The thing is (and I sincerely hope he doesn’t mind me saying this) he doesn’t really seem to be that interested in it. This, his latest book, is a moving and poetic love song from a gardener to his London garden. And – rather refreshingly, if I’m honest – it barely gives a mention to the day job.
Dan is Kew and Edinburgh trained: he’s a botanist and a gardener to the veins of his mud-grimed fingers, and it is his love of the physical act of gardening that shines out from these pages.
He talks of ‘utter absorption’, the rhythms of the seasons, rhapsodises about Felco no.2’s in the way only a dedicated gardener can. You’ve got to like a man who can write, ‘I have four pairs because I feel lost without them and ill-equipped if I can’t feel them in my back pocket’. Is there any gardener who doesn’t derive deep comfort from the weight of a pair of Felcos in the back pocket, I wonder?
But on the design of the garden – the structure, the hard landscaping bones – he is so brief as to be almost dismissive. There is a passing mention of cantilevered steps which hints at something more styled; but to be honest, he shows more enthusiasm for the rubber builders’ buckets he uses.
Mind you, he likes his dark limestone slab benches – though I suspect that’s because he uses one of them to house his species pelargoniums. And he’s also lyrical about the ‘shards of tumbled limestone’ which make up his path: ‘The pacing in the garden is interesting underfoot,’ he says. ‘I like the way you move from wood to solid stone to the clatter of broken limestone, then wood and clatter again as you move through the garden’. But that’s by way of taking you to his willow tree and his agonies over removing it.
This is a book to speak to the heart of any muddy-fingered, welly-clad gardener. Anyone who has ever railed at the ever-growing list of things to keep them from the garden will sigh when he says, ‘I spend as much time as possible living outside because the garden draws me there; it is the first place I go after getting out of bed and the last at the end of the day.’
As well as being a passionate gardener, Dan is an inspired and poetic garden writer. His use of language is simply delicious: you revel in it, bask in it, hold it like jewels in your fingers. He talks of holly never being oppressive because the leaves ‘shine like a thousand tiny mirrors’; Magnolia ‘Porcelain Dove’ smells of ‘churches, incense and musk’, while the blooms of a Paeonia delavayi, nicked as a seedling while he weeded beds at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, is ‘dark as dried blood and satiny as an Elizabethan damask’.
There are useful tips too: a planting combination he recommends shades the tricky Erythronium californicum ‘White Beauty’ to just the right degree with filigree Dicentra ‘Langtrees’, which after it has died back in summer is replaced by the willow gentian Gentiana asclepiadea. A real plantsman and gardener’s combination – and one for the notebook.
And I was deeply reassured to find that even such a god as Dan Pearson has his ‘corner of shame’: that bit of the garden where odd cuttings, surplus seedlings, impulse buys and sentimental saplings moulder miserably for months, forgotten. Of course Dan’s corner is a cut above: it includes such treasures as balsam poplars and Euonymus planipes sown as seed from the Netherlands. But nonetheless – you can feel he gardens just like you do.
And I haven’t even mentioned Howard Sooley’s sumptuous photography: lingering, atmospheric, perfectly capturing the earthy and natural feel of the book itself. Dan has now burst the constraints of his city walls and I can claim him as an almost-neighbour, since he has moved to a smallholding not many miles from me in Somerset these days. I can’t help thinking he will be happier in the country.
Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City by Dan Pearson, is published by Conran Octopus http://www.octopusbooks.co.uk/