first saw a shrub or tree be it in cultivation or in the wild, while his descriptions bring the scenes he encounters to life.

He describes himself as “a plantsman who loves storytelling” and the book is a series of plant-based anecdotes: the Norwegian taxi driver who refused to stop in a storm when Roy spotted some saxifrage; lying in wait up a tree for thieves at Hillier; battling to give a talk against a séance. All are delivered with the same enthusiasm I encountered in Wales.

my life with plants
Roy in his front garden, photo Sue Lancaster

And his curiosity about plants is still as strong. I next encountered him the following morning at Crûg Farm, the nursery home of respected planthunters Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones, where he and his wife were guests. Breakfast was on the table but Roy was in the nursery garden, eventually stepping through the French doors, eager to tell us what he’d seen.

My Life With Plants by Roy Lancaster is available now, published by Filbert Press in association with the RHS, priced £25 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through the link, I receive a small fee. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Filbert Press.

Review: A Little History of British Gardening

history of gardening

My father always used to say that if you hung onto something long enough it would eventually come back into fashion. It appears the same could be said of gardening. Reading Jenny Uglow’s A Little History of British Gardening, it seems that even fads and fancies of gardening taste have their roots in history.

Very little is new from the idea of a British wine industry – the Romans established vineyards and lifted restrictions on wine production – to seed swapping among enthusiasts, medieval monks we are told “exchanged and bought seeds across the Continent”.

Meanwhile, today’s assertion that growing things is good for physical and mental well-being echoes advice by Shirley Hibberd in 1877 that “Contact with the brown earth cures all diseases”.

history of gardening
Rosemary Verey’s kitchen garden spawned a fashion for potagers

Even the Dig For Victory campaign of World War 2 had its origin in a similar drive during the First World War when city parks produced vegetables and some gardens were turned over to medicinal herbs, themselves reminiscent of the ‘physic’ gardens of medieval times.

The book takes us on a journey through time from the earliest growers – broad beans go back to the Iron Age – to the ordered and organised Romans who “created our first plant-filled spaces intended purely for enjoyment”, the first use of gardens for self-expression under Elizabeth 1, to twentieth century modernist designers such as Brenda Colvin.

While Uglow deals with big movements and landed gentry, such as Lady Rolle, who planted a 500m-long monkey-puzzle avenue at her Devon home, sparking a craze for the trees, the history does not neglect more humble growers. We learn of catching bats with Victorian under-gardener William Cresswell and meet Friar Daniel who is believed to have had 252 different varieties of plants in his 14th century Stepney garden, “perhaps the first botanical garden in Britain and the friar our first gardening expert,” comments Uglow.

history of gardening
Humphry Repton originally designed Sezincote’s water garden

The text is peppered with facts: wheelbarrows arrived in the 1190s, possibly introduced by Crusaders who saw them in the Middle East; Catholics, barred from worshipping under the Stuarts, planted knot gardens with coded religious meanings; rhubarb in white wine was once used as a hair dye. These snippets and the engaging tone lift the book beyond a mere historical account.

A Little History of British Gardening was first published in 2004 and has now been updated and reprinted, with what Uglow describes as “some weeding and tidying of the text”, although the unfortunate placing of Hidcote in Oxfordshire rather than Gloucestershire remains.

At the outset, she says that “Gardens are like a gate into history, but still with a link to the present”. There’s a strange sort of comfort in discovering that in tending our plots we are continuing something that has been done for centuries.

A Little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow is published by Chatto & Windus, priced £18.99 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 Chatto & Windus.

More book reviews here