Dismiss British Garden Writers? Absurd.

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Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden built on the remains of an old car park gives hope to gardeners everywhere that matching the plant to one’s conditions can spell success.

Guest Rant by Marianne Willburn 

Given the choice of dinner companions at an industry event, with fourteen topics on the table and the wine flowing softly and smoothly, Scott Beuerlein would be at the top of my list. He is entertaining, clever, and charmingly self-deprecating — and an excellent conversationalist.

That’s why it pains me greatly to say that he has his head right up his smart ass.

When, in his July/August column for Horticulture[1], he advocated for the total abandonment of British garden writers by American gardeners, and went so far as to tell the late and sainted Beth Chatto to “bugger off,” he no doubt knew he’d get some pushback.

And as it happens, I’m just in the mood.

“Brit garden writers have had it so good for so long!” he wailed. “[Their] books, gloriously illustrated…filled with classic design ideas and expert care instructions – are naught but works of deception. They have brought us Yanks nothing but suffering and heartbreak.”

Beuerlein’s passionate words went on to decry the injustice of meconopsis. Christopher Lloyd’s name was taken in vain. A Big Gulp was inexplicably referenced.

“Just sell your damn books to the Australians,” he ended. Or at least he should have done.

I am not a British garden writer. But I admit to a dog in the fight in that I hold two passports.

Although one of them will no longer be looked upon with favor in European airports after Brexit (the other one never was), I have a certain fondness for the country.

I went to university there. My son was born there. I developed a deep and abiding love for gin and tonics there, and have recently begun guiding other like-minded souls around its great gardens under the auspices of CarexTours.

These admissions might crush all pretense of neutrality if it were not for the following statement: I am not and never have been an inhabitant of the Pacific Northwest — the only region in North America whose populace can guzzle from the well-spring of British garden literature and never taste bitterness.

Instead I live in Northern Virginia, bitterly cold in February, life-suckingly humid in July.  Each year we are offered the promise of an English spring and then delivered an Amazonian summer.

Oh yes, I have tasted the bitterness. Big frothy gulps of it.

And yet my shelves are overflowing with the very best of the Brits. In addition to scores of excellent books and articles penned by American garden writers, there lurk the Vereys, the Chattos, the Lloyds and the Dons. Three shelves are given over entirely to British garden essayists, and I admit to the profligacy of international subscriptions to Gardens Illustrated and Country Living UK.

And Scott, here’s why:

Prose as poetry

Musa basjoo towers over the century-old yew hedge at Great Dixter, where in 1993, Christopher Lloyd shocked the establishment by ripping out roses and planting an exotic garden.

Christopher Lloyd was as caustic & clever as Dorothy Parker, but as loveable as Ogden Nash. Chatto beguiled us with the humble words of a self-taught gardener, but won ten successive gold medals at Chelsea and created a global masterpiece in the Essex countryside. Monty Don (as author, not as television sex symbol and international man of mystery) writes with a sensuousness worthy of Coleridge:

There are peaches to be eaten warm from the brick of the wall they are grown against, peas picked off the tendrilly plant and shucked straight from pod to mouth…tomatoes waiting to release their own musty muskiness as teeth break their skin.[2]

When he starts undressing figs with his fingers I need a moment to compose myself.

Critical eyes, witty tongues

Wit is an elusive quality in gardening prose. There are millions of outrage merchants out there, but it’s quiet, clever criticism that gets my attention – and keeps it. At this the British excel.

Here’s Christopher Lloyd, calling out the snobs:

There are some gardeners in whose company I feel vulgar.  They will expect you to fall on your knees with a magnifying glass to worship before the shrine of a spikelet of tiny green flowers…yet will themselves turn away disgusted from a huge, opulent quilt of hortensia hydrangeas.[3]

Or the ideologues:

I confess to being unattracted to the concept of gardening with a moral implication. It puts a dampener on going all out to garden full-bloodedly in whatever way appeals to you most.[4]

The best British garden writers have honed the ability to inflict dagger-sized wounds with the prick of a pin. Even when it’s your own ideologies that lie bloodied and martyred, you cannot help but smile.

And read more.

An abundance of foliage and flower leading to The Hovel at Great Dixter.

Gardening as a cultural premise

The British population is presented at birth with a trowel and a bit of twine. They are also presented with a packet of Bishop’s flower and sternly told to call it Ammi majus. Thus the population is primed and ready for garden writers who won’t have to waste precious time explaining what a cold-frame is before they can explain what to do with it.

The British don’t have to vainly search an HGTV channel to find a bit of G. Gardening programs run freely through their radio and television networks, their streaming choices, and quite possibly through their dreams at night.

This premise results in a different approach toward garden writing. Authors don’t need to claim that “it’s easy.”  They assume you know it may be difficult, but it’s worth it.

