Aspiration. Aspiration. Aspir- ation is still the watchword for publishers of gardening books. How many heavy, glossy productions filled with Get-the- Look pictures does the average gardener need? Especially when what is always peddled and praised tends to emphasise the haute couture of horticulture. There is a fashionable tendency to over-intellectualise about design. This is not what gardening is about. If you want more of this argument log onto www.thehadspenparabola.com, a website for the competition to redesign the walled garden at Hadspen, where there is some good online reading to be had. Victoria Glendinning is down-to-earth: ‘This is all gardens-in-the-head, not about real gardens and still less about making a garden.’ Penelope Hobhouse reproves her son, who set up the site: ‘I think you, Niall, miss out on a lot by not digging, mulching, pruning . . . all the tasks which Victoria G. enjoys!’, but in her latest book Hobhouse provides another lofty overview of world horticulture. In Search of Paradise: Great Gardens of the World (Frances Lincoln, £25) contains her assessment of what will last, in page after page of enormous projects. It is a personal view of important gardens. Spades get no mention. Jellicoe and Helen Dillon surprisingly do not appear, but there is plenty of Jencks and a good clutch of adventurous designers like Caruncho, Burle Marx and Christopher Bradley Hole. The only page that made me want to linger was the park at Chatsworth, but for those who like an armchair trip to gardens they may never visit, for people who never get their hands dirty, this book could be the ticket.
Ursula Buchan, a regular in these pages, also tackles an overview of the great and the good, but only writes about gardens that are open to the public in England (The English Garden, Frances Lincoln, £25). There is more to read here than in Hobhouse, but the book is, as usual, picture- rather than text-led. Andrew Lawson’s photographs are the best horticultural porn and some of them have not been much seen before. Images of the Mondrian Garden, peonies at Goodnestone and the apple house at Bramdean are particularly beautiful, but don’t expect to find much here for the average plot to try. The themed chapters are a good way to tackle the mass of information and Buchan has a light touch and a dry view of design foibles. I liked her comment about the appeal of hard landscaping to ‘the rich, the self-confident and the busy.’ There are more pictures of flowers and borders in this book than cutting-edge modernism. Sarah Raven gets mentioned and there are roses galore, but no Jencks, although this may be because the Cosmic garden is so rarely open.
Icons of Twentieth-Century Design (Frances Lincoln, £30) is another book about great gardens, but this is the glossy that had most appeal for me, perhaps because the written content was so absorbing. Katie Campbell came to a study of landscape via art and poetry and her take on garden design is thoughtful. There is a fascinating essay on Fletcher Steele’s Naumkeag, America’s first modernist garden, and another on Corbusier who sited his garden above the house because ‘standing in a field, you cannot see very far. What’s more, the soil is unhealthy, damp etc’. The account of the Jencks garden, ‘shaped by whimsy cosmogenesis and Chinese geomancy’, is excellent. ‘While many are perplexed by its arcane scientific theories, the visceral appeal of this landcape of waves asserts that Jencks (and Keswick) were inspired by the senses as well as the mind.’ That says it all. The pictures may be less glamorous than the other two tomes, but there was plenty of new material and I was interested in all the landscapes Campbell chose.
The year’s offerings above are worthy and well-researched by clever women who understand gardens. They are the safe choice for the upper-middlebrow reader, the present to give to someone you want to impress who is known to enjoy the best; but I long for someone to break new ground and produce something a bit more real for a change. It is like being offered a permanent diet of foie gras and cognac when what you want is an apple and a glass of water. Frances Lincoln has the monopoly of garden picture books and of a formula on which some of us have now totally overdosed.
I have saved the best book until the last, also published by Frances Lincoln. The Anxious Gardener (£12.99) is everything that the glossies are not. You can read it in bed or in the bath. You can identify with the writer and the garden. There is plenty of digging and mulching and pruning and, best of all, you can enjoy the Hampstead neighbours. The writer, Rozsika Parker, is a psychotherapist with a Gardening Mentor on one side of her who tends to appalling bossiness and irritating joviality and a Nosey Parker, Maud Next Door, on the other. The book will appeal to those who enjoyed Elizabeth and Her German Garden, or Karel Capek’s The Gardener’s Year. Some may find its style whimsical, but I enjoyed it hugely. It is the perfect antidote to the Too Much of a Good Thing glossies. Everything flops, fails and sickens, just like in a real garden. If it sells well, as it deserves to, I foresee a rash of self-deprecating little books next year, but like all the best things (NB Frances Lincoln) it ought to be a one-off.