Book review: Lessons From Great Gardeners by Matthew Biggs

Madame Ganna Walska was a Polish beauty of enormous charisma, charm and energy.  Her initial career was in opera, but her particular talents lay in two quite different directions: firstly, in making prudent marriages (she married a succession of men of huge wealth); secondly, in exotic, exuberant, and extravagant gardening.

After divorcing for the sixth and final time, Walska set about creating ‘Lotusland’, her vast garden in California. ‘She filled the garden with rare and exotic species, falling in love with their beauty but never knowing their names,’ writes Matthew Biggs in his delightful book, Lessons From Great Gardeners: forty gardening icons and what they can teach us. ‘Wanting plants that always looked good, Madame… was more interested in their art, style and beauty.’

Her garden was funded, of course, by her acquired marital wealth. Biggs quotes a story in which Walska drove around the neighbourhood in search of choice specimens, and whenever she saw something she wanted in someone else’s garden, she had her chauffeur knock on the front door, offering to buy it. If the person refused, ‘a case of champagne was delivered; that usually changed their minds.’ She would go on to sell almost $1m of jewellery to fund her various collections, including a garden of 900 cycads representing half the world’s species, many of them incredibly rare.

Madame Walska’s accompanies thirty-nine similarly spellbinding four-page histories, written in chronological order starting with the fifteenth-century Japanese artist Somai who created Ryouan-Ji, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to the contemporary plantsman and plant hunter Dan Hinkley. Most of the gardeners one would expect to find here are present and correct: Paxton, Lloyd, Sackville-West, Chatto, Oudolf; and there are several whose names I recognised, perhaps from cultivars (Edward Augustus Bowles, Ellen Willmott), awards (James Veitch) or other subjects (Thomas Jefferson, Claude Monet), but about whom I knew much less. Then, like Walska, there were many I had never heard of at all, including the plantswoman Rae Selling Berry and the creator of the garden in the ruins of Ninfa near Rome, Princess Leila Caetani.

The gardeners are satisfyingly varied: there are those like Walska or the businessman Henry E. Huntingdon who built their gardens from great riches. Then there are those who gardened on behalf of the rich, like André Le Notre of Versailles, or Joseph Paxton of Chatsworth. Some gardeners had other jobs and gardened for relaxation (Thomas Jefferson, Sir Thomas Hanbury), others gardened obsessively to the exclusion of all else (Ellen Willmott, Madame Walska). The artist gardener is well represented in Claude Monet, Gertrude Jekyll and Jacques Majorelle.

I was unfamiliar with the writing of Matt Biggs, accustomed as I am to hearing his cheery voice on Gardeners’ Question Time. His writing style is as soothing as his subjects, telling their stories in clear, well written, well researched paragraphs, and it carries a quiet joy in its theme. Like many RHS published books, Lessons is printed on good quality mat paper: a satisfying book to feel and hold; each gardener is accompanied by a little portrait along with botanical illustrations of some of those plants best associated with them: Deschampsia for Piet Oudolf, Gentian for Geoffrey Smith, Asters for Gertrude Jekyll, Geranium for Margery Fish. Every gardener has a page of ‘Lessons’. Geoff Hamilton teaches us that ‘things don’t have to be perfect… Gardening is all about enjoyment; don’t take it too seriously’. Beth Chatto tells us to ‘accept the existing conditions, choose the right plants for that location’. Vita Sackville-West ‘disliked excessive tidiness’ (me too, Vita). Madame Ganna Walska has advice for us in conservation and sustainable gardening, though no specific instruction is given on the acquisition of husbands.

But while the lessons Biggs extracts from his subjects are mostly practical tips and ideas, a greater lesson was emerging for me. The unifying characteristic of these great gardeners, the thing they all had in common, was an overwhelming drive and passion for plants, gardens and nature, a strong desire for self-education, and a work ethic that set them apart. Whatever your background, your education, your income or your starting point, so long as you have courage, a will to work and conviction in your own style, there is room for you and your story among the stories of all the gardeners who have ever lived.

Biggs, M. (2015) Lessons From Great Gardeners: forty gardening icons and what they teach us. 1st edition, London: Mitchell Beazley.

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