Review: Build a Better Vegetable Garden

garden DIY

On the path of garden DIY

I’ve never attempted woodwork since a compulsory carousel of practical subjects in my first year at secondary school. It wasn’t a high point in my school life though I fared marginally better armed with a chisel than with a sewing machine in needlework. Build a Better Vegetable Garden by Joyce Russell may change all that.

Covering everything from building an easy fruit cage to constructing a decorative obelisk, it shows how to save money and improve your veg plot by a little bit of garden DIY.

garden DIY
An apple store is one of the projects

The book, subtitled ‘30 DIY projects to improve your harvest’, achieves the near impossible by appealing to both the no-idea first-timer and the seasoned DIY expert; the latter are advised that they may want to skip straight to the projects.

Starting with the basics – what tools to buy, timbers to use and even the difference between galvanised nails and panel pins – Russell outlines in clear but unpatronising language how to get started.

garden DIY
Each project has easy to follow steps

There are tips on marking up timber, cutting and drilling, along with the sort of advice that comes only with experience: keep tools in familiar places so you don’t waste time searching for them; don’t cut anything until you’ve checked your measurements; be aware that cutting metal pipes makes them hot so allow them to cool before touching.

She suggests starting with something easy, such as the broad bean support, fashioned out of poles and string. From that you could progress through the leaf mould container and simple cloches to a mini greenhouse or garden caddy.

garden DIY
The A-shaped bean frame folds flat for winter storage

Each project is scaled for difficulty and the hours needed to complete. I particularly liked the ‘slug-proof salad trays’, complete with either copper pipe legs or feet sat in jars of water or old welly boots.

Woven through these practical projects are cultivation ideas from how to plant raspberry canes to crops for cold frames and what to put in a hazel planter.

garden DIY
There are ideas for planting in raised beds

Given my previous experience of woodworking, this book did not immediately appeal but it won me over. As Russell says in her introduction: “wherever we are on the gardening journey, there are always more things to learn and more ideas to follow”. This is one path I’m tempted to take.

garden DIY
The wooden planter can be used for flowers or veg

Build a Better Vegetable Garden by Joyce Russell, photography by Ben Russell is published by Frances Lincoln (£16.99 RRP). 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.

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Review House of Plants by Caro Langton and Rose Ray

Despite growing houseplants since childhood, we’ve always had an uneasy relationship. True, I did keep an asparagus fern going for more than 30 years but then I’m also probably one of the few people who has managed to kill a mother-in-law’s tongue. Houseplants also became less important once I left student days behind and finally got a garden of my own.

So, I was intrigued by the offer of a review copy of House of Plants by Caro Langton and Rose Ray. Would it rekindle my interest in indoor greenery and, more importantly, would it show me where I’ve been going wrong?

growing houseplants
Houseplants are a great way to bring outdoors inside

The authors’ love of growing houseplants began when they inherited a London house from Caro’s grandmother and in it “a collection of ancient cacti, succulents and tropical plants”. It’s these plants that they concentrate on in the book; if you’re planning to grow orchids, it’s not for you.

Wanting to know more about their new charges, they started to research and, more importantly, observe where the plants were growing and thriving in the house. Indeed, knowing what each plant likes is the key to their philosophy.

growing houseplants

“When it is in its ideal position, a plant will be at its attention-grabbing, animated best and it will thrive,” we are told.

Yet this is not strictly a ‘how-to-do’ book. It’s far more interesting than that. Beautifully illustrated with carefully composed photographs and some sketch drawings, it has more of the feel of a lifestyle guide than gardening tutorial and is written in an easy, conversational style.

growing houseplants
Houseplants can be used to screen ugly views

Yes, it does cover how to care for different plants, including watering, feeding, light and temperature requirements, whether they need humidity and how to repot, but there are also ideas on how to display them from using chairs and stools where there are no shelves to creating a foraged wall hanging.

