Turning leaves: The best gardening books of the year
From stunning landscapes of tomorrow to inspiration for the urban balcony...
Futurescapes is the title of Tim Richardson's resolute new book (Thames & Hudson, £24.95) but what he is really talking about are now-scapes. The Freedom Park in Johannesburg (completed this year), the Halfway Retreat outside Ahmedabad (2008), the Origami House in Singapore (2010) are not ideas, but actualities. What Richardson is giving us is a digest of the most recent work – parks, gardens and public spaces – of 50 landscape architects, a kind of world-wide beauty parade, a Spotlight for the Wallpaper* crowd.
Interspersed are three essays by Richardson on contemporary landscape design, and two 'forums' in which 17 designers discuss the opportunities and challenges that face them now at the beginning of the 21st century. Richardson himself is a cool, witty debunker of the pomposity and jargon that infests too much of what is written about cities and their various scapes. His essays alone make the book worth its bargain price.
Futurescapes includes projects from China, India, Chile, Lebanon and Singapore as well as Europe and the US. The author assessed the work of every landscape company in the world before choosing the ones that seemed to him most "significant, distinctive and innovative". America provides more (13) than any other country and Germany (6) dominates the European scene.
Every clique creates its own language and sometimes it is impenetrable. Joao Nines, one of the partners in the Lisbon practice, Proap, describes their methodology as a "full understanding of the mechanisms that are present in the landscape, the acting and determinant metabolisms of the relationships between actors, meaning understanding a given landscape far beyond image".
Fortunately, Richardson provides nifty translations. For each of his chosen 50, he also provides a handy introductory tag. Proap, for instance, specialise in "urban design that blends strident Modernism with a romantic environmental and agricultural sensibility". Landscape India, based in Ahmedabad, is "an innovative and fearless firm, set to become a major player on the international scene".
Landscape India's grass-carpeted mango orchard, grids of trees interspersed with circles of daylilies, provides one of the most enticing spaces pictured in the book. Unlike too many of the schemes featured in the book, it has a strong sense of place. But is this a 'futurescape'? Who knows? The trees will grow, the grass will be shaded out, the daylilies will creep out of their neat spheres. Landscape architects are very confident of the importance of their spaces. But future-proof they are not.
In Edwardian Country Life: the Story of H Avray Tipping (Frances Lincoln, £35) Helena Gerrish explores the houses and gardens made by the gifted amateur who was the first architectural editor of Country Life. Gerrish has the good fortune to live in High Glanau, the last house that Tipping built for himself in Monmouthshire. Although the book she has written about him doesn't delve too deeply into the inner man, it gives a well-researched account of the homes and gardens he made and the milieu in which he moved.
Delving, anyway, is made more difficult by the fact that Tipping instructed the young gardener to whom he left his entire fortune to burn all his papers. Only an engagement diary for 1908 survives, recording (just in one week) dinner with Edwin Lutyens, tea with Gertrude Jekyll and an overnight with Edward Hudson, Country Life's founder.
Gerrish's book is well ordered, well written and superbly illustrated. Sensibly, she does not quote too much from Tipping's own work. His style is orotund, the voice of a man well satisfied that his opinion is the only one that matters. But he had a good eye and was extraordinarily industrious. In just five days in May 1908, he was chauffered to 20 grand houses and by the following week had already despatched articles about seven of them. As Gerrish makes clear, Tipping was responsible, almost single-handedly, for changing the image of Country Life – grouse moor to Grinling Gibbons.
I've always been intrigued by the man and am glad to know more about his work. But I'm only half glad to know finally what he looks like (there's a photograph of him on the back cover). The dark eyebrows, thick as shrubberies, the comb-over, the set of the chin, the sidelong glance – all are daunting.
His houses are not. Eric Francis, the young architect with whom he worked, had trained with Guy Dawber and Detmar Blow and provided Tipping with comfortable-looking, well-styled homes: sweeping roofs, tile-hung gables, good loggias and other inside-outside places to sit. Tipping designed his own gardens and laid them out with formal terraces, pergolas and rose beds close to the house giving way to a wilder woodland style beyond.
Occasionally, Tipping drew up plans for other people (he did the garden at Chequers for instance) but sensibly, Gerrish gives most space to Tipping's own homes – Mathern, Mounton and High Glanau, all in Monmouthshire – where he lived from 1894 until his death in 1933. In terms of gardens, we still see the Edwardian period as a Golden Age – Lutyens, Peto, Jekyll, Robinson. Gerrish suggests that Tipping also belongs in that glittering company.
Visitors see the English obsession with gardens almost as a national characteristic. But compared with the Italians, we were latecomers to the gardening scene. The botanic gardens at Pisa and Padua were set up long before the one at Oxford, the first in England. The first attempts to write about plants, to sort them into categories, to illustrate them, happened in mainland Europe. But between 1560 and 1660, Britain suddenly caught the fever for making gardens and collecting plants. It was a heady, brilliant period, well documented by Margaret Willes in the Making of the English Gardener (Yale University Press, £25).
Willes is particularly well informed on the books that fed the new obsession and the libraries put together by early English botanists, such as John Goodyer. Goodyer's collection, now at Magdalen College, Oxford, included a huge range of illustrated herbals, the price he had paid for them always carefully noted inside the covers. He was an obsessive taker of notes, a demon indexer, observant, interested. I became very attached to him when writing about him in my own book, The Naming of Names and it was a delight to meet him again in Willes's excellent study.
City gardeners without much space should get hold of The Edible Balcony by Alex Mitchell (Kyle Cathie, £16.99), which is full of ideas for growing crops you probably thought you couldn't. According to the National Trust, there are 600 acres-worth of windowsills in the UK that could be supporting herbs or salads or a couple of strawberry plants. This glossily-styled book shows you how to do it.
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