Alex Preston

Sowing seeds of comfort

Sarah Raven takes us month by month through a selection of the best flowering plants for form and fragrance

Perch Hill in Sussex, the home of Sarah Raven. Credit: Jonathan Buckley

If you had asked me a year ago how a pandemic-panicked world of stockpiles, curfews and social isolation would influence my life in the garden, I might have drawn you a picture of myself as a kind of prepper homesteader, proudly feeding my family from the veg beds, trading spuds for loo rolls in the lanes around my house. As it was, last year was all about flowers for me, and while the lettuces and tomatoes were indeed bountiful and welcome, it was the glory of the sweet peas — the first thing I smelt on recovering from Covid — and the roses and dahlias that meant most. When all the news was ghastly and life felt scarily provisional, the nurturing of seeds into beautiful life took on an almost religious symbolism. And the high priestess of that religion is Sarah Raven.

Now Raven, whose seeds and plants are spectacularly good and whose catalogues often take preference over more pressing bedtime reading for me, has published a book that is at once a guide for the many who have recently embraced horticulture and a reference book for more experienced gardeners. A Year Full of Flowers, written in chatty, approachable prose, takes the reader month by month through a focused selection of the best plants for form and fragrance.

The chapters are interspersed with sections covering the winning cultivars of each species — the most dependable narcissi, the loveliest tulips, the sweetest-smelling roses. There are also practical illustrations that show you how to build your own propagator, how to use old guttering for seed trays, how to weave plant supports out of branches. It’s a guide to the good life, a means, as Raven says, of stretching the abundance of the growing season into the year’s darker margins: ‘I want every direction you look in,’ she says, ‘to be like a May Ball in full, dressed-up parade.’

‘I want every direction you look in to be like a May Ball in full, dressed-up parade’

The book is illustrated with Jonathan Buckley’s lustrous photographs of Raven’s garden at Perch Hill in Sussex, making it as visually beautiful as it is concerned with the creation of beauty.

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