Thoughtful Gardening: Great Plants, Great Gardens, Great Gardeners

Timothy Mowl appreciates an erudite tour of the nursery end, courtesy of a bawdy, un-PC wit

September 23, 2010

Apart from four well-informed digressions - one each to gardens in Italy, France, England and Ireland - this is not so much a book about gardens as a hugely practical and scholarly study about the plants that deserve places in them.

Arranged under the four seasons are many of the challenging articles on gardening that Robin Lane Fox has written over 40 years in his weekly column for the Financial Times. They are generously illustrated in colour for readers who may not recognise a deutzia or a crocosmia, or cannot tell a malus from a mahonia. Leavening it all is a genial bawdy wit and the unrepentant defiance of a politically incorrect fox-hunter who is not content merely to trap and kill the squirrels that raid his flower beds, but also offers tempting recipes for cooking and eating them.

Did you know that St Augustine, the Christian bishop and thinker, also wrote a precise account of how to take cuttings from plants? Or that Alexander the Great collected pink water lilies? Or that the yellow rose of Texas immortalised in song was a mixed-race woman - a "yellow" in Texan language of the era - called Emily who seduced a Mexican general after lunch and passed on vital information to the Texans? Lane Fox strews such anecdotes on every other page.

As for the bawdy element, the Roman god of gardens, Priapus, was famously relaxed and fertile, so good gardeners tend to be the same. At Renishaw Hall, the Sitwells' house in Derbyshire, Lane Fox writes perceptively on Sir George Sitwell's 1909 On the Making of Gardens, but is just as interested in seeking out the gamekeeper's cottage that was the setting for Mellors and his inamorata's passionate trysts in Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). A heavily scented, yellow climbing rose with a drooping head gained its name, Lady Hillingdon, because that Edwardian lady "shut her eyes and thought of England" whenever Lord Hillingdon began to make love to her.

Wit and spite go hand in hand. A visit to see the rhododendrons at Bowood in Wiltshire, set within a landscaped park by Capability Brown, urges Lane Fox to recite the anecdote of the 18th-century wit who hoped to die before the landscape gardener because he wanted to see Heaven before Brown had "improved" it. Lane Fox refreshingly castigates BBC productions of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park because the "self-willed narcissists who rape the very books they feebly claim to be 'adapting'" bowdlerise any references to genteel wealth and the slave trade. Nor has he any time for "Chemical" Aldous Huxley's pseudo-philosophical musings on a purple iris. At Sissinghurst, where the soil is heavy, that flower owes its beauty to "dolo dust" - powdered limestone from dolomitic rock - just as Huxley owed his perceptions to swallowing mescaline pills. But Lane Fox's expedient for a badger wrecking his choicest bulbs is to spice peanut butter with Prozac to cure the beast's diagnosed depression. He claims it worked.

Do men make better gardeners than women? The women tend to capture the Sunday newspaper magazine columns. Nancy Lancaster, more successful with her butlers than her husbands, claimed wisely that when planting, "in time you'll begin to like anything with anything". Lane Fox follows her by wrapping clematis around rose bushes and scorning Gertrude Jekyll's colour symphonies.

What Lane Fox offers in these stimulating, trenchant articles is his personal view of the best, and least known, of all the great plants. Moreover, he gives not only the addresses of the most appropriate nurseries in which to buy the plants, but even the numbers of the buses to get to them. He is essentially generous, admits his own mistakes and gives credit to fellow pioneers. He even solves the menace of leylandii hedges: white climbing roses should be trained up them (ramblers value their sheltered support). He urges readers to experiment with Rambling Rector, Long John Silver and Rosa helenae. For wisteria, he suggests Prolific, with a stunning photograph of the variety at Harold Peto's Italianate Iford Manor, but advises that it be pruned hard. If gardeners must grow red-hot pokers, then Samuel's Sensation and Tawny King are rewarding, but they are distinctly lower-class symbols in front gardens. Dahlias are as low a class mark as red-hot pokers: they were "fit only for the bungalow-gardens of the working class". As garden master at New College, Oxford and Fellow and tutor in ancient history, Lane Fox relishes the English class system with all its social and horticultural complexities.

Thoughtful Gardening: Great Plants, Great Gardens, Great Gardeners

By Robin Lane Fox

Particular Books, 368pp, £25.00

ISBN 9781846142895

Published 2 September 2010

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