Indeed, display is as important as care when it comes to growing houseplants and there are numerous suggestions: grouping plants in a glasshouse terrarium; sourcing unusual pots from markets and second-hand shops; making your own coir and concrete pots. I’m not sure seventies-style macramé plant holders will make a comeback though.

growing houseplants
There are ideas for displaying houseplants

Many of the ideas are accompanied by step-by-step instructions and photographs, while more advice covers plant ailments, repotting, propagation and even cleaning – with a paintbrush in the case of a prickly cactus.

Some of the tips are simple: taking a cardboard box along, if you are planning to buy a spiky cactus. Others are more complicated: mixing your own compost and how to make nettle fertiliser; I hadn’t realised strawberry leaves were an alternative.

growing houseplants
Houseplants can be used as table decorations

Meanwhile, a ‘cast list’ of plants and a glossary explaining horticultural terms make this ideal for the beginner who’s thinking of growing houseplants.

As for me, I was amused to find mother-in-law’s tongue among ‘The Immortals’, plants that “will keep bouncing back no matter what life (or their owner) throws at them”. Perhaps it’s time to give it another go.

House of Plants by Caro Langton and Rose Ray is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £20 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 Frances Lincoln.

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Review: The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden by Roy Strong

Did Shakespeare garden? Visitors to Stratford could be forgiven for thinking so as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust maintains five gardens at houses associated with the Bard, including New Place, which has just undergone a £6m transformation.

Yet, as art historian and landscape designer Sir Roy Strong outlines in his latest book, The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden, the New Place plot owes as much to nostalgia, patriotism and a dislike for Victorian bedding as it does to historical fact.

roy strong
Sir Roy Strong launching his new book in Stratford-upon-Avon

The recent revamping of New Place included an overhaul of its Elizabethan-style knot garden, first created in 1920 by Ernest Law.

It’s this knot garden, says Sir Roy, that occupies a special place in gardening history.

“. . . this recreated Elizabethan garden is not just sentimental curiosity but a milestone in the emergence of garden history and recreation,” he tells us and he describes the garden, created after a public appeal for funds, as “the first major public attempt in England to accurately recreate a garden of another age.”

The appeal of the past and, in particular, what was considered to be a golden age was shaped also by the timing of the New Place garden, coming two years after the First World War.

“Amid the turbulence of that era, security and tranquillity were seen to reside in recreating the past,” comments Sir Roy.

Shakespeare
Part of the reimagined New Place garden

The knot garden was laid out ‘in accordance with authentic contemporary plans’ but these were not specific to New Place; although contemporary reports state that it had a ‘greate garden’ beyond that nothing is known about it, including whether Shakespeare altered what was there when he bought the property in 1597.

However, the book is not concerned so much with the building of this garden as with the emergence of the idea of garden history and the linking of Shakespeare with nature that together provided the impetus for its creation.

In his characteristic lively style, Sir Roy takes us on a journey through the past covering the influence of the 18th century actor David Garrick on Shakespeare’s popular image, the Victorian fashion for the ‘language of flowers’ and the beginnings of the study of the history of the English garden.

Along the way, we encounter the flower-obsessed novelist Marie Corelli, Daisy, Countess of Warwick, who planted a ‘Shakespeare border’, and Henry Ellacombe, who first considered the idea of Elizabethan gardening in his 1878 book The Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare.

Ellacombe, we discover, was particularly attracted to the idea of Elizabethan gardening because he considered Shakespeare’s flowers to be ‘thoroughly English’ and hated the Victorian practice of planting tender annuals from Central and South America.

“ . . . it offered ammunition in the battle against mid-Victorian bedding out,” explains Sir Roy, former director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

shakespeare
The New Place garden

Of course, much of the alliance between Shakespeare and nature comes from the many references to flowers in his plays and these are quoted throughout the book.

They, along with paintings depicting the plays, details from Elizabethan gardening books and old photographs, help to break up what is carefully researched text, sometimes literally as I found my train of thought distracted by an engraving or quote.

The book concludes with Francis Bacon’s 1625 essay in which he outlines his views on what a garden should contain, something he describes as ‘the purest of human pleasures’.

The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden by Roy Strong is published in association with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by Thames & Hudson, priced £14.95 RRP. Buy now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Thames & Hudson.

