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Earthly paradises: the best of the year’s gardening books

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

Important historic gardens fall into two main categories: those made by one person, whose vision has been carefully preserved down the years, sometimes for centuries, and those that are altered and developed by succeeding generations. Rousham, in Oxfordshire, is an example of the first and Bodnant, in the Conwy valley in north Wales, the second. Books on both have been published this year.

Francis Hamel is an artist, whose studio is in an old stable close to ‘the big house’ at Rousham, which was built in 1635 by the Dormer family. With the exception of the present owners, Charles and Angela Cottrell-Dormer — whose ancestor, General James Dormer, employed William Kent between 1737 and 1741 to improve on Charles Bridgeman’s 1720’s ‘landskip’ — he knows the garden better than anyone, having painted it in all seasons and most weathers and times of day. The majority of the paintings, reproduced so well in The Gardens at Rousham: Paintings by Francis Hamel (Clearview, £30), date from the ‘pandemic era’. The result is a remarkable testimony, by an artist of prodigious talent, to the genius of Kent, the sensitive forbearance of generations of Cottrell-Dormers, and the significant attractions of this garden. The oil-on-linen paintings are essentially, but not slavishly, representational and deeply atmospheric. The book also contains illuminating essays by the artist, as well as the novelist Joanna Kavenna, the garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith and the garden historian Christopher Woodward.

Bodnant Garden (Pitkin, £16.99) by Iona McLaren, a direct descendant of the man who first laid out the gardens at Bodnant in 1874, is an illustrated account of how each generation since has devoted its energies (when not engaged in politics and industry) to improving one of the finest gardens in the temperate world. In the process, Harry, the 2nd Lord Aberconway (1879-1953), became a generous sponsor of plant-hunting expeditions and a notable expert on rhododendrons and other ericaceous plants. Both he and his son Charles were presidents of the RHS. The McLaren family was crucially supported, between 1920 and 2005, by three generations of the Puddle family, head gardeners and remarkable plantsmen in their own right. Harry gave the garden, with an endowment, to the National Trust in 1949, but the McLarens work on. It is a riveting story, well told, and the family photographs are priceless.

Plant exploration is, of course, the theme of The Plant Hunter’s Atlas: A World Tour of Botanical Adventures, Chance Discoveries and Strange Specimens by Ambra Edwards, in association with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (Greenfinch, £30). This handsome book is organised, more or less, by continent, with the histories of up to 12 plants described in each chapter. The illustrations come from Kew’s vast collections: botanical paintings, drawings, book illustrations and herbarium (i.e. pressed) specimens.

As you would expect from Edwards, the prose sparkles, for she combines intellectual rigour with a lively style. And there is mercifully little attitudinising about the ‘evils of colonialism’, but rather a clear-eyed account of how humans — however base or elevated their motives — have searched for plants that could be used medicinally, economically or simply to adorn gardens. She mostly leaves readers to make up their own minds as to the morality of the business in different places at different times.

Modern plant exploration is much more collaborative than in the past, which is no surprise, considering the global reach of botanic gardens and the pressing need for conservation in a time of climate change. Edwards brings the story up to the minute with a description of the extraordinary attempts to save the last indigenous stand of the Wollemi Pine during the 2020 bushfires in Australia, and the tale of the Linsonyi tree of Guinea, described by a Kew botanist as late as 2018 and given the botanical name Talbotiella cheekii. Only then could it be added to the IUCN Red Data List of Endangered Species, acquire ‘conservation status’, and have a management plan devised — vital in a region where habitat destruction continues apace.

It is not always human agency that moves plants around. Bears and fruit bats are well known for it, but I had no idea that the now-extinct giant ground sloth probably transported the avocado, which originates in the forests of Mexico, to Brazil. This is one of the many interesting facts I discovered from reading Taming Fruit: How Orchards Have Transformed the Land, Offered Sanctuary, and Inspired Creativity by Bernd Brunner, ably translated from the German by Lori Lantz (Greystone Books, £24.99). There are wonderful books on British orchards, most recently Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden by Benedict Macdonald and Nicholas Gates (William Collins, £8.99); but I enjoyed Brunner’s book because it pulls back the focus to tell the history of fruit-growing in many other parts of the world, with no particular emphasis on this country. For example, in a chapter on ‘pomological gentlemen’, I expected to find the remarkable E.A. Bunyard, but instead encountered Father Korbinian Aigner, a Bavarian priest imprisoned in Dachau, who nevertheless bred four apple varieties from seed he had with him when incarcerated. One of them, ‘Korbiniansapfel’, is in commerce today.

It is no surprise that fruits find their way into The Star-Nosed Mole (Pimpernel, £20), an anthology of prose and poetry about scent by Isabel Bannerman, whose lyrical Scent Magic was published in 2019. I particularly enjoyed Shafer ben Utman al-Mushafi’s erotic poem, ‘Quince’, but there are many well-chosen gems from more than two millennia, from Sappho to Alice Oswald.

Alexander Pope, who knew and loved Rousham, remarked that gardeners should ‘consult the genius of the place in all’. No one understood that better than the late John Brookes, one of the greatest 20th-century British garden designers and teachers. How to Design a Garden (Pimpernel Press, £20) is a collection — edited by Gwendolyn van Paasschen, the chairman of the John Brookes-Denmans Foundation — of some of his best writings and lectures, lest we forget what a witty, opinionated, clever man he was, with an acute eye for topography and the local vernacular, and an unsnobbish sympathy for ordinary gardeners with small gardens.

All these virtues are present in horticultural spades in this anthology. The times were ripe in the 1960s for a humane ‘less is more’ modernist, and thanks to the books that Brookes has left behind, his influence should endure. No one will ever make another Rousham or Bodnant again but, with this kind of help, plenty of smaller earthly paradises.

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