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Gardening books for Christmas — reviewed by Ursula Buchan

14 November 2020

9:00 AM

14 November 2020

9:00 AM

Dan Pearson is one of the finest of all British garden designers, blessed with sensitivity, a wonderful eye, deep plant knowledge and a willingness to experiment. In Tokachi Millennium Forest: Pioneering a New Way of Gardening with Nature (Filbert, £40) he describes how a 400-hectare parcel of agricultural land and forest in the shadow of the Hidaka Mountains on Hokkaido has been returned to an augmented natural landscape, thanks to a newspaper magnate, Mitsushige Hayashi, with deep pockets and vaulting ambition, who bought it 30 years ago.

He wished to make a public ‘ecological’ park, both to cancel out his business’s carbon footprint and to reconnect his countrymen to nature; and he wanted it to be sustainable for 1,000 years — hence the name ‘Millennium Forest’. Since 2000, Pearson has created a more intimate layer to this enormous park, connecting its parts, both by making landforms and by planting great swathes of variously coloured perennials, many of them natives and all capable of surviving in a region of bitterly cold winters and short summers.

As this is Japan, there is much emphasis in the book on the spiritual dimensions of garden-making, which are clearly explained in contributions by the English-speaking head gardener, Midori Shantani. The accompanying photographs, mainly by Kiichi Noro, are helpful and atmospheric. Pearson’s commitment to this worthy enterprise is genuine and his prose intelligent and clear, especially in the exposition of why he has done what. That said, he is a little too earnest and respectful to make this the exhilarating read it might have been.

Philosophical ideas on what a garden is, or should be, also underpin On Psyche’s Lawn: The Gardens at Plaz Metaxu by Alasdair Forbes (Pimpernel, £50). This book describes the inception and realisation over 26 years of a garden landscape like no other, in a west-facing valley of 32 acres in Devon. Forbes’s range of interests — philosophy, psychology, myth, sculpture, architecture, landscape painting, classical literature, Taoism and much else — suggests a revenant from the 18th century, and I mean that as a compliment. He would surely be at home debating with Horace Walpole or Viscount Cobham the meaning and point of garden-making, deploying a classical vocabulary.

Plaz Metaxu (‘the place that is in-between’) is not designed as a ‘recreational garden’ but rather one influenced by Psyche — or ‘soul’. Forbes names his garden enclosures after ancient Greek gods or places, which stumps hoi polloi like me, but then this is a private garden, so he can do what he likes. I cannot say that, at the first attempt, I properly understood more than one word in two of the text, but this book merits slow and careful re-reading during the long winter evenings. The design (by Robert Dalrymple), photographs (mostly by Forbes or Andrew Lawson) and production are all superb.

So too are the photographs by Derry Moore for Monty Don’s American Gardens (Prestel, £35). Don’s uncontroversial theme is the extraordinary diversity of landscapes, climate and soils in the United States, which he illustrates by reference to 37 gardens — from very rich men’s pleasure grounds to community gardens in the Bronx. One thing is evident from his choices: American garden owners have fallen out of love with English gardens (which in any event were hard to reproduce faithfully except in the Pacific north-west) and have struck out on their own. Don has an easy, accomplished style, but this book, which is a tie-up with a TV series, is inevitably impressionistic rather than truly revealing.

It is something of a relief after all that seriousness to read a book which is unashamedly light-hearted and witty, the work of a cultured gent, Sam Llewellyn, who knows his Wodehouse. Digging Deeper with the Duchess (New Hat, £12) reminded me powerfully of the memoirs of the great Lady Addle, for the conceit of the book (anthologised from essays in the horticultural quarterly Hortus) is that he has a duchess staying with him in his house, The Hope, in Herefordshire. To keep her off the gin and fags he takes her either into his large garden or into other people’s, here and abroad, where she makes pungent comments and gets into scrapes. Along the way, information is imparted, some of it horticultural. At times, wit teeters over into facetiousness; nevertheless, I can recommend this book for your bedside table.

Not far from The Hope is a very fine garden called Stockton Bury, developed over at least two generations. One member of this family enterprise, Tamsin Westhorpe, has shared her daily doings in Diary of a Modern Country Gardener (Orphans Publishing, £20). This is a cheerful, chatty, self-deprecating and illuminating account of working in an open-to-the-public garden through the seasons, with asides about what is happening at the family farm next door. I forgive her overuse of exclamation marks since her mission is plainly to connect with fellow gardeners on a dirty-fingernail level, and that makes it a comforting read.

Also blithely enjoyable is a slim volume entitled Follies: An Architectural Journey by Rory Fraser (Zuleika, £14.99). He is a young man with a keen historical sensibility who, the week after graduating from university, went searching England for 25 follies to describe in words and paint in watercolours. If this seems odder than partying in Ibiza, he explains that he was inspired first by a remarkable Hungarian émigré teacher (’Schutz’) who hosted a ‘Building Society’ at his school, and then by studying Alexander Pope at Oxford.

The follies and eccentric buildings Fraser depicts include Sir Thomas Tresham’s Triangular Lodge, with its Trinitarian symbolism, the political statement which is the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe, the Needle’s Eye at Wentworth Woodhouse, which was built for a bet, and the Headington Shark, devised as a protest against the American bombing of Libya. This book offers charm, amusement and light-touch erudition, which is what this gardener is looking for — at least until the days begin to lengthen once more.

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