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“The elephant in the garden”

Bad Tempered Gardener,Anne Wareham,Charles Hawes,Veddw. Image © (all rights reserved)
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.

Bad Tempered Gardener,Anne Wareham,Charles Hawes,Veddw. Image ©Charles Hawes/ (all rights reserved)

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?

Book points:

  • 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.


Thank you for images to:

Book and tags:
Veddw garden: Charles Hawes


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At the risk of sounding exuberantly positive, I'm so glad you enjoyed this book, Graham. I thought it was a great read, for all the reasons you give.

Growin' Granny

“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….”

...“they’re mostly enjoyable for the result and not the process.”

For me, no comparison whatsoever to housework. In the garden, I love the process as much as the result and, in fact, don't even pause as much as I ought to in order to admire the result. Those "boring" tasks can often put me in a wonderful zen-like space...


I'll have to check this out. I love books on gardening with strong opinons even if I don't always agree with them. Since I studied horticulture and have seen and worked in so many gardens I've become pretty critical about gardens (though I usually try to at least be polite about if it is a private garden).

I visited my brother when he was living in Japan and he brought me to the Botanical garden in Kyoto and I started pointing out all the design flaws and problems I saw at the garden and he was stunned. "I think it is beautiful." he said. "Can't you just enjoy it?" I guess I don't just simply enjoy gardens any more. I love seeing things that are well done or well cared for but I immediately start looking for flaws and judging gardens and I can usually see right away what they were attempting to do but didn't quite pull off.

A garde lay person like my brother considers this a tragedy. But it is just how I look at gardens now.

Graham Rice

I know what you mean, Growin' Granny, sometimes the chores, weeding in particular, become strangely satisfying and weeding, of course, also ensures that you look closely at every plant and every seedling.

And yes, Kaveh, sometimes you need to step back and let go, absorb something larger than the lines and the placements... though it's not easy.

Nigel Colborn

Being an inordinately slow and easily distracted reader, I haven't finished this book yet. So far, what I've read has made me feel like a child who, doing something he shouldn't, has received a sharp slap.

Any reader who loves gardening – rather than gardens – will be jolted as hard as I was. And in some cases, Anne Wareham is absolutely spot on with her disapproval. But in others, after careful consideration, I profoundly disagree some of her statements.

Inspired to push back, and hard, I'm now redoubling my efforts to swell my plant collection, will take a great deal of extra care with my edge trimming and plan to propagate scads more plants just for the fun of it. Alchemilla mollis is hereby banned from my garden - but I'd absolutely LOVE to accommodate a reflecting pool like the one at the Veddw. But I'd have to dig up my jumble of plants to make room for a pool, though, and that would never do.

James Golden

Thanks for this enjoyable, well balanced review. I should disclose that I know Anne (in a cyber kind of way) and, frankly, I expected a book of vituperative attack. When I got The Bad Tempered Gardener this week and started reading it, I was delighted. It's a really fun read. You don't have to agree with everything in it to appreciate its refreshing approach (I too hate gardening, love my garden, and spend much of my life working in it). Anne ruffles feathers, and many people seem to despise her for that (strange how powerfully some garden people react to her), but she speaks truth (and a few contradictions don't negate that). You capture the spirit of the book and would make me want to read it (if I weren't already).

Graham Rice

I know what you mean, Nigel, and I think her prejudices against plants are a little wide of the mark. But lawn edging? Another ghastly job. You could grow more plants if you dug up the lawn altogether, especially as lawn mowing is second only to the dreaded hedge trimming. The only way I would have a hedge at all is if I won the lottery and could afford a full time hedge cutting person always on stand by.

Graham Rice

You're right, James, I don’t think “Bad Tempered” is quite the phrase… OK, “The Independent And Acerbic But Sometimes Good Humored and Enthusiastic Garden Creator” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Perhaps The Opinionated Gardener…? But that's been used.

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