Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book Review: The New English Garden by Tim Richardson

One of the best garden books of 2013.
"The New English Garden" by Tim Richardson might easily be mistaken for just another lushly photographed coffee-table book describing well-designed gardens, the "garden porn" that gardeners love to curl up with during the cold winter months when they dream of spring.

But "The New English Garden" is far more than that. Yes, the book is packed with beautiful garden photos and yes, twenty-five of England's best gardens are described by a writer who knows much about gardens and writes well. This much can be said about a number of garden books that have been published in recent years, such as Jane Garmey's "Private Gardens of the Hudson Valley" and "Private Gardens of Connecticut," "Private Edens: Beautiful Country Gardens" by Jack Staub and "A Garden Makes a House a Home" by Elvin McDonald, all of which are lovely books describing well-designed American gardens and telling the stories of the gardeners who created them.

This book differs from and is superior to most other books portraying gardens in two ways. First, author Tim Richardson is a knowledgeable garden historian who chose the gardens in his book to illustrate a larger story of the direction in which British garden design has been moving in the past decade or so. This aspect alone places his book a level above the standard "portrait of a garden" collections which simply showcase beautiful gardens of a region or type.

Gresgarth, Arabella Lennox-Boyd's magnificent
garden. Good old-fashioned double borders
filled with flowers. Now that is a garden!
The book's three-page Introduction succinctly summarizes the trends in English garden design since the 1990s. That decade was the peak of a trend that had been developing since the onset of the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century, toward ever more complex herbaceous and mixed borders filled with flowers and designed according to flower color themes. This had gone on more or less uninterrupted for a century, except perhaps by the foray into modernistic garden design that accompanied the stark modernist architecture of the mid-twentieth century. But by the 1990s, English garden designers were looking for something different, and they found it in the more simple plantings of grasses and large drifts of perennials that had been developing in Europe in the work of Karl Foerster and Piet Oudolf. This has been called the New Perennials movement and has coincided with the desire for gardens that are less time-consuming to maintain, the desire of many gardeners to grow plants which require less water and fewer chemicals to grow successfully, and with the Native Plants trend.

Interestingly, Richardson posits that the New Perennials movement is now abating somewhat and that more traditional English garden style is returning and developing in other directions. This is good news for those of us who have never been very fond of grasses in the border (although, in my opinion, it is to the good that the inclusion among the New Perennials of such prairie plants as black-eyed susans and other brightly colored flowers has left English gardeners no longer so afraid of bold flower colors as they seemed to be in the 1990s, when "tasteful" pale flowers were the rule, and "hot borders" and Christopher Lloyd's Great Dixter plantings often caused fainting spells amongst feeble British garden visitors).

The sunken garden at Packwood House. Glad to see thebold flower colors,
but the sparse "Dry Garden" within the
hedges is a far cry from its earlier incarnation of an explosion
of beautiful flowers (in my humble opinion). 
But back to "The New English Garden," which doesn't just illustrate the story of English garden design of the past decade, but differs from other garden books in another, even more important way: Richardson is part of a new movement in Britain that is attempting to move gardening from its status as merely a hobby or technical profession to a more widely respected art form, on a plane with the status of visual art, music or writing. This movement insists that for gardening to be taken seriously as an art form, it must be subject to the same type of artistic criticism that differentiates between good and better art, the kind of constructive criticism that pushes artists to improve their work.

So Richardson writes about the twenty-five gardens in this book by first describing each garden and why he deems it significant, he relates the background and influences upon each gardener, and then he identifies both the most successful aspects of each garden, as well as any weaknesses he perceives. And this last bit is where the big difference lies.

It is actually slightly shocking to read anything that is not 100% positive about someone's garden, when usually garden write-ups are completely upbeat and admiring and often contain glowing descriptions of both the gardens themselves and the gardeners.

Temple Guiting, designed by Jinny Blom.
Not much to criticize here.
Richardson's comments about areas for improvement are not overwhelmingly negative, of course; nor does he have advice for each garden. And his criticism is of a wholly constructive kind, pointing out specific areas that could be improved or an overall strategy that could make the garden even better than it currently is (in his opinion, of course).

But it nonetheless takes a certain amount of chutzpah to say of the Prince of Wales' garden that "the general consensus is that the garden at Highgrove does not quite hang together as a coherent whole... ...there are many good ideas at Highgrove -- but ultimately there are just too many of them," but finishing on a more positive note: "... (they) provide a glimpse of the great garden that, with judicious editing, it could yet become."

And he bluntly states of Piet Oudolf's garden at Scampston Hall that "the overall structure of the new walled garden is a failure."

But he doesn't reserve his plainly-put criticism just for gardens. In his apologia for Sir Roy Strong's garden, The Laskett, he asks readers: "Surely it's far better to be original in a garden than... than almost anything at all, in the fraught, authoritarian, conformist and class-conscious world of British horticulture" and "it seems likely that it is just this fear of bourgeois knick-knackery (n.b. Richardson's humorous reference to the many statues and garden ornaments in The Laskett) which has been at play in the National Trust's hesitancy in considering The Laskett as a property which might be passed on to them after Strong's death." Richardson is blatantly accusing Britain's preeminent garden organization of horticultural snobbery.

This type of plain speaking will undoubtedly benefit gardening as a whole, as long as it is reserved for serious artistic efforts at gardening. The idea of criticizing well-meaning amateur gardeners' efforts is repugnant, of course; making unwanted hurtful comments about people's garden skills and tastes would serve only to discourage people from opening their gardens to the public.

Wildside, a naturalistic garden designed
by Keith Wiley. Not my favorite style
of garden, but the colorful flowers are
shown to good effect in this photo. 
But again, back to "The New English Garden": Just because it was intelligently-written and added to my understanding of modern gardening doesn't mean it wasn't still a beautiful book with lavish garden photos to drool over. My favorite gardens in the book were the most traditionally floral: Pettifers, Daylesford House, Great Dixter (of course), Cottesbrooke Hall, Temple Guiting, Hanham Court and Gresgarth. But many of the photos of some of the gardens planted in the New Perennials manner were beautiful as well, and showed an attractive and convincing vision of what these gardens look like at their best.

But, in keeping with Richardson's desire for serious criticism, I will point out a couple of things that would have made the book better: First, there sometimes seems to be a disconnect between Andrew Lawson's many beautiful photos and Richardson's erudite text. One example occurs in the chapter about Tilbury Hall, when he asserts that "perhaps the most successful part of the Tilbury Hall garden is the walled kitchen garden to the south-west," and describes it at length in appetite-whetting terms, but I could not find a single photo of what he considers to be the best part of the garden, which was very disappointing, to say the least.

Another small quibble is the lack of garden maps or plans, which are unfortunately all too rare among garden books. This is a shame, because I had to spend much time puzzling out the overall layout of each garden to get an idea of where the garden areas were in relation to each other -- something Richardson tries to describe, but not always with success. A picture is worth a thousand words.

But these points aside, "The New English Garden" is one of the most important garden books to be published this year in terms of garden writing, and certainly among the more beautiful. This is a book that I will look at many times and read carefully, over and over, in my search for understanding of what makes great gardens great.
Lovely spring at Pettifers, Gina Price's
delightful small garden in Oxfordshire.

(All photos are from the book. Please forgive my poor scans in my attempt to give you some idea of the beautiful gardens pictured therein.)


  1. Great review of this book. It's been sitting in my Amazon shopping cart for some time and it's nice to read such a thorough review of it before deciding if I pull the trigger on it.

  2. Thanks for reading, Erin! I'm glad you found it helpful. -Beth