Celebrity gardeners are what publishers are banking on this year. The Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury, known in New York as ‘the high priestess of historic garden design’, has given us her gardening autobiography. A Gardener’s Life (Frances Lincoln, £35) is illustrated by another aristocrat, Derry Moore — in private life Lord Drogheda. The book looks as beautiful as the gardens that the Marchioness makes. Her famous style of scholarly nostalgia can be seen in Ireland, France, Italy and America, as well as at Highgrove and in many English gardens, including her own newest venture, on a Chelsea roof. Cranborne remains for me the dream garden and Hatfield, perhaps her greatest achievement, appears all ‘luxe, calme et volupté’. This kind of display is far from normal, but it does offer a peephole into the kind of places where privilege reigns. Lady Salisbury may appear all wistful beauty, but she is also a woman of courage and dogged intellectual persistence. Her first sight of Highgrove was from the back of a horse, after leaping the post and rails surrounding the paddock. Her research into Renaissance gardens has been thorough enough for her to read the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and although she describes herself as a total amateur, her drawings clearly produce results and her knowledge of plants and organic methods is impressive.
But the old order changes and Helen Dillon, the second world-famous horticultural celeb to produce a book this year, can write with relish in hers:
Gardeners from London to Dublin and San Francisco could hear the distinct rumble of the collapsing pyramid of good taste. Suddenly every pair of box balls announcing the entrance to every lavender-edged path into every rose garden seemed unutterably smug. Terrific. Roll on the revolution.
Helen Dillon’s Garden Book (Frances Lincoln, £25) is the one that speaks to all obsessional gardeners. The author has been making and remaking her brilliant plot on the edge of Dublin for 35 years. Change is what she likes. ‘I’ve always thought,’ she writes, ‘that whenever one gets to the stage of remarking, “Whatever is the world coming to?’’ it’s the beginning of the end.’ Nor is she afraid to admit to mistakes. Variegated plants she adored for 30 years. Now she loathes the things. Currently purple- and red-leaved plants are getting the critical eye, ‘I don’t want the tropical look in midwinter’, so out they come. The greatest change she made was in the year of the millennium when she sacked the lawn between her famous borders in favour of a canal set in Irish limestone. At the time, Robin Lane Fox, one of her biggest fans, was devastated. Her constant reinvention of the plot means that her visitors and readers can learn from her mistakes. I doubt you will have more fun than learning the Dillon way. Her writing is racy and observant. ‘Firm gently’, she advises. (I love this — a complete contradiction, covering the writer in case the plant doesn’t grow, like another well-used gardening term, ‘moist but well-drained’.) She exclaims, she swears, she teases, but everything she says comes from hard-won practical knowledge. All the difficult things are there, growing Trilliums and Celmisias, avoiding mildew (dry roots and wet leaves are what cause it), keeping the show going, the May Gap. If I had to find one book to suit a beginner and an expert, and to keep on my own shelves for reference, this would be it.
The late Christopher Lloyd, perhaps the most famous gardener in the last 30 years, left an unfinished book when he died, Exotic Planting for Adventurous Gardeners (BBC Books, £20). Frank Ronan, the Irish writer and lifelong Dixter groupie, had the idea of approaching various friends of Lloyd, like Anna Pavord, Roy Lancaster and Dan Hinkley to help him get it completed and the result is lively and a credit to the great man. I suspect Fergus Garrett, ‘the great confederate’ and head gardener at Dixter, who appears on many pages staking or digging, or planning with Lloyd, also had a hand in the book. The plant directory was put together by Helen Dillon, another friend, and the result of all this is a practical and entertaining read.
An agreeable book this year was written, not by a horticultural name, but by an amateur gardener whose day job is being a cultural historian. Potted History: The Story of Plants in the Home (Frances Lincoln, £25) by Catherine Horwood, is about flower fashions indoors. ‘In the late 19th century no sentimental painting was complete without the obligatory red geranium on the windowsill,’ but between the wars it was a cactus that everyone wanted, ‘which fitted with the new wave of modernist interior design ideals’. Cacti are back, along with retro, and bulbs are still as fashionable as they were in Renaissance England. The book provides an interesting take on a topic that has rarely been discussed.
Wildflowers and meadows have suffered from overkill recently but the newest book on this is glamorous and useful. These adjectives are an unlikely double, but the pictures of pressed flowers in A Year in the Life of an English Meadow (Frances Lincoln, £20) by Andy Garnett and Polly Devlin really do help to identify the plants. The botanist Dr Chris Smith was involved with the book, which guarantees it is an accurate record, as well as a hymn to bygone childhood, countryside, buttercups, daisies and all of that.
The practical accolade of the year goes to Nigel Dunnett and Andy Clayden for Rain Gardens (Timberpress, £25). Although it poured last summer, the likelihood of water becoming a scarce resource for gardeners has not receded. This book is about how to manage rainfall. People who think that the irrigation of gardens is going to be allowed for ever may have to get to grips with the technical knowledge on these pages. Bioretention, swales and outflows may sound less exciting than the plants that the celeb gardeners urge us to grow, but without water, gardens as we know them will cease to exist.