Read Roy Strong on Shakespeare, Gardens and Hanging Baskets here and about my visit to his garden, The Laskett, here

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Review: Monet’s Garden by Vivian Russell

monet

I’ve always loved Impressionist paintings and those by Monet in particular. As a student, a visit to the National Museum in Cardiff to gaze at their collection was an instant pick-me-up. Years later on our honeymoon, I dragged my other half into Paris’ Orangerie to see the famous waterlilies. Naturally, as a gardener, Giverny has long been on my list of must-see gardens.

Yet, it’s somewhere that I knew very little about – beyond the instantly recognisable pictures of the wisteria-festooned bridge, the mass plantings of iris and sprawling nasturtiums.

Monet
Photographs show Giverny’s planting schemes

I say ‘knew’ because writer and photographer Vivian Russell’s book Monet’s Garden, Through the Seasons at Giverny, has filled in many of the gaps.

It’s a new paperback edition of a book that was first published in 1995, winning The Garden Writers’ Guild ‘Book of the Year’ award. Whether the text has been revised to allow for any changes in practice in the garden is unclear but that doesn’t detract from what is an enjoyable and informative read.

The book charts the history of the garden at Giverny from 1883 when Monet and his family moved in, starting as tenants and later buying the former cider farm, to the painter’s death in 1926 and beyond.

We learn how the various borders were designed, from the ‘paintbox beds’ to the Grand Allée and the book describes how Monet created his famous water garden, despite initial local opposition, turning the stream into a pond and slowing the water flow with a grille to protect the waterlily blooms.

A picture emerges of someone who gardened with a passion, searching out new varieties, sending plants to friends by train, worrying about his plot while away and even sitting up all night to ensure a new stove would adequately heat his greenhouse. He was a perfectionist, leaving detailed instructions for his head gardener, down to how many sweet peas to sow and the dates for starting dahlias into growth.

Monet
The book charts the garden through the seasons

That Giverny is today a popular tourist attraction is due to Gérald and Florence van der Kemp who masterminded its restoration 50 years after Monet’s death.

“There is no question that, without this formidable duo, Giverny would by now be history,” Russell tells us.

Yet, there is more to the book than a mere historical journey and it is as much about how the garden is managed as it is a description of what is there and why.

Working through the seasons, Russell outlines the extraordinary lengths the garden team goes to in order to recreate the Monet look. These range from the wholesale lifting of borders in autumn in order to store tender plants to the sowing of thousands of annuals and the endless tidying and manicuring of plants through the garden’s months of opening.

Monet
The behind-the-scenes life of Giverny is explored

Along the way, she gives details of varieties grown, from dahlias to roses, and the atmosphere of Giverny at different times of the year, all underpinned by numerous photographs that chart the life of this famous garden.

Yet, despite all this Giverny is, says Russell, a garden of “compromises”. Plants that would have been grown in blocks are now woven through borders, the banks of the pond are today densely planted as the original grass was being ruined by visitors’ feet, and the once open boundary railing now sports pyracantha to prevent a “free peep” into what is a commercial operation.

“Most visitors want to be dazzled more than they want authenticity,” explains Russell. “It is only the few purists who wish to see the garden as it was in Monet’s day with some beds in flower for just a few weeks of the year and positively dull the rest of the time.”

Monet’s Garden, Through the Seasons at Giverny by Vivian Russell is published by Frances Lincoln priced £16.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I will receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Quarto Press.

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Review: RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening by Chris Baines

wildlife gardening

It seems hard to imagine a time when gardeners didn’t encourage wildlife into their gardens. Most that I meet welcome the benefits of bees, birds and bug-eating insects to help with pollination and pest control. Yet it wasn’t always so and the republication of Chris Baines’ classic on wildlife gardening is a timely reminder that still more could be done.

First published in 1985 as How to Make a Wildlife Garden, The RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening has been revised, updated and re-illustrated for a new generation of gardeners.

