Ted Percy on where the answer lies … and books that point in the right direction
What is it, after all, that makes gardening so utterly worth doing? I’ve been trying to answer this question for years now and still don’t really know, but I think the important thing is the stewardship of soil – your own soil – however much or little.
This is why the whole drama of The Secret Garden hinges on that part of the story where, surprising herself by the directness of her question, Mary asks Mr Craven ‘might I have a bit of earth?’ When the bewildered benefactor asks why, Mary falters ‘to plant seeds in – to make things grow – to see them come alive’. Confused but convinced, Craven invites her to take whatever earth she wants, then in the next chapter she finds Colin and the story – uncertain in its progress to this point – climbs hand over green-fingered hand to feature film status.
It’s the bit of earth that matters, be it in yard or yoghurt pot; the gardener’s buzz comes from letting that bit of earth come alive and from tending the life that comes to it – to be a secret best shared with the right company at the right time. I’ve been looking for books which portray this special relationship. A perennial delight has been Pat Hutchins’ Titch, where the littlest member of a family trio, relegated always to the least impressive roles, plants a tiny seed … and it grew and it grew and it grew’ and Titch’s self-esteem grows with it. Then, six years ago, Beverley and Nick Birch produced Our Hidden Garden. Here a happily multicultural crowd enjoys enormous enrichment of life in the garden that is both centre and surroundings for their outwardly ordinary inner London infants’ school. The pleasure and purpose that the garden brings to its school is a joy to see and I only hope that the garden still survives – in the current educational climate it’s needed more than ever. A particular private joy motivates Jan Mark’s This Bowl of Earth. By the back door, warmed by the heating vent and damped by the drain, the bowl is a perfect nursery for cuttings to grow until they are ready for planting in the author’s garden of trees. Here we get narrative and information in a harmonious real-life mix and, as in real life, some of the cuttings take and some don’t. But the bowl goes on – an absorbing and utterly achievable garden in its own right as the author’s gentle words explain how so lowly a thing can be so special.
Any gardener needs to know about plants. Conventional flora are abundant but not necessarily all that approachable or entertaining. Henry Pluckrose’s Flowers – one of Watts ‘Walkabouts’ – is a lovely collection of flower photographs, bits of information and perceptive questions highly likely to stimulate an interest in growing and tending them. But gardeners know that plants have character that goes beyond the physical and, in her Child’s Book of Flowers, Janet Marsh has provided not only her own botanically accurate water-colours but snippets of poetry, things to do, recipes and folklore fragments for each of 25 common sorts, to round their character out. That vegetables have character, too, is recognised by Phyllis King in her Apple Green, Runner Bean which looks at a dozen different fruit and veg. in a cheerfully informative way; she does her own pictures too so you can see what she means when she calls her potatoes ‘cool beauties’. Another good vegetable primer is Julia Eccleshare’s Mixed Vegetables – useful because in each case the whole plant is introduced and also the selection includes some exotics – like okras and aubergines – that can be entertained on a warm window-sill.
When it comes to understanding how plants grow there can’t be a better way than watching a broad bean undo its stuff in a jam jar and we’re lucky that the doyen of life-cycle books, Back and Watts’ Broad Bean, is still in print to show us this happening. We watch the seed grow into a plant meticulously photographed and described in probably the best ‘Stopwatch’ that A & C Black have ever produced. In the same series, Strawberry, Hyacinth and Potato explain vegetative generation really well. An even more scientific look at plant growth, with meaningful experiments, comes in Barbara Taylor’s Growing Plants, which has a valuable bit on soil types and constituents.
Having found out a bit about seeds, plants, bulbs and things you need to know what to do with them to make sure that what goes down comes up. An admirable starter is Growing Plants at Home by Althea – it’s out of print at the moment but I’ve seen good numbers in local libraries of late, so track it down if you can. It’s a no-nonsense introduction to propagating and growing ordinary house plants and other things that go well in pots (like carrot tops, peanuts, tree seeds and bulbs). Pictures and words are excellently clear, and simple enough to attract the conversation and help which is so much part of any kind of gardening. Still pot-bound but more ambitious in scope, size and production is Dorling Kindersley’s My First Garden Book written by Angela Wilkes). All done by photographs, many life size, we get seed sowing, sprouting, bulbs, hanging baskets, succulents, cuttings and runners, window-boxes and indoor herbs and vegetables. The book’s strength lies in its clarity and variety – and I wish I knew where they found that brand new miniature watering can – it’s a beauty.
Moving outside a bit, have a look at Deri Robins and Charlotte Stowells’s Gardening Book. Here we’re introduced to simple tools, digging, weeding, compost and ‘pests’ (a charming rule of thumb suggests that slow movers are pests, quick movers aren’t, for they eat the slow movers). We also learn the essential skill of reading a seed packet. The book establishes, too, that most beginning gardeners start out in borrowed space and that a two-way cooperative relationship with some form of Head Gardener must be maintained. And this relationship often teaches more than any one book.
