David Sexton

A strict, controlling vision

Thoughtful Gardening, twice as long as the first two, beautifully produced in Germany, is a summation of the Lane Fox gardening doctrine, this time mixing more or less practical advice on particular plants — Later Clematis, Sociable Deutzias, Desirable Dahlias, the Etna Broom — with more discursive essays, recalling great gardeners, visiting gardens from Texas to Odessa, all these pieces, which are organised seasonally, being deftly linked to make an easy continuous read.

Text settings
Comments

Thoughtful Gardening

Robin Lane Fox

Particular Books, pp. 356, £

Thoughtful Gardening, twice as long as the first two, beautifully produced in Germany, is a summation of the Lane Fox gardening doctrine, this time mixing more or less practical advice on particular plants — Later Clematis, Sociable Deutzias, Desirable Dahlias, the Etna Broom — with more discursive essays, recalling great gardeners, visiting gardens from Texas to Odessa, all these pieces, which are organised seasonally, being deftly linked to make an easy continuous read.

Thoughtful Gardening, twice as long as the first two, beautifully produced in Germany, is a summation of the Lane Fox gardening doctrine, this time mixing more or less practical advice on particular plants — Later Clematis, Sociable Deutzias, Desirable Dahlias, the Etna Broom — with more discursive essays, recalling great gardeners, visiting gardens from Texas to Odessa, all these pieces, which are organised seasonally, being deftly linked to make an easy continuous read.

To hardnut wild gardeners, flowers may be no more than brightly coloured hay. But Lane Fox is sure that flowers are what it is all, in the end, about. ‘The thoughtful gardening of this book is flower gardening,’ he announces. And this thoughtful gardening is not to be confused with so many other aims, ‘saving the planet’, ‘working for biodiversity’, ‘reviving a lost world’ or ‘creating a matrix of linked habitats’, he instructs us. ‘It is none of those things. It means trying to grow plants well, whatever their origins, and placing them in a setting which suits them and us.’

So there. If only our education policy were so clear. Lane Fox doesn’t much care for responding to the environment or being as natural as possible or any of that nonsense. He rejoices in successful artificial intervention — and smartly detects its presence in trendy gardens that pretend to be going with the flow. The ‘dry garden’ at RHS Hyde Hall in Essex is a monstrous construction, he suggests — ‘the entire project reads to me like ecological rape’. Even Beth Chatto’s far more beautiful dry Gravel Garden down the road at Elmstead Market only thrives because she was able to excavate and enrich the underlying soil to an unusual depth using her business workforce, he has noted in a recent article (Beth Chatto doesn’t appear at all in Thoughtful Gardening).

Lane Fox positively relishes not just artificial fertilisers — Maxicrop, Phostrogen, Growmore, Tomorite and Vitax Q4 are all gratefully mentioned — but weedkillers and pesticides too. ‘As I am not a believer in the organic fantasy, I make free and healthy use of weedkillers based on glyphosate,’ he boasts. He’s tremendously keen on Provado, ‘The Ultimate Bug Killer’, based on the farming chemical Imidacloprid. ‘Provado reverses the war against lily beetles and teeming female vine weevils.’ The war on wildlife isn’t confined to mere bugs either. It’s not, he protests, that he dislikes animals, he just doesn’t want them in a delicate garden of flowers:

Many of them are welcome to proliferate outside the garden’s fence, but just as a weed is a plant in the wrong place, so a wild animal in a flower-garden is generally a pest.

Squirrels he recommends trapping, shooting or running down with a greyhound when they are more than 50 yards from a tree. Then eating. He has discouraged an univited badger by feeding it Prozac in a lump of peanut butter. For rampant rabbits, he has left out ‘saucers of sugared milk, heavily laced with weedkiller’.

In pursuit of great plants, although in other ways deeply conservative, he is always quick to appreciate new and improved varieties, commending ‘a superb new pair of hardy geraniums’, called ‘Rozanne’ and the spreading ‘Jolly Bee’. When it comes to cultivation too, he seeks always to extract the maximum performance from a flower, being passionate, for example, about dead-heading — ‘you cannot imagine what an improvement the tidying makes. Dead-heading is the one profoundly rewarding war.’

Per contra, those wild gardeners who leave seedheads in the hope they’ll make a winter feature he scorns. ‘I detest almost every form of ornamental grass.’ He can’t bear ‘brutal minimalists and eco-planters’. They’re deceiving themselves, he thinks. ‘A classic herbaceous border is not more laborious than a fashionable sweep of rudbeckias and ornamental grasses that pretend to be a prairie.’ The one exception he makes to this rule is Le Jardin Plume in Normandy, because there modernist planting, including grasses, is incorporated into unignorably geometrical designs. Thus he can admire ‘the strict, controlling vision which has not lost a reassuring formality underneath the seed-heads’.

Mostly, his remarks on rival gardeners are startlingly pert and cutting. There’s a lovely, devoted essay about Nancy Lancaster, an inspiration with whom he gardened for two years: ‘For me, the move from her house was like an expulsion from paradise.’ But most fare less well. In his tribute to Christopher Lloyd — ‘there is a hole in the mixed border of our lives’ — he records quarrelling with him over berberis and ‘a low-growing carpeting plant called Phuopsis stylosa’ which Lloyd thought smelt of foxes. ‘A truce was called and ten years later I accepted his generous invitation to Dixter.’ As for his FT colleague, Arthur Hellyer, whose manuals he continues to recommend, they got on by agreeing never to visit each other’s gardens. ‘I finally visited his garden, Orchards, in Rowfant, near Crawley, West Sussex, about ten years after he had died.’

But it is Rosemary Verey who really gets it in the neck. ‘She was prone to pass off the jungle of her later years as a “meadow” style,’ he notes. ‘Winters in Gloucestershire can be bleak, and as the years passed, a bottle or two of spirits used to help her through dark, solitary evenings.’ She didn’t recognise the unmistakeable ceratostigma growing in her own garden.

Thoughtful gardening, then, is gardening with attitude, gardening as combat even. Of course, Lane Fox is right when he says that ‘all gardeners cultivate an artificial landscape’ and that ‘artful pretence is rooted in all gardens’. But what’s the right conclusion to draw from that? There are degrees of artifice still.

Lane Fox maintains that thoughtful gardening is the way to go, because it ‘practises its pretences in a conscious, independent way’. In an essay on the best gardens to visit at different times of year, he advises going to see ‘the impressive long borders at New College, Oxford’ — which, as Garden Master, he plants and oversees — in the heyday of June. I went last week, a much more challenging time of year, and found them stunning, wonderfully concocted, with Japanese anemones, asters, sedums, mallows, dahlias, red-hot pokers, hollyhocks, late clematis and that ceratostigma. Duly deadheaded, nicotiana sylvestris was flowering again too. You can only look at a border the way the gardener intends; it’s as unnatural as it gets. But still, this was a great display. So, in its own way, is this book. Makes one think.