The Bad-Tempered Gardener


There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on in the publishing world right now.  The poor economy, the closure of many fine independent bookstores, the rise of ebooks—it’s causing a lot of anguish.  And there are some numbers to back up the anguish:  sales of all print books declined ten percent in the first six months of 2011.

In the tiny insular world of garden writers, the anguish seems to swirl around the question of what sorts of books, exactly, publishers still want to publish.  This year they seemed to want charming yet solidly informative books on vegetable gardening and urban homesteading.  Last year it was anything with the word “sustainable” in the title.  And many years ago, in the distant dreamy past, it was aspirational garden memoirs and clever literary essay collections.

I worry that garden literature simply isn’t making the cut these days. Publishers are too freaked out.  They know people want to garden, and they know people want to read smart, funny, clever, literary books, but they’re afraid they might lose money if they put the two together.

Which is why I’m so glad to see Anne Wareham’s The Bad-Tempered Gardener making its way to our shores. Yes, she’s British, but she is one of us.  She is opinionated, ill-tempered, witty, and slightly crazy.  (Read this piece, which appears in the book and also ran in the Telegraph, called “Why I Hate Gardening” if you don’t believe me.)

Wereham and her husband Charles Hawes have made a four-acre garden for themselves called Veddw House Garden due west of London near Glouchester. They open it to the public; you can go see it yourself next time you’re there.  The book is a collection of essays about her garden, but also about anything else that happens to occur to her: roses and sculpture and the difficulties of sharing a garden and television. She’s at her best when she writes in a tone of near-exasperation:  it irritates her “for no good reason” when people call her front garden a “hot” garden simply because it has some bright colors.  “We are very short of real excitement in the garden world,” she writes, “and these little sensations have to be made much of as a result.”

She gets considerably worked up over the infantilization of gardeners by the garden media, a subject we’ve gotten worked up over at GardenRant quite a bit as well. But in the UK the situation is undoubtedly worse; in a brilliant essay called “Are Gardens for Gardeners?” she points out that no public (or famous private) garden gets a word of criticism in the media, ever.  Movies can be criticized, restaurants can be criticized, and politicians and celebrities can certainly be criticized—but gardens get nothing but bland approval.  When Wereham proposed writing a book of truthful garden reviews, she said that publishers “couldn’t cope with their anxiety that it might upset people.”  (Dear Ms. Wareham:  As I read the opening paragraphs of this post again, I realize that perhaps the problem in publishing is also an opportunity.  Please do publish your truthful garden reviews in the form of an ebook, something you can do yourself without the interference of a fretful editor.  We promise to wave it around frequently on GardenRant if you do.)

Anyway, it’s a lovely little book with nice color photographs. As much as I like to see nice color photographs generally, Anne Wareham’s voice is so sharp and strong that I hardly needed them—and without the photos, this might have been a $14.95 paperback rather than a $24.95 glossy hardcover.  And in these difficult times, that can make all the difference. But buy it anyway: it’ll make a bad-tempered gardener of you, too, and that can only be a good thing.



  1. Puppet Barbuda has been a landscape design critic for decades in America.

    Saw a man hacking his hollies yesterday. Probably been hacking them for over 2 decades since he bought his home. He was hot/sweaty, hollies only looked worse for his attention.

    Made me wonder, does he say he hates to garden? Yes?

    More properly he should hate the builder of the home who put the terrible landscape around the home when it was built.

    Why does gardening seem to always get the bad rap for what others do wrong with it? And those wrong things stay for decades and only get larger.

    Magazines, flower shows, nurseries, garden tours, tv each conspire in their fake manner to ‘sell’ a landscape.

    The worst case scenario occurs daily with Mr. Testosterone-On-Wheels-Mow-Blow-Go-Commodify-Everything-I-Touch, a customer asks for a few bushes ‘over there’. Yep, off to the closest nursery for green meatballs. F$%^ how big they get or are invasive or, will crack the driveway, need significant pruning yearly, or, or.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. At first I was excited about the all the bitchery (YEAH, gardening IS frustrating and boring a lot of the time!) but then I thought, well, that’s part of it, isn’t it? If it wasn’t so damn boring you wouldn’t get those meditative benefits and the HUGE payoff when something super-cool happens (which is all the time). I dunno. The picture of her garden on the link was stunning. Clever, strange and beautiful. The article itself screamed . . . nutjob! The fact that she uses glyphosate and a wet vac is a turn-off. I’m no doubt misjudging by not reading the book, but it’d be sad if the whole “bad-tempered” thing is just a lot of schtick to sell a new look at gardening.

  3. The article that was linked to doesn’t exactly make me want to run out and get the book. I have a hard time listening to someone say how much they hate to garden…….well, just don’t do it then! Simple as that.

    I also don’t completely understand why gardens need to be more formally criticized and rated. It would be like stepping into someone’s home and criticizing their decorating and furniture. Do we really need more of that in our lives? I don’t think we do.

  4. Certainly a lot of whining, when all she needs is a bit of wine to turn her weeding happy. Wine, woman and trowel, a recipe for happy gardening. I see a book title here, lol. The article link was not all that inspiring. Not really helping her book sale here.

