Shades of Green: My Life as The National Trust’s Head of Gardens

Book of the month: Shades of Green

Our book of the month for June is Shades of Green: My Life as the National Trust's Head Gardener by John Sales. Here you can read the review by author and garden historian Ambra Edwards.

Shades of Green: My Life as The National Trust’s Head of Gardens

by John Sales

Shades of Green by Ambra Edwards
Historic garden conservation is about setting up and guiding cycles of growth, development and decay: some for 100 days; others for 100 years.
Author and garden historian, Ambra Edwards

You can understand why so many head gardeners think so highly of John Sales, former head of gardens at the National Trust. The admiration is mutual. It is rarely the genius of a single individual that makes a great garden, he writes, ‘but the pursuit of a unique ideal persistently sought and perfected.’ He is unstinting in his praise for the talented head gardeners with whom he has worked, just as he pulls no punches in excoriating the forces he sees as inimical to gardening – ‘trendy commercial exploitation and obtrusive interpretation’; the ‘wilful mismanagement’ that reduces a carefully nurtured garden to a shambles in pursuit of a quick buck; and snooty country house ideas of ‘good taste’.

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When he joined the National Trust in 1971, garden visiting had not yet become a national sport, garden history was in its infancy, and gardens were regarded as no more than an adjunct to the houses they surrounded, subject to the whims of architects ‘allergic to plants.’ But in this study of 50 projects, we see the birth of the new discipline of historic garden conservation, the first garden restoration at Westbury, his 100-year conservation plan for Stourhead in 1978 – the first of its kind – and the genesis of innumerable garden features that continue to delight garden visitors to this day.

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Outrage lies in wait for him at every property – from miffed donor families, ‘quasi-religious’ environmentalists or indeed his erstwhile boss, Graham Stuart Thomas – while a chronic lack of money and manpower drastically reduce the options available. The book is a testament to his incredible tenacity and clarity of vision, and his wisdom, charm and wry humour shines through its pages.

Unicorn, £25
ISBN 978-1911604181

Shades of Green: My Life as The National Trust’s Head of Gardens