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The best books on Gardening

recommended by Helen Dillon

The gardening expert recommends five books that have influenced her, from 300 year old gardening tips to the difficulty of describing flowers

Helen Dillon

Helen Dillon is revered as one of the most skilled and perceptive gardeners of our time. She is much sought after as an author, broadcaster and garden consultant. Her garden in Dublin is open to the public, and has been featured in magazines worldwide. Dillon has taken extensive plant expeditions to places such as Nepal, Patagonia, New Zealand, South Africa and China, and she lectures widely in the UK and US

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Helen Dillon

Helen Dillon is revered as one of the most skilled and perceptive gardeners of our time. She is much sought after as an author, broadcaster and garden consultant. Her garden in Dublin is open to the public, and has been featured in magazines worldwide. Dillon has taken extensive plant expeditions to places such as Nepal, Patagonia, New Zealand, South Africa and China, and she lectures widely in the UK and US

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Before we talk about your five books, I would like to know a bit more about what first drew you into gardening.

I have been at it a very long time. I started when I was about five years old. I had a grandfather who lived in Worcester and he was keen on gardening. In fact, I have got people on both sides who are very keen on gardening – cousins, second cousins, great aunts.

Did you follow your grandfather about and watch him garden?

Yes, I did.

Your first choice is the Financial Times’s gardening columnist Robin Lane Fox’s Thoughtful Gardening, which is a collection of 80 essays about the difference between gardeners and gardens around the world.

I think it is a brilliant book. The most complimentary thing I could say about any gardener is that they thought of what they were saying themselves. The way of lecturing that used to be for gardening talks was very stuffy, a bit like a university lecturer would be. I am talking about the older generation in their 80s and 90s.

Were they using lots of Latin names and things like that?

Yes. And I think the only way you are going to get anybody to read anything is to think of oneself as an entertainer of very charming elderly ladies.

And Robin Lane Fox is obviously good at that!

Yes, he has got it all sewed up. They eat out of his hands. He is totally brilliant. My problem with Robin is that I thought he was very laid back, but actually he is terribly clever, which is quite alarming.

Which one of his essays do you particularly enjoy?

All of them are so good. The naughtiest thing he does, which is just so funny, is to have a good go at badgers. I think it is perfectly genuine, and he is not a bit afraid of upsetting the cuddly-toy type animal people. Just when you think he has forgotten about badgers, he starts off again!

Next up is Christopher Lloyd’s The Well-Tempered Garden, which has been around for 30 years but is still regarded as one of the key gardening books. Why?

I was just glancing at this book again this afternoon, and what I like about it is that it is full of information and no waffle. I know for a fact that he used to be holding the thing that he was describing in his hands. It could be a flower, leaf or fruit, and he would be describing it just as he saw it, rather than looking it up anywhere else.

When I started garden writing myself, I was looking up everything, and if someone described something as pink, I thought, “Right, it is pink”. But if someone else had a different idea, I went with that, so I ended up getting thoroughly muddled. What is so excellent about Christopher Lloyd and Robin Lane Fox is that they know all this information. They get it for themselves, rather than relying on reading about it elsewhere. I also think that Graham Stuart Thomas, who wrote that wonderful book on perennials, Perennial Garden Plants, is excellent as well. In fact, I think he does the best ever plant descriptions. I try very hard not to look at them when I am doing my own, otherwise I will just copy them word for word because they are so good.

Tell me a bit more about Christopher Lloyd.

He was a very famous British gardener who won the Victoria Medal of Honour, the highest award of the Royal Horticultural Society, which was given to him for the work he did to promote gardening. A particularly memorable moment for me was one of the last interviews he ever gave, which was really very moving in retrospect. He sat there in his wheel chair, looking like the cuddliest old man you ever saw. His hands were in little mittens, he had his head down, with a scarf around his neck, and his eyes seemed to be closing. But I don’t think he liked the interviewer, who was from some arts programme. When he was asked a question he didn’t like, he looked up, and there were these brilliant, piercing, sharp, intelligent blue eyes staring out of what looked like a cuddly toy sitting in a chair.

“I think the therapeutic effect is one aspect of gardening which hasn’t been dug up, spat out and redone 55 times.”

In fact he was terrifying, because he would go for the jugular straight away. It was what he loved doing most, and then he might smile about it afterwards. You had to stand up to him. If you were, “Hail, oh most wonderful old gardening person!”, he absolutely hated it. It made him feel quite ill I think.

You chose your next book, On the Making of Gardens by Sir George Sitwell, for the introduction at the front of it by his son, Osbert.

