February 2, 2007
New gardening picture books are all very well, and all very glamourous, but they don’t absorb the mind. At least this is what I find, snug under my lamp in front of the fire. Turning the pages of delectable borders and enviable vistas is fine – but don’t you become listless? I scribble notes: ‘Vinca to cover stump’ or ‘Valerian for dry wall’, but I lose the thread of the text among the pictures and get angry with captions that say ‘Previous two pages…’
Old books are another matter; books from the days when colour was a luxury and black and white had a different way of telling a story. There is a quality in old-fashioned thought that shames our facile age, too. I have just been reading EA Bowles’ My Garden in Spring, the thoughts of a passionate Edwardian plantsman. It is his curiosity that brings him alive today. He took nothing for granted. Perhaps you know someone – perhaps you are someone – who discovers how plants work by cutting them open to look. Bowles on Iris unguicularis (winter you might think, rather than spring) is awe-inspiring. He is on intimate terms with half a dozen cultivars, harvests them in sheaves for his study every week for months, and explains just how they work (and why they used to be called I. stylosa: his razor blade reveals that the plant has a style extending the whole length of the stem).
Other old writers have other qualities. Gertrude Jekyll conveys precision with poetry. Lucas Phillips is a blunt military man who keeps his flowerbeds in order, Michael Howarth Booth a nurseryman who could sell a shrub with the best. William Robinson went in for open, angry criticism of a sort that would never by published today. Christopher Lloyd came closest. And then there is the gentle sage Graham Stuart Thomas. I will never tire of him.