Two fascinating new books about gardens everyone should read
Two fascinating new books about gardens have just been published.
One is American Gardens by Monty Don.
The second is Royal Gardens of the World by garden designer Mark Lane, who is also a presenter on BBC Gardeners World.
These are big books about gardens. Not just in size but in scope. Both, in different ways, set out to place gardens in a historic, social and economic context.
In the past, big illustrated books often looked gorgeous but had relatively little to say. These, however are both a really good read, as well as being beautiful to look at.
What do these books mean to your garden?
Both books are about grand gardens, mainly open to the public. You may think that they have little relevance to our own middle-sized or smaller patches.
But the 21 outstanding gardens featured in Royal Gardens of The World have created much of the gardening we know today. They are the haute couture of garden design, pioneering garden design fashions that have trickled down to to our own tiny parterres, vistas, garden ornaments and sculpture, our ponds and even our strips of meadow grass.
And Monty Don’s American Gardens places offers fascinating insights into how different the role of the garden is in the United States. He suggests that a British garden ‘can conjure up the essence of a wood, a meadow or a rocky hillside. But no garden can begin to contain the enormity of the Rockies or the Grand Canyon…’
British gardens look inwards, he seems to suggest, while American gardens are still looking outwards. (Although that is a fairly rough bit of paraphrasing on my part. )
Don’t buy these books thinking you will get tips for your own garden, however. They are a journey into history, geography and more. Think of them as an adventure rather than a how-to. Although, there are fascinating snippets of information. For example, Monty explains that ‘dirt poor’ meant you couldn’t afford a lawn. And putting up front garden walls and fences is seen as an ‘act of ill will’ towards your neighbours in American suburbs. It makes it look as if you had something to hide.
And did you know that Thomas Jefferson thought about his garden every day when he was president of the United States? Or that, although he lobbied hard to ban the importation of slaves, his own house and gardens were built and maintained by enslaved workers?
All books reviewed in magazines, newspapers and many blogs are sent out to journalists for free as review copies. So I was sent both these books as review copies by the publishers.
Any links to Amazon are affiliate which means I may get a small fee if you buy, but it won’t affect the price you pay. Other links are not affiliate.
These books about gardens ask questions…
Monty Don set out to ask the question ‘what is an American garden?’ As he says, we all know what is meant by Italian renaissance gardens, by English landscape style or French formal gardens. So what is American garden style?
Monty is a thoughtful, intelligent and highly knowledgeable writer. He concluded that ‘the fact that American gardens resist definition is what makes them American.’ The country is so huge and so diverse in terrain, climate, peoples and cultures that there can be no one dominant garden style.’
He doesn’t dodge the difficult bits. For example, he acknowledges the uncomfortable role that slavery has in the creation of several leading American gardens.
American Gardens is almost too big. If ‘no garden can contain the enormity of the Rockies or the endless expanse of the Midwest’, then I am not sure that any gardening book can contain the essence of American gardening. Even the gardens themselves are sometimes so huge that many of the photographs feel like vast landscapes rather than gardens.
The beautiful photography is by the top photographer Derry Moore. However, he visited a few gardens without Monty. Monty, in turn visited some gardens without a photographer. So while most of the gardens in this book have both photography and stories, there are some gardens without photographs. And some gardens, such as Dumbarton Oaks and the British Embassy in Washington, don’t have a story beyond the captions.
Monty does mention this in the introduction but doesn’t quite explain it. I have spent many hours in editorial meetings about writing books. So I have tried to work out what conversations could have taken place to result in this slight oddity. I can only conclude that everyone wanted to give the reader more.
But we didn’t need more. If anything, we could have done with less. I’d personally have preferred fewer gardens, with more detail and photographs on each. And books about gardens need photographs and words. Neither element can really survive on their own.
However, that is nit-picking. American Gardens is a fascinating, beautiful and highly readable book. I felt that my understanding of the how gardening fits into the culture and history of the United States was deeper after reading it. And a friend who is not interested in gardens also read it and enjoyed it, so its interest goes beyond gardens.
Royal Gardens of the World
The reason why I’ve reviewed these two books about gardens together is not just because both are written by Gardeners World presenters.
It’s because reading them both together, as I was lucky enough to do, adds a great deal to the experience of reading each one individually. For example, Monty Don points out that we know what a formal French garden is.
In Royal Gardens of the World, Mark Lane explains how those formal French gardens look and were created, setting them in their historical and political, as well as geographic, context.
The royal gardens of Europe influenced each other over the centuries. For example, Herrenhausen, which was originally created by Sophie, Electress of Hanover (1630-1714) was partly inspired by Versailles. As was Hampton Court in England, Fredensborg Palace in Sweden and Peterhof Palace gardens in Russia.
In Royal Gardens of the World, we weave back and forth over the centuries, shining a new and different light onto some of the most famous names of the past. For example, Peter the Great of Russia was a great moderniser and was key in designing the gardens at Peterhof Palace in St Petersburg. He read Jean-Baptiste Le Blond’s book on the theory and practice of gardening, published in 1709. So he was quite intimately involved with the garden.
Many of the Queens – including Marie Antoinette, Mary of William & Mary, Eleonora of Gonzaga and our own Queen Mother – were passionate and knowledgeable about plants. The gardens in this book are very much personal creations as well as royal public statements about power and wealth.
They’re not all European gardens either. Mark covers the Mughal landscape traditions that underpin the Taj Mahal gardens, Tirta Gangga in Bali and the role of the Tokyo Imperial Palace gardens.
The photographs come from a range of garden photographers, and there are also garden plans. This combination means you can understand the gardens in the context of the buildings that surround them. Whether you’re interested in gardens or in history, this is an excellent read.
So should you buy both books?
But reading both together is a joy. Perhaps there are deals to be done with friends? Or you buy one as a gift, then borrow it back while buying the other for yourself? You could even buy both as gifts, but you will tempted to read them first. That could be difficult without leaving tea stains and chocolate marks on the pages…
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I’m often asked for recommendations so I’ve created lists on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. There are several lists featuring books about gardens, and I’ve added both these books to my Good Gifts for Gardeners List.
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