Baines first brought the subject to public attention with a wildlife friendly show garden at Chelsea in 1985, a venture that he describes as “brave” in the days when “most of the gardening advice . . .was about how to get rid of wildlife in your garden.”

wildlife gardening
The ‘pictorial meadow’ at RHS Wisley. Photo: Carol Sheppard

Despite, it now being a mainstream issue, he paints a gloomy picture of the fate of our natural landscape, pointing out that 98 per cent of wildflower meadows have been destroyed and half of the ancient lowland woods.

As a result, domestic gardens are more important than ever, covering more than 400,000 hectares – bigger than the combined area of the country’s nature reserves.

“Wildlife gardening can make a massive contribution to creative nature conservation,” he says and goes on to outline a blueprint of action to take from providing the right habitat to supplying food.

wildlife gardening
Wildflowers mix with grasses in a meadow. Photo: Carol Sheppard

Chapters cover a range of terrains that will suit different species from woodland and hedgerows to water and wildflower meadows. Their importance is explained and the steps needed to recreate something similar in a domestic setting.

Mixed in with the call to arms – Baines is passionate in his appeal, urging letter-writing and membership of local environmental groups – there is a great deal of practical advice ranging from how to dig and line a pond to sowing wildflower seed.

There are sections on which plants to use – and those to avoid: some, such as sycamore, are deemed of little use to wildlife; others are invasive, including herb Robert; a few, including Ludwigia (water primrose) are dangerous when they escape into the wild.

wildlife gardening
Wild poppies are a beautiful summer sight. Photo: Carol Sheppard

Prevention is better than cure and vegetable growers are encouraged to net crops and employ companion planting to avoid the need to spray. Choosing the right varieties can also prevent problems: copper-leaved lettuce seems unattractive to birds, we’re told, while climbing French beans are better protected against slugs than their dwarf cousins.

As befits a serious subject, this is not a lightweight book: the text to picture ratio errs towards the copy and, despite the revisions, there is still a whiff of the 1980s about the layout with large slabs of text. However, the chatty tone helps to prevent it becoming dry.

We may not all embrace wildlife to quite the same extent as Baines, who is “thrilled” when he finds leaf cutter bees have cut circles on his rose leaves; I admit to being less than thrilled by visits from our local badger. Even so, there is still plenty that can be done to join his “green revolution”.

The RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening by Chris Baines, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced at £25 RRP. Buy now (If  you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

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Review: New Small Garden by Noel Kingsbury

new small garden

In common with many people, my first proper garden was small. A typical back-of-terrace town plot, it was narrow, overlooked and filled with a mismatched assortment of plants, the legacy of numerous owners. Looking back, I’m not sure I vastly improved things.

Reading Noel Kingsbury’s latest book, New Small Garden, I began to wish I could go back and do things differently. Armed with the advice he dispenses – and quite a few years of experience – how much better I could have handled things.

I’m not usually completely convinced by garden ‘design’ books. Beautiful to look at, they can seem more aspirational than inspirational, akin to many show gardens that are too often beyond the reach and budget of the average gardener.

Of course, this book starts with an advantage in that it deals with the sort of small space most gardeners have; even the modest garden of my childhood would seem large by today’s standards. Most of the gardens featured are under 100 sq.m. (328 sq.ft.) and a few are mere balconies or rooftop plots.

Even so, there is still a danger of making the solutions irrelevant to the average person, a failing that Kingsbury highlights: “Too many books on small gardens feature lots of pictures of hard landscaping or designs at flower shows where no expense has been spared.”

new small garden
Designing on the diagonal helps to make a garden seem bigger.

In contrast, this book is grounded in reality. The pictures (with the exception of one or two) are of real gardens, so the designs have been drawn up to please clients rather than impress show judges and the gardens have been paid for by gardeners not corporate sponsors. The result is a series of ideas that are easy to copy.

These range from ways to ‘borrow’ the landscape beyond your plot and the use of false doors and mirrors to create a visual illusion of more space, to using green roofs and plants with two seasons of interest to make each inch work twice as hard.

Ideas are clearly illustrated with pictures that demonstrate the suggested solution and stop the book being a mere design textbook. As a writer I hate to admit it but there are times when a picture is far more effective than words; one example has the same garden photographed in different seasons showing how the planting emphasis changes.

