The lure of gardening books

Sunday, 15 August 2010

A recent renovation saw me having to remove all my gardening books from their shelves and place them in piles in my daughter's room for a week. It was lucky she was away on a holiday at the time, as the books seemed to take up the whole room, making me aware of just how enormous my collection had become.

Those who know me are aware of my weakness for gardening books, which began at the same time that I became addicted to gardening. As an avid reader from childhood, it was a joy for me to discover that along with the pleasures of actually doing gardening, there was a whole world of books on the subject to be read.

An old favourite

Handling each book and glancing at them as I stacked them up on the floor, gave a snapshot of my gardening journey over 30 years. The earliest books were very much how-to manuals, giving earnest instructions on all the practicalities of gardening: when to prune, when to plant annuals, what to spray for pests and diseases. These books were my bibles and I studied them fervently, trying to acquire what seemed like an insurmountable body of knowledge. Some were very dry tomes, but others, such as Alan Seale's Gardening for Pleasure, were reassuring and comforting books that encouraged me with the idea that one day I could become a gardener. Shirley Stackhouse's Gardening Year was another early favourite, as it took the reader through the year a month at a time, gently guiding on gardening tasks but also expanding the reader's horizons on plant choices and seasonal themes. Reference books on plants were also read and reread during this time.

Vintage gardening books

A whole section of my shelves is devoted to my English cottage gardening years, mainly during the 1980s, when I was fired up with the idea of creating my garden into something transplanted from a Cotswold village, or in my more deluded moments, something akin to a garden of a grand country estate in England. I devoured many English gardening books, by authors such as Margery Fish, Rosemary Verey, Anne Scott-James, Penelope Hobhouse, Christopher Lloyd, Gertrude Jekyll and Beth Chatto, making endless lists of wonderful perennial plants I must try and drooling over stunning photographs of superb borders , coloured-schemed to perfection. I was obsessed with Sissinghurst, and have a number of books about that garden, as well as all the vintage gardening books written by Vita Sackville-West. This era of my gardening life culminated in a trip to England in 1987 to visit all the gardens I had read about in these books, which remains one of the highlights of my life.

However, eventually I discovered that it was not so easy to create an English garden in Sydney, because our climate is so very different, and sadly, I had to give up that particular dream. I never lost my love of the wonderful colour schemes that I had seen in English gardens, nor the exhilarating effect of exuberant, billowing plants growing together to form a coherent picture. I bought books about colour in gardening, such as Penelope Hobhouse's Colour in your Garden, photographer Andrew Lawson's The Gardener's Book of Colour and the brilliant Colour Echoes by Pamela Harper, which explained the principles of colour and how it can be used in planting schemes. I also realised the importance of foliage, and read books devoted wholly to leaves!

For a while, I was interested in the idea of Mediterranean gardening, thinking this could be the answer, and I acquired a number of books on the subject, before realising that this was not quite right for Sydney's climate either.

I then moved on to the world of semi-tropical gardening, using warm-climate plants from South Africa, Southern and Central America and other regions with climates similar to ours to try to recreate the effects I had adored in the English gardens. So there are shelves groaning with books on tropical gardens and tropical plants. One thing I had learnt during my English garden phase was the importance of good structure underpinning lush planting schemes, so I read books on garden design, such as the classic Education of a Gardener by Russell Page and Elements of Garden Design by Joe Eck.

My horizons were also expanded when I discovered a number of American garden writers who wrote engagingly and amusingly of their own personal experiences and ideas, and introduced me to a different perspective on gardens and planting altogether, authors such as Ann Lovejoy, Henry Mitchell and Allan Lacey. And of course, I read any books written by Australian gardeners telling of their own gardens and experiences, including those by Leo Schofield, Michael McCoy, Edna Walling and Tom Garnett. Other books on my shelves speak of passing fads and phases: grasses, earthworms, North American prairie plants, hellebores, species geraniums, herbs and seed-raising. I also have enjoyed books exploring the meaning of gardening and why we garden, such as Peter Timms's The Nature of Gardening and Karel Capek's quirky The Gardener's Year.

I think I have spent more time reading gardening books over the years than actually gardening, and I certainly have never put into practice a fraction of what I have read. Still, perusing gardening books remain one of the joys of my life!