Yes, I actually found this in the early 1970s in a book called The Garden Lovers Companion, edited by Peter Hunt. Osbert Sitwell was writing about his father, Sir George Sitwell, who sounds a complete gem of a person because he did his own thing all of the time. Here is a quote from the start of it, which is about what Sir Geroge thinks of other people. He has had this brilliant idea, or so he thinks, of creating an island in the middle of the lake – and he was explaining this to his son Osbert, who is writing down why he did it. Osbert writes, “The island pavilion, he would explain to me … was to be built entirely for my sake. It was a great sacrifice, and he hoped that I would bear it in mind, but it would prove a most valuable asset in entertaining. The great thing was one was never to see guests alone, when one was to talk and tire oneself out, but always to invite a great many of them together, so that they would look after one another.”

Sir George went on to get more and more excited about the island he was going to build, and the vegetables he was going to grow there, and how happy his servants would be. I love this, because it shows what a truly eccentric Edwardian gentleman can imagine, if they have the money and time for it. I really would advise people to read it, because it is terribly funny.

I was also interested that Sir George Sitwell travelled to Italy in the early twentieth century, when he was recovering from a nervous breakdown. Much of this book is about the therapeutic effect of gardens.

Yes, he took it terribly seriously. And I quite agree with him about how therapeutic gardening and gardens can be. I think it is the one aspect of gardening which hasn’t been dug up, spat out and redone 55 times. Somebody really ought to write a deep book on how soothing gardens are. I certainly find with myself that it is about the only thing that calms me down at all. And I suspect that a lot of the people who are very keen gardeners are devoted to it for that very reason. It is the only thing that makes you forget everything else.

Have you visited any of the gardens in Italy mentioned in Sir George’s book?

I haven’t visited them properly. I went round with a friend who had a house in Tuscany, so we just did a few. I have never been to Villa Lante, for example, although I have read about it a thousand times.

What are some of your favourite gardens?

Well, I used to like Monet’s Garden, but I have been told recently it is dreadful. And I used to love Mt Stewart in Northern Ireland.

What about your own garden – what are you trying to do with it?

I am trying to make a picture that pleases me, but as the picture moves the whole time – and not only because of the wind and the weather – you can never get to the end of the line. That is the fascination.

You also do a lot of plant hunting. You have been all over the world.

I do a lot of my trips with the Alpine Garden Society, who are very thorough. When you get to the top of the mountain and you see a primula, you know it is a primula but you don’t know which one. But if you are with the Alpine Garden Society, they will tell you which one it is. Which is good, as you probably won’t be at the top of that mountain ever again. Also in the Andes, you have things called rosulate violas. They are so pretty and grow very high up. They are very difficult to grow in captivity. In fact, I have never seen one in captivity. They have leaves just like a sempervivum, but then there are adorable little jewel-like violas all around it.

They sound lovely. Your next book, Forgotten Fruits by Christopher Stocks, looks at the incredible amount of fruit and vegetables that we have in the UK today.

I think he is rather good. He is a journalist who writes for publications like Gardens Illustrated. All the information that he has found for Forgotten Fruits is much more interesting than most gardening books. It is a bit like what I was talking about before regarding stuffy garden lectures – the same applies to books. Many of the old books are very dull. They will be how many petals something has, what the colour is exactly, what time it flowers or where it comes from. You have all that sort of information with no sparkle or life about it. Christopher Stocks is completely different.

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For example, when he talks about Bunyard’s Exhibition broad bean, this is how he describes it: “Edward Bunyard – a suicidal nursery heir. Bunyard’s Exhibition is a variety you can sow in spring and not just in autumn. It isn’t just a name, Bunyard’s Exhibition broad bean. Edward Bunyard inherited the family firm in the late 19th century and became a noted gourmet. But his love of wine, fruit and roses, which he wrote enthusiastically about in a series of books, drew him away from the business and increasingly into debt. On the 19th October, 1939, on the brink of bankruptcy, he blew his brains out in his room at the Royal Society’s club in London.” What I love is that Christopher is able to get beyond just describing a bean pod, which is eight inches long and is green.

Instead he gives a vignette of someone’s life.

Exactly. It is so nicely written, and he is so good at giving you bits of information that stick in your head rather than go straight out again.

Your final choice, The Compleat Florist, was written in the 18th century.

One of the bits I particularly like in this book is a lovely paragraph which reminds me of the other day. There were two ladies going round my garden, and one had to pick up every single petal and every single flower she was talking about. And I was thinking to myself, “I cannot control myself with this women, I am going to kill her if she touches one more thing!” And then in The Compleat Florist, you get a very similar situation all those years ago in 1706. It starts off, “When some folks get into a garden, they are not satisfied if they do not handle the flowers. Now to a true florist this practise is downright uncivil, because in handling a flower we tarnish it and we break in upon its ordinary position, and often times occasion its being damped.” So there is this man who felt just the same as I do, but some 300 years before me.

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