The book is thorough in its approach: chapters cover everything from the need to consider function and aspect to planting for wildlife, containers for small spaces and adding a vertical dimension with plants. Case studies at the end of many of the chapters show how these ideas have been put into practice in a real life garden.

new small garden
Plants can disguise boundaries

Some of the advice is aimed at the inexperienced with explanations on how to check your soil type, water containers and types of fruit. Yet, there is enough breadth to offer something of interest to those with more gardening years behind them. I will definitely be trying out the idea of photographing my borders in black-and-white to assess how well they are structured.

As well as hard landscaping and layout, the book also deals with what to plant and where. There’s advice on plants for every situation and soil type; ideas for designing with grasses, evergreens, or exotics; an explanation of how to layer with plants in a way that mimics nature.

“By learning how to combine them in this way, you will be able to make the most out of your small space,” advises Kingsbury.

The varied presentation of these ideas – conventional chapters, ‘masterclasses’ and case studies – keep the reader’s interest engaged with the photographs, highlighted quotes and smaller, inset sections of text breaking up the pages to make them visually appealing.

It’s been some time since I had the sort of small garden this book tackles but the advice is still relevant. Many of these ideas – be it plants for containers or how to get an all-year-round look – are just as important in a bigger plot. I just wish I’d had it all those years ago.

New Small Garden by Noel Kingsbury is published by Frances Lincoln, priced at £20 RRP. Photographs by Maayke de Ridder. Buy now (If you buy through the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

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Review: Gardens of the Italian Lakes

Friends smiled when they heard I was reviewing Steven Desmond’s Gardens of the Italian Lakes. We are known as the family who head for Italy most years and as for gardens, well that was a given. So a book that combines my two loves seemed certain to be a winner.

gardens of the italian lakes

Yet, I wasn’t so sure. I feared that at best it would be worthy but slightly dull, at worst little more than a cobbling together of guide book information dressed up in a glossy cover.

True, the cover has an immediate appeal – an envy-inducing view through a garden to Lake Como – and the fact that the book is illustrated with photographs by award-winning Marianne Majerus meant that, if nothing else, it was going to be very easy on the eye.

So, I settled down to read, telling myself that I could skim sections if the 200-plus pages proved too indigestible – and found myself totally absorbed.

The book opens with a general overview of the area and why it should be on every garden-lover’s itinerary.

gardens of the italian lakes
Villa Taranto

Desmond concedes that on the whole Italian gardens are often “not in the best of repair, and a bit short of decorative plant interest”. These gardens, he assures us, are different with “rich collections . . . organized into handsome layouts, often well labelled and, typically, immaculately maintained”.

Some of this is due to the influence of outsiders who have made this picturesque part of Italy their home, while the richness of planting is thanks to the climate with plenty of rain and temperatures regulated by the vast expanse of water, what Desmond describes as the “feeling of an inland sea”. It has allowed rapid growth – a scarlet oak at one villa has the girth of a centenarian but was planted only in 1938 – and the ability to grow many exotic things.

Gardens of the Italian Lakes is split into two sections: Lake Maggiore and Lake Como. There’s an introduction to each and then we are taken on a journey around their notable gardens.

These are varied from the Baroque garden on Isola Bella, the most visited in Italy, with its “unique combination of swagger, scenery and brilliance” to the “carpet slippers and afternoon tea” ambiance of Isola Madre and the rock garden that is Alpinia.

gardens of the italian lakes
Villa del Balbianello

Along the way, we discover the prato dei gobbi (lawn of hunchbacks) at Isola Madre, the garden with named terraces at Villa San Remigio and the double herbaceous borders of Villa Táranto, “a testament to the absurdity of British gardening abroad” declares Desmond.

Yet, this is not merely a description of what can be seen now but an exploration of the history of these gardens and the people who made them. We learn of self-made men, historic Italian families and characters such as the mysterious Baroness St Leger.

It’s detail that makes this far more than just a pretty coffee table book and yet Desmond’s light touch and chatty style mean it neatly sidesteps the pitfall of dry, historic lecture.

