At first I thought that this image might itself might be my review. No words, just this image making clear how many passages in The Bad Tempered Gardener by Anne Wareham (Frances Lincoln) I’d singled out and marked. But this could be ambiguous – had I marked passages because they were outstandingly good... or the other thing?
Well, I marked those that were especially funny, pithily sharp, were wildly hyperbolic, or impressively wise – plus one or two that were startlingly contradictory, that I especially agreed with, that were daft ill-considered, or were just very well written. But I started to mark so many that I had to become more rigorous, otherwise I’d have burst the binding with so many tags.
She’s sharp, perceptive and funny (that’s the line for the publisher to quote, or the next bit) and skewers traditional horticultural views with delight. She sounds off about nurseries (“the nursery habit is at the bottom of the abysmal British garden”), plant collections, sloppy garden writing, “‘King Edward’-type daffodils” (deliberately misnaming them after a potato). She champions ground covers of preposterous invasiveness, wood chip mulch, Erigeron ‘Profusion’, honest plant descriptions, garden centers, and black water-coloring dye. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or not, like the best garden writing it makes you think.
In particular, she quite rightly complains that all commentary on gardens is positive, sometimes exuberantly and untruthfully so. She’s right, and this is pretty much unique to gardens. Reviews of movies, plumbers, restaurants, political campaigns, exhibitions, cars, even mothers… all just say it as the author sees it. And, often, dislike of the subject inspires fine and entertaining writing. But not gardens and, oddly, not reviews of garden books. When I helped run Plants & Gardens magazine (RIP) long ago, we were praised for our honest book reviews. But no else has been prepared to say that a garden book gives bad advice or recommends poor plants. It’s just not reviewed. Mustn't upset potential advertisers.
And on gardening itself: “Gardening is boring. It is repetitious, mind-blowingly boring, just like housework. All of it – sowing seeds, mowing, cutting hedges, potting up, propagating is boring, and all of it requires doing over and over again….” Again, she’s right, mostly - I quite like sowing seeds. What’s odd is that her garden in Wales seems to have miles of hedges and acres of grass – two features which require endless hours of the most boring jobs of all. Presumably, as she says, “they’re mostly enjoyable for the result and not the process.” I have to say the garden at Veddw (above, click to enlarge) is wonderful (see pages 39/40 of the book – on writers who review gardens without visiting...).
I should say that while not all North American readers will understand the targets, many will enjoy the attitude and the style. Christopher Lloyd is very popular in the States and admired writers like Allen Lacy and Wayne Winterrowd are in a similar tradition. But, although her targets and assumptions are Brit-centric, North American readers will enjoy the ride.
All we need now is a weekly newspaper column of honest garden, plant and garden book reviews. Wanna share it, Anne?
- Some wobbly editing: someone can’t decide if contractions are OK or if they are not.
- With great respect to Anne's husband/photographer Charles Hawes, the designer is absolutely right to use the pictures relatively small, making it clear this is a book for reading and that the images illustrate the text. The text is not just the squiggly stuff round the pictures.