Gardening Book Reviews: The Personal Odyssey of a Great Plantsman and Gardener

Graham Stuart Thomas’ Three Gardens: The Personal Odyssey of a Great Plantsman and Gardener

written and illustrated by Graham Stuart Thomas Timber Press; 189 pages; $29.95

This informative and personal book, written by one of England’s greatest plantsmen, was first published in England in 1983, and has been republished after being out of print for a number of years. It follows Thomas’s design and development of three different gardens—the first at his parents’ house in Cambridge, England, and the latter two at his own residences. Thomas describes the pleasures of plants newly discovered as well as those tried and true, offers design solutions for different sites, and details the satisfactions of a working life and of friendships created over many years. As he writes in his introduction, “The inspiration of a well-arranged garden; the delight at a plant used in a different way by a gifted designer; the nostalgia and happy memories evoked by a plant given to one many years ago; the fragrance of a flower (more potent in my experience than any other sensation in recalling scenes and other times)—all these contribute to garden life. As the years go by one’s enthusiasms for different classes of plants come and go, and with the zeal for a fresh subject one comes into contact with a fresh group of people, enriching one’s circle of friends and acquaintances.”

The book is much enhanced by plans and photographs of each garden discussed. How lucky for us that Thomas kept garden journals! He discusses problems he encountered, solutions he found, and presents us with a useful, quick-reference plant guide and index. Not without a sense of humor, Thomas relates stories about a choice tree or shrub that has been saved to be the anchor of a design, and then succumbs shortly thereafter: “the greengage—which had been so honoured by having a lawn and borders specially designed around it, as the centrepiece, or nearly so—speedily died…. It so happened that a keen gardening friend, Nancy Slater, was moving house just then and she did not want to take with her a young Magnolia Xsoulangeana. It was May, but the plant moved without a sign of distress, though it was some years before it started growing again.”

This is a real journey, with the failures elucidated as keenly as the successes. Thomas reminds his readers that joy comes from years of experimentation and some failure, as well as the stunning combinations and perfect borders that are so much more frequently documented. His art lies in both good design sense and the knowledge that a plant is truly successful when grown to its full potential in the right setting.

Ann Leyhe

The Herbalist’s Garden: A Guided Tour of Ten Exceptional Herb Gardens

by Shatoiya and Richard de la Tour Storey Books; 230 pages; $27.50

This may be considered as a sort of travel guide to 10 different herb gardens around the country. The de la Tours have a passionate interest in growing herbs, and bring together nine other gardeners who are equally dedicated to sharing with the public their ornamental, edible and medicinal uses.

The gardeners featured are as diverse as the herbs they grow. One chapter profiles Rosemary Gladstar, an herb gardener in Vermont and advocate also known for founding United Plant Savers—a nonprofit organization that works to conserve native medicinal plants. At the other end of the spectrum is the Plimoth Plantation herb garden in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the herb gardens are exact replicas of those that were grown in this 17th-century colony. Indifferent of region or time period, the personalities in this book are vividly drawn, the gardens are lushly depicted in wonderful photography by Saxon Holt, and recipes are included for herbal remedies and refreshing teas. The de la Tours have managed to bring together all these facets in a lively and handsome volume.—A.L.

Color for Adventurous Gardeners

by Christopher Lloyd Firefly Books; 192 pages; $19.95 (paperback)

Christopher Lloyd is another Englishman who combines the qualities of a highly skilled plantsman and an entertaining and informative writer. He is well known for his blustery opinions; these are worth paying attention to, for they are backed by Lloyd’s years of experimentation at his garden, Great Dixter, in East Sussex, England. There, he has developed borders that deftly explore plant combinations, highlighting both color and form, in a tableau that changes each season. In his new book, Color for Adventurous Gardeners (some of whose chapters appeared in different form in this magazine), he challenges the concept that color combinations must adhere to some standard notion of harmony. He encourages gardeners to expand their vision: “Experiment is another of gardening’s excitements. Try it out and see. Discuss the results with an open-minded friend and decide how far your experiment has been successful and in what manner it could be improved. Go on from there, always using plants that you really do like. Something will result, you may be sure, and it will be your own baby…. Not everyone has the gift of true originality but we can at least free ourselves of the unnecessary shackles imposed by convention. Go for it would be my motto.”

