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.

Cotswold gardening talks 2017

Gardening experts are heading to the Cotswolds this year offering advice on everything from early spring bulbs to the meaning of flowers.

Want to know how to build a pond and plant a bog garden, or perhaps pruning trees is a puzzle. Workshops, lectures and a garden festival will give gardeners ample opportunity to pick up tips and advice.

Here’s a round-up of the gardening talks on offer.

Allomorphic

Stroud-based home and garden shop Allomorphic is also the setting for a series of day courses and lectures with lunch.

Award-winning designer and RHS judge Paul Hervey-Brookes will be sharing his design expertise in three courses covering planting for winter, gardening in a small space and the basics of creating a show garden.

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Paul Hervey-Brookes on his gold medal garden at Hampton Court

Other courses include how to make beautiful hand ties, summer door wreaths or arrangements to suit every celebration.

The ‘Queen of Herbs’, Jekka McVicar will be sharing her knowledge of plants medicinal and culinary while container planting expert Harriet Rycroft will explain how to have pots that look good all year-round.

Dates, details and prices here.

Gardens Illustrated Festival

The magazine’s second festival at Westonbirt School has a line-up of some of the gardening world’s best-known faces.

Designers Cleve West, Tom Stuart-Smith and Arne Maynard are among those who will be looking for paradise, exploring the health benefits of gardens and the use of beautifully crafted materials in gardens, while Sarah Raven will be showing how to combine colour in borders.

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Westonbirt School hosts the Gardens Illustrated festival

The roses of Sissinghurst, how to be a green gardener, and the canals and water gardens of Birmingham are just some of the subjects that will also be explored during the two-day festival.

The event on March 25-26 also has tours of the garden and a plant and design clinic alongside the gardening talks.

For details, see here

Highgrove

The Prince of Wales’ garden is hosting a lecture and lunch with Shane Connolly, floral arranger for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding.

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Highgrove is the setting for talks and workshops

He will show how to create arrangements that convey particular sentiments while explaining the historic symbolism of flowers.

The garden at Tetbury also has courses with Caroline Tatham and Kate Durr of the Cotswold Gardening School on planning and planting borders, container gardening and garden design.

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Caroline Tatham of The Cotswold Gardening School

For more details, see here

The Generous Gardener

The Generous Gardener near Cirencester is launching a new series of evening lectures alongside the usual daytime gardening talks.

Among those speaking at the evening events at The Coach House Garden are Bob Brown, of Cotswold Garden Flowers, with advice on new garden-worthy plants and Helen Picton talking about growing asters.

The lecture days, now in their fifth season, include two speakers and lunch. Among the double acts are Alan Street from Avon Bulbs talking about early spring treasures and Tony Kirkham, head of Kew’s arboretum, giving advice on everything to do with trees.

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A series of lectures are being held at The Coach House

Leading designers Julian and Isobel Bannerman will take you through the making of their gardens while Derry Watkins, of Special Plants nursery, will tempt you to grow plants that are borderline hardy.

Designer Rupert Golby shows how to bring the garden indoors and writer and plantsman Stephen Lacey will suggest plants to introduce scent.

Bog gardens, ponds and how to create and plant them is explained by Timothy Walker, former director of Oxford Botanic Garden, while Telegraph columnist Helen Yemm will be choosing plants for a stunning summer show.

Plantsman Roy Lancaster shares his lifelong passion for plants and Helen Dillon will give an insight into the making of her famous garden in Ireland.

For dates, prices and more details see here

Cotswold Talks
Bob Brown is one of the speakers

Cheltenham Horticultural Society

Renowned plantsman Nick Macer, of Pan-Global Plants, will be the speaker at a special anniversary lecture in Cheltenham in October.

‘Things that turn me on – confessions of a plant freak’ is being organised by Cheltenham Horticultural Society as part of its 75th anniversary celebrations.

Nick, who is also on the BBC Gardeners’ World presenting team, will be talking at Balcarras School in Charlton Kings.

Tickets will be on sale later in the year. For details, see here

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