Now it is an inescapable fact that natural or ‘organic’ gardening is easier on the environment and on the gardener than other known ways. It’s been going on since Cain and Abel’s time whereas artificial ‘fertilisers’ and poisons are an invention of the last century and – I think time will show – just a phase we’re going through. So you want a good easy organic gardening book. Luckily there are some now – three years ago, according to BfK’s Green Guide, there weren’t. Thompson Yardley’s Grow Your Own is rooted firmly in the belief that ‘you look after the soil and it will look after you’. The home-made presentation at which Yardley excels deals with the destructive spiral of agribusiness before advising local fresh food. ‘Don’t buy much’ counsels the author as a cooperative start on a small plot is advised, beginning with easy veg. before moving into weed and pest control, green manuring and compost. Definitely a get up and go book, with some good laughs too, Grow Your Own has its serious counterpart in Jo Readman’s Muck and Magic. This is much more conventional and it also starts with the soil. Its ‘getting started’, ‘what to grow and when’ and ‘crop rotation’ pages are really useful confidence-builders, backed up by plenty of ways to get plants off to a good start – like no-tread beds.
These two provide excellent preparation for the best natural gardening book of all, Lawrence Hills’ Month by Month Organic Gardening. Hills ran the seminal Henry Doubleday Research Association for years, was the moving spirit behind the Muck and Magic TV series and was the embodiment of practical energy and common sense, of which this book is a crystallization. Simply and persuasively written it’s the ideal handbook for any family or school group that wants to make natural gardening work well.
But there are lots more things in the garden than the gardener puts there. After all most gardeners spend less time in their gardens than out of them, so most of the time the garden is a wild environment looking after itself and host to anything that comes along. The business of appreciating this is an important part of a garden’s management. A simple book like In My Garden by Ron Maris introduces us to the idea of celebrating the pond life, field mice and birds that live there as well as the intentional plants and furniture. In Garden Birds, Simon Perry further investigates avian inhabitants, concentrating on the bird’s we’re most likely to see from the kitchen window, with good pictures and sound natural history backed up by advice on attracting, feeding and housing them. All this and lots more comes in Tony Soper’s Bird Table Book. Now in its sixth edition, this is still the classic guide to establishing a wildlife garden, dealing as it does with much more than birds. The vital point is that what attracts birds does well for other life forms too. It’s a book for the whole family for ever. In Worm’s Eye View, Kipchak Johnson encourages the reader to ‘make your own wild life park’, either in a garden or on a bit of spare ground. This is all about controlled intervention and the creation of encouraging habitats; the pictures are by Thompson ‘Grow Your Own’ Yardley and the humour is out of the same cackle-barrel and very effective.
So, when is a weed not a weed? Well, when it does a good job. When Vivian French’s grandfather grew nettles it was their capacity for growing butterflies that promoted them from the weed status her father had assigned to them. Vivian tells us all about this, and the butterflies, in her charming and very informative Caterpillar, Caterpillar – apart from being good natural history the toleration message is irresistible as the book shows Walker’s ‘Read and Wonder’ concept at its very best. In Black’s ‘Handmade Habitats’ series Garden by Paul Wright is about devising and planning a school garden. It’s strong on the wildflower element and, even more usefully, encourages the starter to work with, rather than against, prevailing conditions, which may range from soil type to possibilities of vandalism. It’s probably best read cooperatively.
While researching for the Green Guide I unearthed the School Garden Company – a modest publishing house which has produced a number of extremely useful handbooks for garden-planners. Ostensibly aimed at teachers they are just as applicable to families, hotels, local authorities and hospitals, to all of whose budgets their slim prices should appeal. Formats are slim, too, but the amount of information jammed into each before you get to the excellent bibliography and address list is truly remarkable. The titles are helpfully descriptive. David Gale advises on Starting a School Garden, Peter Cawdell on Starting a Butterfly Garden. Starling and Loosley have contributed volumes on wildflowers and herbs, Nigel Matthews on birds and Shirley Thompson on bats. My own favourite, possibly because it contains elements of all the others, is Peter Sibley’s Starting a Wildlife Pond. It’s a really good set for the staffroom.
But formally published books aren’t the whole story. Some of the most immediately attractive and memorable gardening help comes from the many seed catalogues that it’s still not too late to try and find. Here plants are listed with their characters and virtues alongside helpful pictures. Horticultural hints abound as the seed merchants woo the customer with ‘highly selected strains’ and ‘exceptional cropping qualities’. My favourite is the Organic Gardening Catalogue which does ‘supplies for the the whole garden’ and is generous with practical advice. It even lists a prismatic dog-shaped cat and fox deterrent called GETZ! Then there’s the seed packets themselves – all the information you want (‘rake the seeds in with the tips of the teeth’, I remember) just when and where you want it and without getting grubby finger-marks on the books. And if you open the packet at the bottom you can still read the name of it when you’ve folded it up with half the seeds yet to sow – I never saw any book that tells you that.
