I didn’t read much when I was young, but caught the bug after I left school and was travelling and on my own a good deal. Now I feel that a part of me isn’t functioning if I don’t have a good book on the go. I’m also married to a voracious reader and we often swap books. Sue has assembled a large library, principally of psychoanalysis, poetry and philosophy, much of it for research into her book The Well Gardened Mind, which she has been working on for about five years and comes out next year – so many fascinating books have come out of that journey.
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I have quite a good collection of historical gardening books, some at home and some in our studio in London, which I have shared with my friend, the garden designer Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, for about 25 years. Below are a selection of my favourites.
Trees & Shrubs
by William Jackson Bean
(John Murray, 8th edition published in four volumes during the 1970s)
When I was in my early twenties I used to keep a volume or two of Bean by my bed, quickly skimming through Berberis and Contenaster, but salivating over Magnolia, Quercus and Stewartia. I loved reading about trees I had never seen, such as Carpinus orientalis, which, says Bean, ‘I have been told by an officer who took part in the Crimean War, much impeded the advance of our men, made under the cover of darkness’. I still turn regularly to those four thick, dumpy volumes as a gold standard of information. In my slightly chaotic book collection, they are about the easiest to find, along with the even larger New RHS Dictionary of Gardening.
Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition
by Robert Pogue Harrison
(University of Chicago Press, 2008)
I think this is one of the most absorbing and intelligent accounts of why gardens and garden making is important to us. It is a book that articulates many of the things you have been thinking before but perhaps hadn’t found words to express. Harrison’s book on the place of forests in the imagination is equally good. He is a professor of literature at Stanford University and has a knack for showing how responses to the most fundamental human questions often emerge in the unlikeliest of places. He then has the ability to thread his findings together in a beguiling and persuasive web of thought.
(Timber Press, 2017)
I went on a plant-hunting trip to western Sichuan with James this spring, along with Cassian Schmidt and Piet Oudolf among others. It was one of those enthralling times when you realise that you are bumping along the foothills of plant knowledge. But James seemed to know just about everything. I love his company, and his apparent belief that all life is an experiment so best not to hang around. We have worked together on some great projects – the results are always a bit unpredictable, but normally exceed my most psychedelic dreams. I love the mix of scientific rigour and visual extravagance. This book is a great repository of knowledge. Gratifyingly geeky, with lots of charts.
Gardens of Persia
I have to include one of the many excellent books by Penelope. She has been a friend and something of a mentor since I began designing in my early twenties. Amazing to think that she is now 90 – and still as sharp as a knife. I quite often find myself wondering what Penny would think when I’m about to cut a corner or compromise on some detail of design. Penny doesn’t cut corners. This book is immensely readable, comprehensive and scholarly. I found myself referring to it often when designing the Jellicoe Garden, one of a number of public squares and gardens in King’s Cross, which is due to open in 2021.
The Italian Garden
(Casa Editrice d’Arte, 1925)
A treasure trove of drawings, engravings and black-and-white photographs of the great Italian gardens of the Renaissance. I spent the summer of 1980 travelling through Italy looking at gardens, many of them neglected or abandoned. I spent an afternoon up an olive tree in Frascati after being chased by a large Alsatian when I had been trying to find the Nymphaeum by Vignola at Villa Mondragone – now restored to a state of bland sterility. This book brings those exciting days back and shows us how these gardens might once have been seen before being overgrown or in some cases, over-restored.
(Times New Edition, 1990)
Visiting Lunganga, the estate of the late Geoffrey Bawa in Sri Lanka, was an unforgettable experience. The garden, which sometimes feels like a 20th-century, protomodernist, tropical Rousham, is haunted by the spirit of its creator Geoffrey Bawa and is perhaps his greatest work. Sue and I stayed there and slept in his old study. Sue had the most powerful vision of an old man sitting on the end of her bed. This book, with its high-contrast, black-and-white photographs, is a much more evocative memento than some glossy coloured thing. This is a place to see before you shuffle off this mortal coil.
The Private Gardens of England
There has to be room for one doorstop of a book and this has to be it. An amazing achievement to get all these sensitive, garden-proud owners to contribute to this beautiful book for nothing and then donate the profits to the Garden Museum. The writing in the book is by the various garden owners themselves and this makes it immensely varied and interesting. A glossy to end all glossies.
The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English landscape Garden
(Bantam Press, 2007)
An entertaining account of the birth of the neoclassical garden in England by one of our best garden writers who mixes meticulous scholarship with a taste for a rollicking good story. If I were to recommend any book about this period in landscape to someone coming to it reasonably fresh – who wanted to know the cultural and political ins and outs of the landscape movement in Britain in its most interesting and intellectually engaging period (after the Glorious Revolution and before the arrival of ‘Capability’ Brown) – this would be it.
Dream Plants for the Natural Garden
by Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen
(Frances Lincoln, 2013)
This was the book that introduced me to the wonderful range of plants that Piet was growing in his own garden in Hummelo and elsewhere in gardens he designed. For five years, this and the Hummelo nursery catalogue were primary references for me. The text is minimal, the pictures seductive and yes, very dreamy. Piet remains an enduring inspiration. I took my team on a trip to visit Piet this summer and we spent an hour with him in his studio, studying his wonderful planting plans on the table, and looking out through the full-height glass wall into the garden around us. Truly memorable.