‘It’s a kind of obsession, but golly, it’s the best of all obsessions.’*
I confess I had never heard of Anna Pavord until I received this book as a gift from my mother-in-law, but I have since learned she has been gardening correspondent for the Independent since the paper was founded in 1986 and is the former chair of the National Trust’s Gardens panel, author of several books and recipient of the RHS’s Veitch Memorial Medal for outstanding contribution to the advancement of horticulture. So, she knows more than a thing or two about gardening.
The book, subtitled A Year in the Garden is structured around twelve chapters, each representing a month of the year. Each chapter is a collection of (usually) monthly-applicable articles from her back-catalogue, ending with a list of ‘tasks for the month’ divided into ‘general’, ‘flowers’, ‘vegetables’, ‘fruit’ and ‘propagating’.
I don’t often read non-fiction for leisure, but this book, being an unusual combination of reference book, memoir, advice column, garden diary and biography of great gardeners, with some travel writing thrown in, really drew me in.
The style is conversational, down-to-earth and personal, yet informative. Topics are covered not in their entirety, but from the personal viewpoint of an experienced gardener who has tried and tested many things and is sharing the benefits of her knowledge. So if you’re looking for a full list of every type of tomato and its pros and cons, this isn’t the source, but you could probably go a lot further wrong than heeding her advice on which to grow for cooking for example, and interestingly that over-feeding and watering produces leafy growth at the expense of fruit for these plants native of South America where they grow in dry, poor ground.
I read through it as you would a novel rather than a reference book, i.e. from cover to cover in a few sittings, but I’ve found it also warrants going back to each month throughout the year, both to give a sense of the delights of the month to come, and to rev-visit the list of tasks for some helpful pointers- hence the sticky notes proliferating in my copy.
This isn’t intended as a ‘comprehensive’ reference book. Most of the significant aspects of gardening are covered in one way or another, but it is best read by ambling through the year with the author, stumbling across the topics in the appropriate month or months. For example, tulips might be discussed both in April when they’re in flower and in November when they should be planted.
I did learn some very useful tips, including: that ‘Rugosa’ roses are resistant to blackspot and mildew; which type of traditional apple to buy for best flavour; which are the best trees to plant for year-round interest in a small garden; and what to grow on a north-facing wall. None of these are ground-breaking topics, I freely admit, but the gentle sharing of advice was based on personal experience of the kinds of triumphs and disasters we all experience in our gardens, rather than being a desk-researched compendium of other secondary sources of advice, as are some of the more formal ‘reference’ books.
The enjoyment of reading this book is not only in picking up helpful hints, but in the way it evokes the changing moods of each month and of the passing of the year in the garden. It reminds you to stop and appreciate what’s good about every single month of the year- and that there’s always some gardening you can be doing- and reading this passage from the March chapter in the depths of winter, for example, would lift the spirits of any gardener as they remember what they have to look forward to;
‘The best trick [the garden] plays, at this time of year, is that you never quite remember how it’s going to be, that first day you go outside and can stay outside all day, fiddling about with jobs that aren’t pressing enough to weigh heavily, but will nevertheless pay dividends’
The gardener is not always as interesting as their garden, but I found a few hours in Anna Pavord’s company to be very pleasant, and the little insights into her family Christmases and the trials and tribulations of growing spring flowers for her daughter’s wedding in a year where everything bloomed early very enjoyable.
*If you’re reading in the UK (and possibly further afield if the BBC allows it) for the next 25 days you can listen online to the recent BBC Radio 3 broadcast with Anna Pavord, in which she said this, and much more, about the joys of gardening and landscapes.