  5. I really miss the clever literary essay collection genre- I haunt used book stores looking for them. @Donna- I would totally buy a book called “Wine, Woman and Trowel”

  6. I hate house keeping, a Sisyphean task if there ever was one. I don’t much like the process of gardening either. This is why I have a husband. What I particularly enjoy (besides reading clever garden rants)is the exquisite tension of planting something inappropriate (again) in my dark and jungled garden and tiptoeing out each morning to see if it survived the night. And if whatever it is fails (as things are apt to do midsummer when it’s impossible to insert/locate a natural replacement) finding something amusing to cover the dirt — a Chinese umbrella, a lantern, a painted branch, a blatantly fake fuchsia daisy….

  7. @ Donna : I agree w/Susan, would totally buy “Wine, Woman and Trowel”. It would also make for a great garden shop, an addition to a nursery, perhaps …

    I was not inspired by the link. Comparing gardening to housework ? Nah. Not even close in my book. If I clean the house top to bottom, there’s three other people (and a dog) following behind me un-cleaning it. And just try teaching them to tidy up behind themselves ! At least in the garden, the mess is only mine & Ma Nature’s. It provides me with beauty, food, and pride. When I finish housework I smell like sweat & cleaners. I hate it. I finish gardening and smell like sweat & sun (or cold, maybe), various organic fertilizers, dirt, mulch, plants I’ve brushed against … and I’ll feel more relaxed than I have since last time I gardened.

    Don’t even get me started on why kids should be gardening ! Obviously she’s never witnessed kids bypassing the after-school snack of oreos or nachos for a chance to raid the garden for sweet peas and purple carrots.

    Perhaps if she wants a garden, she should move to a nice flat near a public garden. Let someone who does enjoy the work, do it.

  8. I read the whole book & loved it for the fresh perspective and that it challenged the reader. Too much of what gets published is preaching to the choir. From the book, it is clear that Wareham doesn’t hate gardens, just the minutiae of gardening. While I often find deadheading meditative, there are times I’m sick to death of it and just want to pull out the weedwhacker. I’m sure we can all relate at one time or another.

  9. Okay, so at the moment, the link to “Why I Hate Gardening” doesn’t work for me, but I do feel personally liberated by the title of this book.

    I’m happy to have someone to grumle alongside with–to be able to gripe ad nauseaum about having to water for 2-1/2 hours by hand every day since the start of May. And it’s okay now for me not to like agaves and hope that the agave snout-nosed beetles eat them ALL up. And it’s okay for me to feel angry that my insides are falling out as I try to wrangle a heavy pot across the yard because I have no one to help, even when I ask for help. Yes, the title of this book is liberating.

  10. The article completely fit in with my mood. The last of my squash have succumbed to borers, the heat index is over 100, the mosquitoes are so bad they are about ready to carry me off if I don’t laminate myself in bug spray. I still have plants needing to be planted in the driveway; I’m now just cursing them, “Die, die!” There is a HUGE rat snake living in one of the hydrangeas, armadillos are destroying the lawn… need I continue?

  11. Glad to see some other gardeners besides me don’t use glyphosate. My garden doesn’t compare to Anne Wareham’s, but I do enjoy the time I spend in it. (Not much time right now, with lows of 79 and highs over 100. At least the drought does slow down the weeds along with the other plants.)

  12. Perfect. I too love a garden (and hoard plants), but don’t particularly like to garden. I’m buying the book and would stand in line to buy the review of existing gardens. Amy, you can’t come to Blacksburg fast enough! As for the glyphosate and shop vac – I don’t have to agree to find it entertaining. I want strong opinions whether I agree or not. Long live the Rant!

  13. I have the same question. I don’t use one in the garden but does its use degrade the environment? Please tell me, because except for the noise and a bit of electricity I am having a hard time imagining a REAL problem with a wet vac.

  14. “We are very short of real excitement in the garden world,” she writes, “and these little sensations have to be made much of as a result.”
    Doesn’t this book fall into the same trap?
    Best Wishes

  15. Anne’s right about the need to criticize gardens more rigorously – it’s all so sycophantic! If a garden is open to the public then it’s fair game for the same style of criticism that is applied to movies – or books. Why is it that EVERY garden seen on TV – real garden or show garden – is gushed over with effusive praise? Do bad gardens simply not exist? We can all learn from bad gardens as well as good ones.

    My review of Anne’s book is here:

  16. Graham Rice, I read your review, thanks for the link.
    This sounds like a good read. Witty acerbics seem to make excellent gardeners and writers. Reading is for intertainment as well as information,ya know? I don’t always agree with the writers here at Rant but they are fun to follow.

  17. As to the garden criticism, about the only blog keeper that I would expect good critical analysis from is James Golden at View From Federal Twist. If garden criticism is of such value why are those of you saying so not doing so on your blogs?

  18. Thanks for posting: Veddw House Garden
    What an inspiring amazing garden. Love seeing people not afraid to plant hedges! My favorite Garden essays is still “Green Thoughts” by Eleanor Perenyi. She is so smart and opinionated and to the point. Wish there was more intelligent writing like that!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here