Vivisection Posted on 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.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

Hugh’s Wine Books

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

I wrote my first Pocket Wine Book in 1977, was quite surprised to be asked to revise it in 1978,…

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The International Dendrology Society (IDS)