Philippa Lewis is a picture researcher, with an eye for uncommon facts and a wry way of presenting them. Her book Everything You Can Do in the Garden Without Actually Gardening (Frances Lincoln, £16.99), is a scholarly and entertaining social history with pictures. Most books of this type recycle old material, but this writer has a knack of discovering fresh facts. The Wordsworths papered their cottage with newspaper. Eric Ravilious tried to include a man diving into a swimming pool for his Wedgewood Garden service, but was told that the design would not be accessible to the British public. Princess Charlotte thought skittles were low grade at Claremont, so she turned the ninepin alley into flowerbeds. The knowledge is lightly worn and there is masses of information, a bit like Schott’s Miscellany, but better, because you can enjoy it in an old-fashioned way, as a good read, while absorbing facts to amuse your friends.
Another pleasure in this volume of garden tourism through the ages, is being reminded of passages from books read long ago, but now forgotten. Isabel Poppet, in Mapp and Lucia, ‘turned black with all those sun-baths and her hair spiky and wiry with so many sea-baths, resembled a cross between a kipper and a sea urchin.’ Sun-bathing, games, exercises, parties, fires, children, pets and ideas are all things that have occupied people out of doors. So too have love and feasts and picnics. Of course there are omissions. Don’t people ever play chess or cards outside? And not all the games that children enjoy, like French and English, or Go Home, are mentioned. The book makes one think about what else gardens are for and what extra possibilities there might be for outdoor life. The purchase of a ping pong table this summer has made our garden a much more attractive place for teenagers when they come to stay. One forgets that what P. G. Wodehouse called ‘flarze’ are really not enough to tempt non-gardeners out of doors. I have to admit that Philippa Lewis is a friend, but if her book had not been such a delight, I would never have included it in this roundup.
Dan Pearson is a friend too, but he is also the designer I most admire. His book, Spirit, about garden inspiration is a beautifully presented work by the small publisher (Fuel, £25). It is a source book of all the ideas that have influenced him and that he has drawn on for his own very varied work. Pearson is a thoughtful designer who really gets under the skin of a place, and it is eye-opening to see the huge range of what he has experienced and absorbed. He has never been a designer who imposes patterns on the landscape. Instead, he lets places speak through his work. He is extremely sensitive to mood and atmosphere. For anyone who wants to cultivate an awareness of what a place is about, this is a terrific way of learning how to take the time to look at and understand the essence of any natural, or man-made, object.
Don’t expect a book entirely about gardens. Although Rousham and the Alhambra and the Villa d’Este do feature, there are pages devoted to Anish Kapoor, Richard Serra, Le Corbusier and Henry Moore. There are wild places in the Gower peninsula and New Zealand and plenty of Japan, as well as small human surroundings — houseboats, balconies and community projects.
I became fascinated by the idea that anyone could garden if they wanted to. It was a revelation to me that you didn’t always need a garden to do so, and these orphaned sites or places in which you might not expect to find a garden were often the most life enhancing because of their context.
This is a book that should appeal to non- gardeners as much as to plant-lovers. It is also a rarely beautiful object.
Dan Pearson helped with the design of Nigel Slater’s London garden. The vegetable patch, which occupies about a third of that plot, is the subject of Slater’s latest book, Tender (Fourth Estate, £30). Elfreda Pownall reviewed it in her cookery round-up last week. But it is too beautifully written and the growing advice too good for it not to rate a second mention in this selection of the best gardening books of 2010. Tender is an honest account of home growing, with a patina of such enthusiasm and pleasure for the project that it would make anyone want to grow their own. The writing is vivid, but never overdone. ‘The few cabbages are battle-scarred from the wind and freezing rain, their leaves like blue-green lace. If I had to live from this little garden I would starve’, he writes. He might allow carrots to run to seed for their ‘fairy-like delicacy’, but he also knows that carrot fly are deterred by low box hedges and plastic tunnels. A wonderful book, even before you get going on the recipes.