In the words of St. Beth:

If Damp Gardening sounds like hard work, I can assure you that, unless Nature provides for you, initially it is…But when it is successful I think it is possibly one of the most beautiful forms of gardening.[5]

We’re frightened to do this as American garden writers. We know we’re often holding people by the fine thread that connects ‘lifestyle’ to ‘the garden.’ Saying “it’s difficult” could send them over to scrapbooking.

Garden gravitas

They’ve simply been doing it longer. Their gardens are older. Their tools are better oiled. There is nothing television-worthy about a rumpled and grubby Monty Don; except, there is.

We can chafe and grumble at such cosmic injustice and lash out with words like ‘stodgy’ and ‘predictable,’ but Lloyd was never predictable, nor is Noel Kingsbury, nor Dan Pearson, nor Keith Wiley. And they get to apply all that generational knowledge and exciting innovation to gardens that sport stone walls older than a bit of Brooklyn Brownstone.

Green, juicy envy

Scott, sometimes we need a bit of envy in our lives. We need inspiration. We need something that, by its sheer sumptuousness, primes the engines within us and gets us moving.

Something that gets us thinking. Gets us creating. Makes us fall in love again.

That’s Christopher Lloyd’s Flower Garden, Hugh Johnson’s The Principles of Gardening, Rosemary Verey’s The Making of a Garden; and, I have no doubt, Jimi Blake & Noel Kingsbury’s new book A Beautiful Obsession.

Have you ever read Hugh Johnson, Scott?  You’d think the man wouldn’t have time to pen clever words about magnolias with the amount of French wine he’s quaffing from his veranda in central France.  Johnson’s words could ignite envy in the Dalai Lama.

I want to be Hugh Johnson. Failing that, I want to read Hugh Johnson.

The long border at Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire on a sunny September day.

The Accent

The only thing better than reading Monty Don is listening to Monty Don read Monty Don.

That’s got to piss you off, Scott.

I understand. A Cincinnati short-a accent grappling with ‘clematis’ just doesn’t have the same…well…gravitas.

Sure, these people garden with the sweet Gulf Stream at their backs and beautiful French plonk just a day-trip away. My garden no more resembles theirs than Vita Sackville-West resembles Mama June.

But then, my garden doesn’t resemble Jenks Farmer’s gorgeous farm in South Carolina either, or Nan Sterman’s xeriscaped designs in Southern California. This is, after all a big country.

I study their words anyway, and try Farmer’s crinums when winters are kind, and Sterman’s agaves even though they never are. I appreciate Henry Mitchell’s wit and the grace of Elizabeth Lawrence, and lap up anything Andrea Wulf is serving on either side of the Atlantic.

We take what we can from each of these authors – British or American – and feel connected in our shared passion. Particularly over a very large gin and tonic.

Therefore I urge readers to reject the obviously tortured, Zone 6, possibly 5b words of Scott Beuerlein. Do not give up on the gorgeousness of great British garden porn in a burst of American Puritanism, or avoid an occasional doomed flirtation with meconopsis. Let those Brits tempt and tickle you. Love affairs should not be squelched because they are hopeless.

Sometimes those are the very best ones.

__________________________________________________________

Marianne is a garden columnist and the author of Big Dreams, Small Garden. Read more at smalltowngardener.com or follow @smalltowngardener on Facebook and Instagram.

[1] Scott Beuerlein, “Time for a Grexit,” Horticulture, July/August 2019, 64.

[2] Monty Don, Gardening Mad, London: Bloomsbury,  1997, 108.

[3] Christopher Lloyd, In My Garden, New York: Macmillian, 1984, 220-221.

[4] Christopher Lloyd & Beth Chatto, Dear Friend and Gardener, London: Frances Lincoln Ltd., 1998, 15.

[5] Beth Chatto, The Damp Garden, Second ed., Sagaponack, NY: Sagapress Inc. 1996, 13-14.

27 COMMENTS

  1. Enjoyed this post so much. I just subscribed to Brit Box so that I can watch Gardener’s World. Yesterday I watched Monty Don planting seed potatoes and potting up lily bulbs, neither of which I ever intend on doing, in any season. The specific plants and tasks are not really the point. I just want to watch a real, rumpled-looking gardener performing actual gardening tasks with care and passion, with a dozing Golden Retriever at his side. HGTV: is this too much to ask?

    • Thank you. “With care and passion…” – love that. Apparently it is just too much to ask that we get some G with our HGTV. Such a shame. I live in a low stream valley in Virginia where a fast internet connection is just a dream, so this lack of decent programming annoys me more than most. My personal library is my HGTV.

