Honouring five women gardening writers…

I am always behind when it comes to ‘Days’- like International Women’s Day.   So, here I am, several days late.  But I enjoyed seeing what ‘Ali, The Mindful Gardener’ and my gardening writer friend, Sarah Salway, had to say on Facebook, and thought ‘Why not list my five favourite women garden writers and books?’.  All my book links are to Abebooks.co.uk- on the grounds that homes are needed for more used and secondhand books.

Margery Fish book

Margery Fish photo credit: http://www.eastlambrook.com

Margery Fish :  ‘We made a Garden’ first published in 1956, the re-published by Faber and Faber in 1983

This book is a complete joy.  It describes Margery’s decision to create a garden at East Lambrook  in Somerset in 1937, and her endless tussles with her husband, Walter, who had very different views on what a garden should look like, there are so many wonderful moments as when she reveals that

‘When it came to the job of making paths I discovered that this was a subject on which Walter had very strong views, and I had many lectures on how to achieve perfection’ ¹

Her gently ascerbic tone is a delight of under-statement, and she never shirks from talking about her mistakes and her learning, whilst retaining a good dose of laughter about how she, and Walter, make it through the arguments and lectures.  Along the way, there are invaluable lessons for any maker of gardens- and her garden remains a much loved and inspirational space which I would love to visit.  This is the book I have most often bought for women friends who love gardening.

¹ quoted p.25 of ‘We made a Garden’, Margery Fish, ISBN 0-572-13141-7


Sarah Raven

SR download sussexlife
Sarah Raven photo credit: http://www.westsussexlife.co.uk

Sarah Raven: ‘The Bold and Beautiful Garden’, published by Frances Lincoln, 1999

I bought this book not long after we had moved to France, and, although my garden, as I was to learn, could not host many of the luscious plants that Sarah describes in her book, I was absolutely set on fire by her use of colour and mixtures of colour- as well as her boundless enthusiasm for the plants that she is writing about.  Jonathon Buckley’s photographs are almost edible they are so good, fresh and exciting.  Christopher Lloyd’s foreword sums up her approach and, of course, she has learnt so much from him I think.

‘Go for it, lash out and express yourself with the help of vivid dramatis personnae sums up her vitalizing message’  Christopher Lloyd. ¹

¹ quoted in the foreword by Christopher Lloyd, of ‘The Bold and Beautiful Garden’, Sarah Raven, ISBN 0-7112-1752-1

A shout-out also for her beautiful compilation and authored book on Vita Sackville-West and Sissinghurst, ‘Vita Sackville-West and the creation of a garden’, which I really enjoyed after visiting Sissinghurst for the first time this year.


Holt book

Geraldene Holt photo credit: http://www.geraldeneholt.com

Geraldene Holt:  ‘Diary of French Herb Garden’, published by Pavilion Books, 2002

I love this little book.  It is a modest and utterly engaging book about Geraldene Holt, the well-known cookery writer, and her restoration of an ancient walled garden in the tiny village of Saint-Montan, in the French Ardèche.  It was the book that inspired me the most in developing village contacts here when we moved, and over the years, gradually finding a role, which I would never have imagined, as the co-ordinator of a group of committed gardening people, who are gradually softening the edges of our village with sustainable planting- and having a lot of fun as well.  Her own garden lives on, now run by a local Association, much like ours I imagine, and is definitely somewhere I want to visit.

She says, at the end of her book’

‘That I am not the proprietor of this French herb garden matters not a jot.  Indeed, this aspect has enhanced my joy.  Working here has not been solely self-gratifying, it has also been a shared pleasure, carried out for others with a result that, I hope, will survive for some time.’ ¹

¹ quoted p. 123, ‘Diary of a French Herb Garden’, Geraldene Holt, ISBN  1-86205-488-6

I know what she means.



Beth Chatto photo credit: http://www.gardenmuseum.org.uk

Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, published by Frances Lincoln, 2000

Beth Chatto is such a hero- quietly determined, delicate and yet robust, and so much a real pioneer entirely on her own terms.  Her book ‘Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden’ was like a Bible to me when I first realised that I couldn’t imagine Tostat as being a slightly hotter Surrey, where I had my very first garden in my early 30s.  Turning her carpark into a dry garden, as she did, with no irrigation at all, was a vital experiment for the time.  She has a love for the unorthodox, which broke new ground then, seahollies, prickly thistles, felted plants and wild Verbascum.  She is, above all, a calm observer of the garden that she is creating- and now, after nearly 15 years, I am almost able to do that too in my own garden.

‘ It is good sometimes, perhaps in low evening light, to take my stool and settle in an unexpected part of the garden, to sit and contemplate a piece of planting that I normally pass or drive by. ¹

¹ quoted p.88, ‘Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden’, Beth Chatto, ISBN 0-7112-1425-5



Nora Harlow, editor, EBMUD, ‘Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates’, published 2004 by EBMUD, East Bay Municipal Utility District

Nora Harlow has done a great job at pulling together the strengths and a shared philosophy behind this big book, which is really designed to encourage residents of the East Bay Area, in San Francisco, to abandon water-hungry garden spaces and embrace a different aesthetic.  The book reads easily, pithily and the message pulls no punches.  What’s more, the philosophy is incredibly helped by the sensitive and compelling photography of Saxon Holt.  Two thirds of the book is a compendium of plants, trees and shrubs that actually welcome summer-dry gardening by having growth patterns outside of the hot, dry period, and many of them are entirely dormant during the summer.  So, shifting the aesthetic needs to be as much about embracing winter-autumn-spring as the main seasons of interest, and learning to love the dried-out looks and shapes of the summer.  What a bold move for a Utility Company.  How’s this for inspiration?