Last of all, don’t forget the most valuable book of all, your own notebook. Keep a daily garden diary right from day 1 and you’ll be surprised how soon and how often you turn to it for information and help. For fifteen years I lived in the same garden and every day wrote a bit about it in a 5-year diary. It’s all there – what works, what doesn’t, what to do and expect when, and every day’s weather. Indispensable and entertaining, I almost bequeathed them to our successors when we moved, but the wrench would have been too great. For they crystallise the personal relationship that gardening is all about – the gardener and the bit of earth. I wonder what would have happened if Archibald Craven had misunderstood Mary Lennox and only accorded her a couple of pounds of Misslethwaite loam? I think I know. I think that ‘The Secret Flowerpot’ would have become a classic.
Bibliographical details of titles, listed in order of their appearance.
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett, many editions but particularly Everyman, 185715 915 2, £7.99; Puffin Classic, 0 14 035004 7, £2.50 pbk (J/M) Titch, Pat Hutchins, Bodley Head (1972), 0 370 01137 6, £7.99; Julia MacRae ‘Little Greats’, 185681 142 5, £3.99; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050096 0, £3.99 pbk (I)
Our Hidden Garden, Beverley and Nick Birch, Hamish Hamilton (1988), 0 241 12519 7, £4.95 (I/M)
This Bowl of Earth, Jan Mark, Walker (1993), 0 7445 2190 4, £6.99 (I/J) Flowers, Henry Pluckrose, Watts (1993),0 7496 1116 2, £6.99 (I/J)
A Child’s Book of Flowers, Janet Marsh, Hutchinson (1993), 0 09 1762316, £9.99 (JAM)
Apple Green, Runner Bean, Phyllis King, Walker (1993), 0 7445 2528 4, £6.99 (I/J)
Mixed Vegetables, Julia Eccleshare, Evans (1986),0 237 60268 7, £5.95 (J/M) Broad Bean, Christine Back and Barrie Watts, A & C Black (1985), 0 7136 3495 2, £2.99 pbk (I/J)
Strawberry, Jennifer Coldrey and George Bernard, A & C Black (1988), 0 7136 3052 3, £5.99 (I/J)
Hyacinth, Jennifer Coldrey and George Bernard, A & C Black (1989), 0 7136 3095 7, £5.99; 0 7136 3719 6, £2.99 pbk (I/J) Potato, Barrie Watts, A & C Black (1987),0 7136 2929 0, £5.99 (I/J) Growing Plants, Barbara Taylor, Kingfisher (1991), 0 86272 7510′. £2.99 pbk (J/M)
Growing Plants at Home, Althea, Dinosaur (1985),0 85122 503 9, o/p (J)
My First Garden Book, Angela Wilkes, Dorling Kindersley (1992), 0 86318 740 4, £6.99 (J)
Gardening Book, Deri Robins, Kingfisher (1992),0 86272 878 9, £2.99 pbk (M)
Green Guide to Children’s Books, Books for Keeps (1991), 1871566 010, £2.00 pbk (A)
Grow Your Own, Thompson Yardley, Cassell (1992), 0 304 326917, £3.99 pbk (J/M/S)
Muck and Magic, Jo Readman, Heinemann Library (1993),0 431 07448 8, £7.99 (J/M/S)
Month by Month Organic Gardening, Lawrence D Hills, Thorsons (1989), 0 7225 1863 3, £7.99 pbk (A)
In My Garden, Ron Maris, Walker (1989), 0 86203 274 1, £6.95; 0 7445 1347 2, £2.99 pbk (I)
Garden Birds, Simon Perry, Hodder & Stoughton (1993), 0 340 56596 9, £8.99 (J/M)
The Bird Table Book, Tony Soper, David & Charles (1965 but now in 6th edition), 0 7153 0053 9, E12.99 (M/S)
Worm’s Eye View, Kipchak Johnson, Cassell (1991), 0 304 32527 9, £3.99 pbk (J/M/S)
Caterpillar, Caterpillar, Vivian French, Walker (1993),0 7445 2275 7, £6.99 (l/J)
Garden, Paul Wright, A & C Black (1992),0 7136 3549 5, £6.50 (VS)
The following are published by The School Garden Company, PO Box 49, Spalding, Lincolnshire PE 11 1NZ, at £3.75 each unless otherwise stated (telephone 0775 769518 for mail order details):
Starting a School Garden, David Gale, 185116 800 1 (A)
Starting a Butterfly Garden, Peter Cawdell, 185116 801 X (A)
Wildflowers in the Garden, Anne Starling and Peter Loosley, 185116 806 0 (A) Your Herb Garden, Anne Starling and Peter Loosley, 185116 807 9 (A)
Garden for Birds, Nigel Matthews, 185116 805 2, £3.95 (A)
Bats in the Garden, Shirley Thompson, 185116 803 6 (A)
Starting a Wildlife Pond, Peter Sibley, 185116 808 7 (A)
The Organic Gardening Catalogue is available free from Chase Organics, Coombelands Lane, Addlestone, Surrey KT15 1HY, tel: 0932 820958. (A)
Ted Percy, who claims this drawing from Starting a Butterfly Garden is of him, was Divisional Children’s Librarian with Buckinghamshire County Library, until he retired recently. He is a regular non-fiction reviewer for BfK.