I have many books about garden design on my bookshelf. The likes of Robin Williams, John Brookes, Tim Newbury, Piet Oudolf and Roy Strong snuggle together amicably there: they have, over the years, instructed me purposefully, generously and reliably. I have shamelessly nicked designs from all of them and shoehorned them into gardens with a non-designer’s lack of discrimination. Heck, I once built a brick wall on instructions from a well-thumbed copy of John Brookes’s ‘The Small Garden’.
But there are only so many times you can be told how to triangulate things. Sometimes all you require is a lot of lovely pictures of, say, pergolas so you can figure out what you like and – more importantly – what you want for whichever garden you happen to be building at the time.
And that, mostly, is what you get with The Essential Garden Book, from the unlikely pairing of uber-chic interior designer Terence Conran and thoughtful, sensitive garden designer Dan Pearson: published in 1998 but still current and a late New Year present from my other half, who knows the agonies I am in at the moment over how to design a fruit cage that doesn’t look like a fruit cage.
I have my doubts about Terence Conran’s forays into garden design, though I must admit his design template for a compost bin (was it really his, though, do you think?) remains a staple in my repertoire. He’s rather good at houses, of course: in fact this book was designed to follow his The Essential House Book.
But stick to what you know is my motto, and such sequels are often less than successful. Luckily whoever was advising him clearly knew his stuff, as he managed to collar a relatively recently-established Dan Pearson to do it (there are also – surprisingly ill-acknowledged – contributions from Isabelle van Groeningen and Andrew Wilson). The book was first published a scant decade after Pearson arrived at Home Farm, so we were only just beginning to see what he was capable of.
I’m afraid I quickly gave up on the words and just basked in all the lovely, lovely pictures. You see this is a sourcebook extraordinaire: the size of a baking tray, it is heavy and rich with ideas. There are steps, sprayed with mud and grass, growing green and hairy; wonderful dry-stone moongates; a trellis so cloaked in ivy it looks like a living sculpture; and fences made of multicoloured bottles strung on wires.
The pictures are this book’s strength, but it does get bogged down in the words. I do question how digestible and relevant an essay on void versus mass – however intelligently put – is to the ordinary backyard reader. And most non backyard readers will probably know about it already anyway. Dan Pearson is, of course, a fine writer: but this is quite obviously a book designed to be looked at, not read.
But worse: in the end it tries to be all things to all readers. How can you possibly even attempt to cover the cornucopia of perennials, bulbs and ferns in just six pages (including pictures)? I’ll tell you – woefully inadequately, and by avoiding cultivar names wherever possible, which makes it a bit of a pointless exercise. And vegetables, herbs and fruit are given just four measly pages, including exotica like kiwis, peaches and apricots. A breakneck gallop through every aspect of gardening is achieved in just 12 of the book’s 272 pages – relegated to the back, of course. It’s hard not to avoid getting cross at the priorities here.
I came away with the impression that this was a book without the confidence to be what it very nearly is: an outstanding sourcebook full of inspiration, ideas and horizon-widening examples to send you away into your garden full of renewed determination and optimism. If I’d been the editor, I would have lopped off the bits about plants and gardening and let it flourish as the design book it was meant to be.