Lloyd maintains that there is no color that cannot be tried in combination with any other. Because he has thrown out basic color theory, this book is basically a romp through the spectrum of colors and combinations Lloyd has mixed and not matched in his garden. These include the absolute screaming to the sublimely subtle. The chapters are organized by individual colors: red, orange, blue, mauve, green, white, yellow, pink, purple, brown, and black. Although this is a heavily illustrated book that lends itself to happy gazing and page-flipping, it must be read in order to be fully appreciated.

Lloyd explains how each plant offsets and helps the other. “You might like to grow a rose with orange hips alongside Salvia involucrata ‘Bethellii’ (1.2m/4ft), whose terminal inflorescences are in a shouting shade of rosy magenta. An artist friend gathered the two ingredients from my garden and painted them together, so as to show me that this team would work. She was right.” Toward the end of each section a plant index lists 20 or so favorite plants, with specific varieties, so that the reader can be sure of replicating the exact tone. Each description mentions a good companion plant of a contrasting hue. As an example, Lloyd points to a favorite from his fall garden: “Dahlia ‘David Howard’… a miniature decorative dahlia with apricot-orange flowers that are darker in the centre, set off by foliage with blackish tinge. It goes well with Canna ‘Wyoming’ or contrasting Verbena bonariensis.” This is certainly not paint-by-numbers, but rather the kind of kinetic exploration that results in keenly observed and deeply appreciated contrasts. Once the skill of observation has been applied, the reader is encouraged to make his or her own choices for pleasing combinations, perhaps using some of the flowers grown at Great Dixter as a jumping-off point.—A.L.

Stone in the Garden

by Gordon Hayward W.W. Norton; 224 pages; $39.95

The fact that I survived last summer without so much as a fender bender is no thanks to Gordon Hayward, the author of Stone in the Garden. I read his book while living (and driving) in a rural part of New England noted for its beautiful old stone walls, the ones the farmers made as they tried to turn their stony acres into food-producing land. Although I’ve admired these walls for years, I now slow down to look at them with a much more educated eye. I’ve also noted the remarkable number of new walls that have nothing to do with farming and everything to do with landscape design.

If you haven’t been paying attention lately, you may be as surprised as I was at how many landscapers are incorporating stone in their designs. It’s hard to imagine any garden that wouldn’t be improved by at least one of the many uses Hayward suggests—from free-standing dry stone walls, to terraces, paths, pools, benches, sculptural elements, even boulders and bedrock. In the first half of the book, the landscape photographs featuring stone use in this country and abroad are inspiring, but I confess that I was most impressed by the 53 mug shots of the different kinds of stone that can be used for different purposes, in various garden styles and regions. I had no idea there were so many options. Along with Hayward’s comments, these seemed to me to be worth the price of the book.

Whether you plan to do the work yourself or hire it out, the second half of Stone in the Garden, with its formulas and how-to drawings, may be all you need to get started. Except for the somewhat disingenuous statement that building a dry-laid stone wall need not be an intimidating challenge, Hayward is refreshingly straightforward about what is involved in working with stone. —Frances Tenenbaum

From Our Staff

Nan Blake Sinton (Horticulture’s director of programs) and David C. Michener have written Ground Covers, the latest in a series of new Taylor’s Guides. The guides offer updated information, new cultivars, more varied photographs, and a larger format. Ground Covers includes both encyclopedic listings of plants for different sites and descriptions of how to use them in the garden. The first edition was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1987. Other books in the revised series include Trees, Shrubs, Roses, and Bulbs.

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