‘ It is possible to create and maintain ornamental landscapes in ways that conserve water and energy, protect air and water quality, minimise impacts on landfills, provide habitat for wildlife, reduce fire hazard, and help to preserve natural wildlands…

The least any of us can do is to be mindful of our individual and collective impacts on natural resources-clean air, clean water, energy, open space and biotic diversity- and to accept personal responsibility for our actions.’ ¹

¹ page xv, the preface, ‘Plants and Landscapes for Summer-dry Climates’, ed. Nora Harlow, EBMUD 2004  ISBN  0-9753231-0-5



























Clerodendron bungeii: the shrub with a lot of heart

Distracting myself from the box gloom, I am reminded that I only planted Clerodendron bungeii because of Christopher Lloyd. Memory tells me that he has it at Great Dixter where it reliably returns in its sheltered spot late every late Spring. You might think that you have lost it, and then it pops up, great statuesque stakes of upright stems, topped with gorgeous oval-shaped dark green leaves…

Clerodendron bungeii, Tostat, Apr 2015
Clerodendron bungeii, Tostat, Apr 2015

It has a distinctive burgundy tone to the green of the stems, the leaves and the later flowers.  With me, it has peppered an area about 3m x 2m with its stems, and is now turning into a real feature, one which I may have to control in a couple of years, if it continues to wander.  But it is the ideal summer shrub, looking good right through to the frosts, tough, self-reliant, only showing flagging by the leaves dropping back against the stems in severe drought and high temperatures, as we have had for the last month. But it bounces back, undaunted, with the return of cooler and rainier weather. The shrub is making a comeback, they say.

Clerodendron bud, Tostat, July 2015
Clerodendron bud, Tostat, July 2015

It looks pretty good as a bud, see above, nestling into the bright green leaves, and then it opens.

Clerodendron flower, Tostat, July 2015
Clerodendron flower, Tostat, July 2015

But actually, the real beauty happens after the flower has gone over. Then, you are transported to a world of Byzantine colour and beauty, or maybe Gothic and Jacobean…

Clerodendron bungeii seedhead, Tostat, Autumn 2014
Clerodendron bungeii seedhead, Tostat, Autumn 2014

The spent flowerhead turns into a jewel, and the colour is exceptional and rich.

Of course, it has it’s downsides. It is a romper. Florida websites are full of cautionary tales, so watch out, me included, if it likes you. I mow over it in our grass if it wanders over there, and will probably have to stick in a barrier at some point. But for me, it’s worth it, a late summer show that I would miss if I took the safe route.  Another reason to be cheerful.

Ranunculus, ranunculi…

Last summer, I had a real treat, courtesy of ‘Abebooks’.  Abebooks is a brilliant site for secondhand books, and is my first port of call when I want to buy anything that isn’t hot off the press.  I bought 2 Dan Pearson books and really enjoyed them both. In ‘Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City’ there was a short piece on Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’. I love the ordinary celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, and there is a spot in the garden, normally hard-baked in the summer, which is positively wet in the spring. We get a lot of rain late winter and in the spring, and there is a dip in the ground where water collects and also, probably because of a kink in the old roof, rain comes down from the roof in a spout. So it is really damp, and the native celandines pop up in a matter of weeks ít seems.

Dan Pearson caught my attention with ‘Brazen Hussy’. A great name for a sport spotted by Christopher Lloyd in his garden at Great Dixter, and being a man for bold names, ‘Brazen Hussy’ was what he chose.

Ranunculus ficaria 'Brazen Hussy' Feb 2015
Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’ Feb 2015
Ranunculus ficaria Feb 2015
Ranunculus ficaria Feb 2015

So there they both are.  ‘Brazen Hussy’ is a dark bronze-leaved variety with glowing yellow petals and quite big flowers- the yellow is almost blinding and for a small plant, it really packs a punch.  I could only find this at a couple of French online nurseries at a serious price, so I bought just three small plants last autumn, and dug them in near to the house, so I wouldn’t have to go hunting for them. For a lot of the winter, they looked very soggy and unprepossessing, and then, despite our biblical rain, they responded immediately to the lengthening light in February and I could see buds forming. So the picture above is of the very first flower and you can see the number of buds still in the wings.  I know from Dan that they die down after flowering, but continue powering away at the root level, so I am planning to move a good plant of Cenolophium denudatum that I grew from seed to grow up and over them.  It will be slow to start up in the late spring, and so they will suit one another very well hopefully. I have to admit that I found a good price for ‘Brazen Hussy’ at a Belgian nursery online, so there are three more small plants on their way to help make more of a clump of them together.  I really love them.  It’s a small price for abundant cheerfulness despite the weather.

PS I forgot to mention ‘Louis the Geek’.  He writes a great blog and I am signing up for it. His piece on ‘Brazen Hussy’ is here.