Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Good intentions and bad-tempered gardeners

OK, that's enough frivolity and garden shopping and barbecues and so on. It's time to think, really think, about the garden. Any garden, come to that.
I've been reading Anne Wareham's new book,
The Bad-Tempered Gardener, which is published on 5 May. It's quite eclectic - there are chapters on snowdrops and alchemilla mollis, and deadheading and visitors, as well as deeply personal accounts of why she created Veddw, her garden, in the way she did.
I would say the linking theme is passion - passion for Veddw, passion for her reflecting pool, for plants such as the
Stipa tenuissima on her terrace, for ways of thinking, for ways of doing things, for ways of not doing things.
There's a sort of searing honesty about it that isn't always comfortable to read. There's a great sense of Anne's vision of herself as an outsider; how she is often bewildered or puzzled by gardens; what she calls the dishonesty of the gardening world, and her fears for the future - how will she cope with Veddw in years to come?
I have to declare a bias here: I like Anne, because she makes me think. I don't always agree with her (a virtual chasm yawns between us on the subject of lawn edging, for example) but I like the way she nudges - no, make that jolly well shoves - my brain into gear. She is the human equivalent of the sort of strong cocktail - a White Lady, perhaps - that makes you gasp in shock, but feel invigorated afterwards.
Take, for instance, her views on buying plants. "The nursery habit is at the bottom of the absymal British garden. That and plant sales at NGS garden openings. All those little specials, all needing to be squeezed in somewhere in an already over-stuffed garden."
Anne prefers repetition - "I can almost always think of a further use for a plant that is good and does well with me" - which she says adds to a garden's unity and integrity, but warns that this is not a common view in British gardening.
I think this is both true and not true. I personally feel nervous about having too much of one thing in my garden - too many hostas or libertia, not enough flowers - so I recognise that pressure to diversify and how difficult it is to resist it.
On the other hand, I know lots of gardeners - mainly those with a "nursery habit", it must be said - who feel that, ideally, their gardens could do with being de-spotified. So they recognise the aesthetic pitfalls that await the gardener/collector even if they don't really do anything about it. And I'm as susceptible as the next person to an impulse buy at a nursery or show.
Anne's also very scathing about the National Gardens Scheme, for a variety of reasons, but in the main because, she says, they help perpetuate an uncritical fantasy view of gardens. As the owner of a Yellow Book garden, this made me wince. And yet, and yet ... NGS gardens do vary in quality, it's true, and it's also true that no one is ever rude about them, because they open for charity. Is this good or bad? At least we ought to think about it.
There are far more bits of this book that make me nod in agreement than make me throw it down in frustration. The chapter headed: "I hate gardening" made me laugh out loud. (The bit about lawn edging made me quite cross, but I was in the bath at the time, so thought better of chucking it in the water.)
I was rather amazed to find that I share some of Anne's enthusiasms and dislikes. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with hellebores. I have a bit of a weakness for succulents. I like hostas and Erigeron karvinskianus 'Profusion' and crocosmia, and I can quite see that one could almost fall in love, Narcissus-like, with a reflecting pool like the one at Veddw.
So, criticisms. Not enough pictures. Or maybe not big enough pictures. It's not that I want a coffee table book, with huge close-ups and minimal captions, but Anne is married to a very good photographer, and I would have liked to have seen more of Veddw. It's the sort of garden where structure, texture, colour, form cry out for closer analysis. I'm guessing printing costs were an issue.
The proof reading could have been a bit sharper - there were quite a few typos. (I hope Anne didn't have to do all the proof-reading herself - you can never spot your own literals.)
These aside, I have enjoyed the process of reading this book, of being constantly challenged and made to stop and think.
The title is a reference to Anne's reputation as a critic, but it is also a jocular nod to Christopher Lloyd's The Well-Tempered Garden, which is itself a play on The Well-Tempered Clavier, the title of Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues.
Bach composed these in every major and minor key to show off the tuning of the newly invented piano. They have become required repertoire for any pianist who takes themselves even the least bit seriously; Daniel Barenboim says he likes to play at least one every day.
It would be nice to think that Anne's book might become required reading in the relatively new field of garden criticism.