  2. Marianne, a classic of garden prose of your own. I’ve also devoured most of the authors you mentioned and relished their subtle barbs, but somehow I’ve missed Monty Don. I was just today, however, blogging myself about Noel Kingsbury’s latest article regarding crowding borders. That’s another one we can learn from.

  3. Well that was a joy to read. It elicited more than one head nodding chuckle. It was from a Christopher Lloyd book that I gathered some important garden wisdom. Roughly stated…the right time to perform a garden task is when you HAVE the time.
    PS I learned on Gardener’s World Monty will be in America!

    • That bit of advice is always with me too – particularly at this time of year. I believe Monty Don has already been in America at least twice recently to film an upcoming program on American Gardens. It will be interesting to hear how he describes them – and which gardens he picks as representational. As I say in the post, it’s a big country.

  4. Aside from the fairly obvious false premise that Beuerlein is actually dismissing British garden writers (sour grapes served nicely as his premise I think), this was a delight to read. The shoulders of gardeners of every stripe and locale have supported us all but, like Rilke’s “Les Saltimbanques”, “You, who fall, with the thud
    that only fruit knows” describes every one of us at one point or another. Another’s success does not diminish my effort.

  5. I’ve tried English style gardens without success in zone 7 Md. Delphiniums,Foxglove, Hollyhocks & most roses absolutely refuse to cooperate. Christopher Lloyds books are treasures & I,ve given them as gifts to a friend who is a fantastic gardener. In My Garden arrived on Christmas eve & he told me he stayed up all that night enjoying it. My failed attempts are my failures & certainly not the fault of those very interesting & entertaining writers. Your well written retort after the head placement suggestion is sort of like swinging back with a velvet hammer & perfectly phrased. I’m sure Mr. Beuerlein enjoyed it as much as the rest of us.

    • I am so glad your friend enjoyed In My Garden as much as you did. Many years ago, a friend who was just starting to garden asked me where she could start with a good gardening book. I did not think to pair her ability with a book (or ask her if she enjoyed essays) and went on and on about how much she would gain from it as I felt it was representative of his very best columns. She didn’t, but she was very polite about it. Later I recommended a DK book with a lot of pictures for a second attempt. Bingo. Many thanks for your comment. – MW

  6. Gardening in central Texas, I have found garden writers from New England and the Pacific Northwest just as frustrating as the English ones. All those lovely plants I can’t grow. But there are a lot of reasons to read about other people’s gardens that have nothing to do with deciding what to plant in my own, and I’m not about to limit my library to “how to” books.

    • Yes Carolyn, as I am originally from California, the startling difference between regions in this country is always on my mind, and I know that it is frustrating for others. My mother often dismisses gardening books because they are too ‘East Coast’ and Sunset long ago came up with 3,425 Western zones to make sense of the area. But I very much agree, it’s not just the ‘how to’ books we should read. Thanks for the comment. – MW

  7. I gave up my subscription to Horticulture magazine several years ago. There wasn’t much there, anymore. I may need to resubscribe after I read that Scott Beurlein had written a snarky, opinion story. American horticulture is desperate for critical garden writing. (That’s what the Garden Rant is all about.) Thank you Scott and Marianne.

  8. Well done, Marianne! I am a Floridian born and raised and have never lived anywhere else.
    We are a gardening island all our own, with conditions and problems and successes and wonderful plants like nowhere else in the world. And yet I have always read about and TV watched and longed to see in person, all kinds of gardens from all over the world. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy your column so much!
    RANT ON, sister!

    • Thank you Susan! You really are in another world down there – but I am thankful that we are able to get more and more of the tremendous plant material coming out of Florida to use in our own (sweltering) gardens up here. – MW

  9. Well said Marianne! But I expect nothing less from your pen (or keyboard I guess). I was going to add, as I started reading your note, that literacy counts for a lot when you talk about British writers worth reading, but then you got to that point as well in your very comprehensive post. The best of garden writing should give you inspiration worthy of your perspiration in the garden — and the writers you mention certainly do that. — jw

    • Thanks John! One of things I love about good British garden writers is their ability to subtly weave everyday life throughout their books/articles without cloying sentimentality or exhibitionism – you very much get the human being behind the words. There certainly are American garden writers who do same, but I see it a great deal in the Brits. -MW

  10. Was reading Scott’s article in Horticulture last night and felt it was just one more Trumpian angry ethnocentric rant. Trump’s invective is so insidious it has even infected the usually kind hearted voices of gardeners.

  11. I can assure you Kathy that nothing could be further from the truth. Scott’s words were meant in good fun – as were mine. The sarcasm and self-deprecating humor in his column showed that he has more in common with the Brits than he might think. We take ourselves too seriously as Americans – as the Brits like to say ‘You’ve gotta laugh.”

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