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Pretty maids all in a row

With one notable exception, the best horticultural books this year are written by women. Mary Keen explores the gender divide in gardening

11 December 2010

12:00 AM

11 December 2010

12:00 AM

It is received gardening wisdom that men tend lawns and women plant flowers. This is a good year to see how two exceptional writers on gardens live up to that definition. Our top horticultural columnists, Anna Pavord of the Independent and Robin Lane Fox of the Financial Times, have both published elegant and witty collections of journalism in 2010. Lane Fox’s Thoughtful Gardening (Particular Books, £25) has already been reviewed in The Spectator. For the purposes of male/ female comparison I can record that Lane Fox writes that flower gardening is what interests him, which makes a nonsense of received wisdom. He does not appear to mow much, but he is mad about killing weeds, bugs, badgers and foxes. In the Lane Fox plot it is a constant war on wildlife. Control of the lawn is normal male behaviour. Killing is a full-blown male tendency. I never met a woman who relished any form of extermination.

Lane Fox is also pretty strong on scorn. Designers and grasses he hates, and he owns to enjoying skirmishes with the late great Christopher Lloyd. His book ranges over time (he likes ancient more than modern) and he is a traveller, galloping through a botanical garden in Thailand, or walking above Wengen in alpine meadows. His book is a funny and provocative read, with plenty of authoritative advice on what to grow and how to make it grow.

If reading Lane Fox is a masculine cold bath, Anna Pavord’s The Curious Gardener (Bloomsbury £20) is all warmth and enthusiasm. She likes ‘freedom’ lawns with a flowery sward. No weedkillers. Although she is not squeamish about stamping on snails, she tends to be more organic than prone to spraying, and she notices wildlife a lot. Pavord is a touchy-feely gardener. She wanders outside at dusk in winter and feels a whole lot better for seeing a winter sunset. She gets through the pain of cancer, not with morphine, but by smelling sweet peas. About a potato order she confesses: ‘In the solitude of the hell hole that is my potting corner, I continue to be quietly excited’.

Pavord writes much more personally than Lane Fox and at the end of her book most readers — especially amateur gardeners — would think, ‘I really want to meet this woman’. Her writing makes you feel her humanity. She stops to explain things in an easy way. The readers of Lane Fox need high-level horticultural experience and sharpened wits if they are not to end up feeling daunted.

If I have made Pavord sound mushy, that she is not. She travels even more than Lane Fox. She often strays far from the garden path which makes for some gripping insights. Catch her reminiscing about a defunct train in Costa Rica, or sailing off Corsica. In New Zealand she finds Celmisias after walking down a ‘scree run, very narrow, with vertical drops either side, into things you’d rather not think about’. She writes about bromeliads in California and observes edgy flower displays in New York’s most fashionable florist. Her curiosity about everything, everywhere, is enviable.

She is also practical, particularly about the growing of fruit and vegetables and I like too the way she shares her failures. (‘Men share their triumphs and women share their failures.’ Who said that?) Both books are written with dazzling verve. Both are required reading, but they are very different and if you could only have one, I might advise choosing it on grounds of gender.

The Well-Connected Gardener (Book Guild, £16.99) by Sue Minter is a short and nicely produced biography of Alicia Amherst who wrote the first English garden history. A contemporary of Gertrude Jekyll and Ellen Willmott, few people have heard of her now. As the daughter of Lord Amherst, she was brought up in great grandeur. Her father was an antiquarian with a terrific library and her family were high- minded and philanthropic. Although the Amherst money was lost in a financial swindle she remained true to her upbringing. A History of Gardening in England was published in 1895 and contained illustrations by Howard (Tutankhamun) Carter. There was a family connection with him and the passages about his discoveries in Egypt are fascinating. After the History, Alicia, who became Lady Rockley, produced A Book of Wild Flowers of the Dominions of the British Empire which she illustrated with her own watercolours. The ones in the book look very accomplished. She was also a very practical gardener — ‘some of the happiest moments of my life have been spent in manual labour in a garden’ — and the garden she made at Lytchett Heath in Dorset after her marriage to Lord Evelyn Cecil was, we are told, full of rare plants. I enjoyed the biography, which revealed so much about a woman who has had less recognition than she deserves.

For lovers of horticultural porn Helena Attlee has produced Italy’s Private Gardens (Frances Lincoln, £35 ). It is not a book for curious or thoughtful gardeners, but is one of those picture books — with photographs by the writer’s husband, Alex Ramsay — where the reader longs to leap into every page. Perfect lemons grow in enviable terracotta pots. Wistaria flowers as it never does here, stone pools of water and statues adorn bosky evergreenery and what with the odd Contessa, gnarled old and handsome young gardeners, as well as several dogs all bathed in beautiful Italian light, only an utter killjoy could resist leafing through the pleasures on offer.

A picture book that might last longer is my favourite garden book acquired this year. Even if you missed the show, it is worth having the catalogue of the recent Impressionist Gardens exhibition that started in Edinburgh and has now moved to Madrid.Published by Thames & Hudson (£14.95), the paintings are full of inspiration for the gardener. But the thought I was left with is, that when gardens are painted perfectly and too realistically they are far less appealing than the half-seen visions of the Impressionist painters. Which confirms my own theory about how the high finish of horticulture, like glossy and over-real painting, always robs a place of its magic.

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