Some of his asides had me smiling and there’s the sort of guidance you need when travelling – how to get around (public service boats are deemed civilised and straightforward) and what to wear (“have your waterproofs somewhere near at hand”).

gardens of the italian lakes
Villa Sommi Picenardi

Desmond says that if he has done his job the book “will instil a desire to go and visit these places yourself.”

Me? I’m already packing.

Gardens of the Italian Lakes by Steven Desmond, photography by Marianne Majerus, is published by Frances Lincoln at £35 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Images taken from the book, copyright Marianne Majerus.

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‘New Wild Garden’ reviewed

Time was the only wild flowers I would see when visiting gardens were the weeds that the owner had missed. That’s all changed over recent years and now wild flower meadows or naturalistic planting turn up in many plots; they were even part of the 2012 Olympic Park. It’s a trend that’s been accompanied by a rise in the number of ‘how to do’ books on the subject and one of the latest is Ian Hodgson’s New Wild Garden.

wild garden

Hodgson, former editor of the Royal Horticultural Society’s The Garden magazine, describes the change as a “significant revolution” partly driven by a wish to have more natural-looking gardens and partly by a desire to work with nature rather than against it.

It’s this twin impetus that underpins his book, which is a fusion of suggested styles, such as woodland or meadow, and practical advice on the sort of climatic conditions and soil types necessary to achieve them.

“Taking our cue from nature encourages a more considered and efficient use of natural and manufactured resources so that ultimately our gardens tread lightly on the earth,” he advises.

wild garden
A wildflower meadow can be recreated in a pot

Easy ways to preserve wildlife habitats are outlined ranging from incorporating water into our gardens and providing shelter for insects to creating access through fences for hedgehogs and growing pollinator friendly plants.

When it comes to naturalistic planting schemes, he suggests that even the smallest garden can include an area of long grass studded with bulbs or wild flowers.

For those with no real garden space he has ideas for containers that mimic woodland or even a meadow.

wild garden
Hedges will affect growing conditions

There are also sections on prairie-style schemes, Mediterranean planting suitable for dry, sunny spots, bog gardens and woodland glades. All are illustrated with numerous photographs by Neil Hepworth.

Each has suggested plants, growing tips and how the scheme will benefit wildlife alongside practical advice on everything from preparing the ground to planting and how to grow using pre-sow meadow mats.

wild garden
Wildlife friendly plants can be grown in pots

Indeed, New Wild Garden – which is subtitled ‘natural-style planting and practicalities’ – doesn’t stint on advice, going right back to basics in some parts, such as which way up to plant a bulb and how to sow seeds. Such detail may be unnecessary for experienced gardeners but these self-contained sections are easily skipped.

What is of use to both novice and old-hand is the plant gallery section, with ideas for permanent and annual plants, including recommended varieties. Clear pictures and a short description make this an easy-to-use addition and there’s also a list of possible suppliers.

wild garden
A collection of pots mimics woodland planting

While a completely natural-looking garden may not be to everyone’s taste, what this book does demonstrate is that it is possible for every style to be nature friendly.

New Wild Garden by Ian Hodgson is published by Frances Lincoln, 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 Frances Lincoln.

 Available from The Suffolk Anthology

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Review Garden Design Bible

Like most gardeners I look back at my first plot and wish I had done it differently. Armed with the knowledge I’ve gained since then, I would have chosen different plants and, above all, a better garden design. Putting things in the wrong place and not making the most of the space you have is a common mistake among new gardeners and one that I fell into.

The newly republished Garden Design Bible could help you avoid such pitfalls. Written by Tim Newbury, a Chelsea gold medallist with his own landscape design business, it offers what he describes as 40 “off the peg designs” to help you get the most out of your garden.

garden design

These designs cover a wide range of styles from those that are plant-driven, such as a scented garden, or one with jungle-like foliage, to others that are determined by situation, including a seaside garden and exposed plot. There are plans suitable for low maintenance, others aimed for family spaces, minimalist, contemporary, cottage and formal.

