Mary Keen

Recent gardening books

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The late Paul Getty has left gardeners a surprising legacy. Gardens of the Roman World by Patrick Bowe was published in America last year by Getty publications and the copyright belongs to the J. Paul Getty Trust. Did our run-of-the-mill publishers miss a trick here? I imagine the proposal for a book about Roman gardens cannot have grabbed many editors. Picture them at the Frankfurt Book Fair muttering, ‘dead language, nothing to see, no stunning perennial borders, just a job lot of broken columns ...’ I hope they are all now eating hats and humble pie. The generosity and imagination of Paul Getty and his advisers have enabled Frances Lincoln to bring out an English edition of this beautiful book (£35). Go to your nearest bookseller and open it carefully at page 56, where the fresco of Livia’s garden room can be seen. Livia was the wife of Augustus, who started life as Octavian, but changed his name after he defeated Antony at Actium and became Emperor of Rome. Livia was his second wife. She has a reputation for being a powerful woman and a plotter, because she made sure that her son Tiberius succeeded his stepfather. But the home life of Augustus and Livia, in contrast to that led by Antony and Cleopatra, seems to have been modest. The perpetual reminder of peace and plenty that they chose to live with on their walls is one of the most beguiling evocations of a garden, of what it feels like to be in a garden, that I know.

In the foreground are orange trees growing in a flowery meadow. In the distance, olives and cypresses shimmer and everywhere there are birds, flying or perching in branches. Livia’s fresco is now in the Museo delle Terme, near the station in Rome. Like many of the best things in Italy it always seems to be shut or ‘in restauro’ whenever I have tried to see it recently, but the illustration is almost as good as the memory of the real thing.

There are other frescoes, many from Pompeii, showing arbutus trees hung with strawberries and easily recognised flowers among the grass. Roses, pinks, lilies, irises, anemones, daisies, violets, convolvulus and ferns make the villa gardens look very modern, because they seem to be growing so naturally. Although topiary was invented by the Romans, they were also lovers of the native flora and fauna that many of us aim to encourage now. Warblers, blackbirds, thrushes, goldfinches, and flycatchers flew about in all the garden frescoes. They look like twitcher’s paradise.

Less modern are the ruined columns and temples, which were the inspiration for the English landscape movement. The Grand Tourists — the 18th-century Gap takers — were the first to spot the delights of pleasing decay. They were also captivated by the credo of villa culture in the golden Campagna. Dropping out from the physical and moral pollution of city life is not new. Virgil recommended it 2,000 years ago. You needed Arcadia when your reality was Rome. Countless plague-fearing literary and artistic Italians continued to subscribe to the pastoral idyll, which inspired young English travellers like Henry Hoare of Stourhead to bring Arcadia home in their intellectual baggage.

Serious scholars (please resist the temptation) will write to say that Roman Gardens is not academic enough. It may not be. Dates and footnotes are scant, but it is one of the few publications that makes you want to know more, to connect with what we already half know, and it is exceptionally beautifully produced.

Another good-looking book is Potted Histories: An Artistic Voyage Through Plant Exploration from Sandra Knapp of the Natural History Museum (Scriptum Editions, £45). This contains short histories of 20 plants from different botanical groups, illustrated from the museum’s collection. It is no surprise to find the rose, which was ‘used in many aspects of Roman society’. Nero apparently smothered his guests with rose petals and Pliny thought scent was vital. Daffodils, daisies, poppies, tulips and irises also get an innings. But there are no lilies, except water lilies, and not everything chosen is a familiar flower. Unfashionable conifers get a good press from Knapp. They are, she writes, ‘record holders of the plant world. The tallest, largest and oldest plants are all conifers — an amazing feat for a group that has been around since long before the dinosaurs.’ Of course the pictures of cones by Ehret are ravishing and the page of plates that shows how you tell one pine from another is beautiful as well as useful.

Knapp is a scientist, whose speciality is the taxonomy of the nightshade family, but this is a book for the general reader, with plenty of legends and tales of the trials of plant-hunters and she wears her botanical knowledge lightly. It is only at the end of each chapter, where there are pages of smaller prints, with precise notes on the differences between one type of plant and another, that her learning really shows. Potted Histories is not just a coffee-table lovely.

Timber Press consistently break new ground with upmarket manuals and monographs. Content rather than format is their speciality. This year they have excelled themselves. Keith Wiley’s long awaited On the Wild Side: Experiments in New Naturalism (£19.99) is all that cutting-edge gardeners hoped it would be. The former head gardener at the Garden House, Buckland Monachorum has changed the way borders look. He calls it ‘Wild West, seat-of-your-pants, pioneering gardening, where you are never quite sure what is coming from year to year’. Digging up acres of grass and replacing them with flowers as Keith Wiley did takes courage and knowledge. The book eliminates some of the guesswork for the rest of us. Lesser horticulturalists can experiment on a small scale and should find that as they go nat-ive, their gardens become less demanding.

Nigel Dunnett and Noel Kingsbury are also new naturalists and published by Timber Press. Their Planting Green Roofs and Living Walls (£25) may sound too esoteric for the average gardener, but ‘fa