A gardener’s travels and a garden history book review

Mirepoix, the medieval bastide town with half-timbered houses supported on wood pillars, creating a magnificent covered arcade.

I have been rushing about quite a bit lately, with a Paris trip swiftly followed by a couple of days near Mirepoix, in the Ariège department in the Midi-Pyrénées region to look at a client’s garden. A week later we were back in Bordeaux for a short week and finally returning here a few days ago. The climate and soils of each of these areas are so different but France is a big country and as a designer I go where I am asked. Gradually I am seeing many of the departments of France and it would be lovely to build gardens in each of them – although after 1,500 gardens designed in the UK I could never say I had gardened in every county.

We are having a wall and gate built in the front garden and that is beginning to take shape nicely. It has quite changed the nature of the front and once all the mess has been cleaned up I am looking forward to doing some planting – although we do need parking for residential students and guests of my wife’s B&B.

My free time seems to have been taken up by Rory Stuart’s Gardens of the World (The Great Traditions) for some while now: it’s a big book in every sense of the word. Stuart attempts to cover a huge subject, contrasting and comparing in an original way the development of the ornamental garden as interpreted by the major world gardening cultures. It has resulted in a large format hardback running to 250 pages which highlights the differences and the links between the resulting garden art, studying the philosophies and politics which have driven the progress of gardening for pleasure as opposed to mere utility, sustenance or profit.

It starts with an argument for his chosen selection; he explains, for instance, why the great gardens of France and Germany, wonderful perhaps but derivative, do not feature in this work. After a brief overview chapter in which he outlines his thesis, Stuart begins with his first great garden tradition: that derived from Islam. In this and subsequent chapters, not always politically correct, he runs through the social history of pleasure gardening in very diverse world cultures including China, Japan and Italy, where he now lives. The gardening nation of England is awarded two chapters, one on the Landscape Park and another on the Flower Garden, while a final chapter looks at the USA and why it has yet to create its own garden tradition.

This book is apparently aimed at students of garden history and the thinking garden visitor, both of whom will need to keep their wits about them and may be required to take notes! If you are rusty on the chronology of Arab rulers prepare yourself for a lesson and when you move on to China and Japan similar treats await. At times I am convinced Stuart trips himself up but the background is useful and can be returned to later on a second read. I am looking forward to having time for this myself. Illustrations are lavishly provided and, to save the casual reader from delving too far into the text, annotated in some detail. As a professional garden tour guide and with no photo credits apparent, I suspect many of the photographs are taken by the author.

There is much to admire and much to learn from this book so it would be a shame if the rather highbrow tone put off some readers. At the coffee table level alone it gives pleasure with its photographs of famous and less familiar gardens but persevere and you may find yourself irresistibly drawn into a more cerebral and critical view of the art of garden creation. I immodestly call myself a plantsman but imagine Stuart would not assume such a title himself – his interest seems to lie in dissecting the background, the process and the result – the technical details of the art of the garden more than the plants and flowers which adorn it. That’s fine with me because what he offers is a fresh look at the subject from an alternative viewpoint. The effect on a humble gardener like myself is similar to my one and only meeting with Roy Strong as a young garden designer: eye opening, inspiring and leaving me wanting more…..much more. I am delighted there is room alongside the RHS encyclopaedias and Expert books on my bookshelf for a serious and stimulating tome like this.

Gardens of the World – The Great Traditions – by Rory Stuart is published by Frances Lincoln with a list price of £30

There are several other new books competing for my attention at the moment including Les Jardins du Val de Loire which my wife bought me for Christmas and The Sun Kings Garden about Louis XIV, Andre Le Notre and the creation of the gardens of Versailles. With the damp keeping me out of the garden I should be able to find time for them, but there is student marking to do and Spring is approaching…..


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