Saturday, February 1, 2014

Book Review: "My Secret Garden" by Alan Titchmarsh

A really good garden book!
"My Secret Garden" by Alan Titchmarsh was published in 2012, and although I didn't get to read it until early 2013, I have since read it several times and I'm more impressed with it the more I read it.

Not only are Alan Titchmarsh's gardens absolutely breathtaking and the photographs by Jonathan Buckley lavishly beautiful, but the book is well designed and (rare among garden portrait books) includes enough information for readers to feel they know Titchmarsh and his gardens -- which is good, because they are private gardens not open to the public and this book is the only way for anyone (even those living physically close enough to visit) to experience his gardens.

In my last post, I made a list of the things that I think a book should tell readers about a garden, so that readers can gain the greatest understanding of a site and gardens without actually visiting it:
  1. A garden's region and setting (rural, small-town, suburban or urban) and how its location influenced the garden
  2. The basic history of the garden (the age of the house, the property and the garden, and how it developed over many years or in only a few years)
  3. The relationship of the garden to the house, in style and layout
  4. Any significant plant collections or garden areas
  5. Something about the maker(s) of the garden (the reasons behind the garden; how much experience the gardener(s) have had; any specific influences on the garden such as travel, etc.)
  6. The basic layout of the property, orienting it to the four cardinal directions, showing the relationship of the garden areas to each other and to any major landscape features such as mountains, large bodies of water, etc. A basic property map is very helpful.
  7. The climate of the garden, temperature ranges, sun patterns, significant wind directions, type(s) of soil, and any other conditions that aided or discouraged the making of the garden  
  8. Whenever possible, photos should be taken over the course of a year, so that the garden can be seen through the changing seasons
Unfortunately, many books that portray multiple gardens often don't devote enough space to text that describes the garden or interviews with the creators of the garden. Instead, they try to include more gardens in the book and the maximum number of photos of each garden, and include only a short, breezy description of each garden. While it is certainly enjoyable to see a few more nice photos of beautiful gardens, the shallow knowledge of each garden can leave serious gardeners wanting more.

Titchmarsh's beautiful 18th-century Georgian house.

But not in the case of Titchmarsh's book. Obviously, a book written about just one garden has the space to go into a great deal more detail than one that tries to cram 15-20 gardens into a single book. But even more important, when a garden portrait is written by the garden's creator or by another serious gardener (instead of by an interior designer or journalist), the account will almost certainly contain more of the information that other gardeners want to read about -- regardless of the length of the written material.

"My Secret Garden" contains every single item on my list: Titchmarsh relates in his own words how he designed and made his new garden nearly from scratch over the 10 years since he and his wife purchased the 4-acre property with an 18th-century Georgian house in 2002. The thoughtful photos were taken over seven years and in every season, and include enough photos of the house and outbuildings to establish the relationship between them and the garden areas.



Titchmarsh laudably includes his own beautifully hand-drawn map of the layout of the property (although my only criticism of the book is that the map was at the end of the book, and I didn't discover it until I was finished puzzling through his descriptions of the layout throughout the whole book. In any future edition it should be moved to the front to be more helpful.)

One of the nicer garden maps I have seen. Click on it for more interesting detail.

Although most British gardeners probably feel they already know Alan Titchmarsh quite well from his long career in garden television shows, I had seen him only a few times on British programs and knew very little about him. His book, though, did a good job of giving me his background (he started his horticultural career working for a park, resulting in the obsession with neat garden grooming that shows in his new garden, and his new garden is strictly private because his last garden was the filming site for a gardening show that lasted more than a decade, and his wife was tired of the constant presence of cameras and crew).

Titchmarsh's latest greenhouse (his first was one he built out of leftover lumber and old windows when he was 12). I venture this one cost a bit more....

The tone of his writing also helps us get to know him personally: he is pointedly down-to-earth; he repeatedly plays down the formality of his garden, claiming no grandeur "above his station," and eschews the horticultural snobbery that is all too pervasive among class-conscious English gardeners. But throughout the book, he does occasionally betray a latent anxiety about tastefulness, whether a certain combination of flowers is too bright (and he claims that Kwanzan flowering cherry trees are too much even for him -- disclosure: I have five planted in my side yard!) -- although this doesn't prevent him from including such fun garden ornaments as life-size lead pig sculptures.

One of the more endearing touches
 in his garden.

He relates both his successes and his failures, enumerating dead plants and areas that didn't work, and describes the growing conditions in the various parts of his gardens. He also gives us some tips on growing certain plants and on design of gardens -- although he insists that he is not a garden designer, just a gardener.

Right, no design here....

However, I'm not sure that I believe him on that point. His garden is both lovely and very well-designed. In fact, I did think that perhaps it was all too perfect somehow, and almost too well-designed, so that it didn't seem like a real gardener's garden. Perhaps that's because it didn't look like it was slowly expanded over time, as most residential gardens usually are, gradually taking over more areas of the property as the gardener's planting ambitions increase. Instead, it looked as if it had been designed of a piece, which it undoubtedly was. Of course, he knows how to do things efficiently after decades of gardening, he knows what he wants, and he's not a young man any more and consequently less patient (and less mistake-prone), and he has the means to plant it all at once, so I'm sure it made sense to plan everything out perfectly from the get-go.

Breathtakingly beautiful cherry trees in spring
(even despite my sad scan).

And his garden is perfectly appropriate for the beautiful Georgian house he lives in now. Perhaps it's the style of house that seems out of keeping with his down-to-earth, anti-snobbish, encourage-all-gardeners persona. I would expect him to have a big garden full of mammoth-size veg and pots full of petunias (they are one of my favorite annuals, so I'm not looking down my nose at these star performers). But his very upper-middle-class Georgian mansion seems like it belongs to a rich doctor, not to an honest, plant-loving gardener who likes to get his hands dirty. I know he's a very successful, almost movie-star class gardener, but his roots are still respectably humble. However, if he and his wife want a beautiful trophy house and garden, they've earned it in an honest way and deserve to enjoy it in their retirement years.

I wish laburnum trees were hardy here....

And I'm very glad that he chose to share it with us by writing such a well-thought-out book with such beautiful photographs -- one of the better books about gardens that I've seen yet. His gardens are truly glorious -- most of us can only hope that our own gardens will ever be a fraction as beautiful as his are, and I imagine that they will continue to grow even more lovely as the years mellow the perfection of them. I hope he continues to derive as much joy from them during that process as he did in making them.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a wonderful book. I'm putting it on my list. I am also putting a decorative garden pig on my list because that is just too charming.