Each section covers key elements that make it ideal for its purpose: a family garden has, for example, a no-risk water feature. There’s also a planting plan and list of suitable plants. Each garden design can be adapted and a ‘mix and match’ list at the back makes suggestions for alternative routes.

Step-by-step instructions on DIY projects include how to make a post-and-rope screen, construct a formal pond, or build a seat. Lighting, creating privacy, minimising water loss in container-grown plants and what to use for ‘grassless’ lawns are also covered in clear, easy-to-read language.

garden design
The book covers many different styles of garden

Unlike many design books, this is not packed with glossy photographs and designed for a spot on the coffee table. There are lots of pictures but they are used mainly to show individual features within a design or suggested plants. The main design is depicted instead by a watercolour illustration to give an idea of how the 2D planting plan would look if carried out.

In the same vein, it’s not full of cultivation advice – look elsewhere for how to prune roses or when to sow annuals – and there’s little on soil type or the size of plants. However, as a source of ideas from corner beds to trees for pots, it’s ideal and will certainly help newcomers avoid those design traps.

Garden Design Bible by Tim Newbury is published by Hamlyn priced at £16.99.

Review copy from The Suffolk Anthology

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Review: Shakespeare’s Gardens

Something that combined my love of Shakespeare with gardening was always going to appeal. What I hadn’t expected was that it would be informative as well as entertaining. Shakespeare’s Gardens by Jackie Bennett managed to surprise me by being both.

Shakespeare's Gardens

With the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death this year, a flurry of books about him was predictable. I had anticipated biographies, new interpretations of his plays, accounts of Elizabethan life but gardens? It seemed a tenuous link.

In fact, the book, published in association with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, manages to show how important they were. Bennett argues that to ignore Shakespeare’s houses and gardens is to miss out on a “very large body of visible evidence” about his world. She shows how from the gossiping gardeners in Richard II, comparing the state of the nation to a neglected plot, to the numerous references to plants and flowers, the influence of gardening is found throughout his work.

Mary Arden's Farm
Mary Arden’s Farm, photograph copyright Andrew Lawson

The book is based on the five Stratford-upon-Avon gardens now owned by the Trust. Of these, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is arguably the most famous and attracts visitors from all over the world. The Trust, which has its origins in a mid-19th century campaign to save Shakespeare’s birthplace for the nation, owns not only that house in Henley Street but also Mary Arden’s Farm, where Shakespeare’s mother grew up, Hall’s Croft, the house he gave to his daughter, Susanna, and New Place, his final home where he died in 1616.

Bennett uses these houses to take us on a journey not only through the biography of Shakespeare’s life from Stratford grammar school pupil to national poet but also through the development of gardens from “necessary food-producing plots to fashionable, flower-filled showpieces”.

Hall's Croft
Hall’s Croft, photograph copyright Andrew Lawson

She does not limit herself to Stratford but starts with a general overview of gardens at the time and touches upon London plots, such as those at the Inns of Court, that he may have visited.

Along the way, we learn about Elizabethan garden style with its ‘foot’ mazes and topiary; the influx of new plants, such as marigolds and nasturtiums; and the medicine of the time, and its use of herbs.

Much of this information is slotted into the chapters in the form of ‘standalone’ sections and they include passages on roses, daffodils, herbs and Tudor food.

New Place Shakespeare
New Place, photograph copyright Andrew Lawson

Understandably, little in the Stratford gardens has withstood the passage of 400 years and one of the challenges for the Trust is what style to adopt in each garden, whether to take them back to a more Tudor design or keep what has evolved; it will be interesting to see what course they follow in the future under the leadership of new head gardener Glyn Jones, formerly at Hidcote Manor Garden. In the meantime, the book charts their development from the plots Shakespeare would have known to the planting of today.

Trademark quality photography by Andrew Lawson and an easy-on-the-eye layout stop the book being merely an exercise in historical research, while the detail makes it more than just a brochure for what is already a popular tourist destination.

Shakespeare’s Gardens by Jackie Bennett, photographs by Andrew Lawson, is published by Frances Lincoln, 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 Frances Lincoln.

 Also available from The Suffolk Anthology

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