Anna Pavord's pick of festive gardening reads: From Digging with the Duchess to Where Do Camels Belong?

Our gardening correspondent's list features something for everyone - even the non-green-fingered

Anna Pavord
Saturday 06 December 2014 01:00

'Festive Cheer! Book your Christmas meal now!" screeches the banner on a particularly unattractive roadhouse I pass on our route to the motorway. It went up in August. I refuse to think about Christmas until December. Yes – that does mean a bit of a scrabble to sort out presents, but here's the good news. You can buy every grown-up you know a copy of Digging with the Duchess by Sam Llewellyn. And no. He's not a relation. I've never even met him, though I'd like to. He writes a column (always the first thing I turn to) in an excellent quarterly magazine called Hortus, which is where he first began to spin stories about The Hope, his place in the Welsh Marches. He's now gathered these magnificently surreal pieces into a book (published by New Hat, £10; order online at

Are they about gardening? Tangentially, yes. We get to understand quite a lot about the garden at The Hope, its trees, its vegetables, its borders of flowers: "Many of my sophisticated gardening friends have rules about such borders. Yellow flowers have no place in them, they say, and the same goes for dahlias. Naturally I respect their opinions, honed to a shaving edge of perfect taste by decades of stropping on white gardens and species rhododendrons. But I also respect the opinion of my friend and neighbour George, the Postman..." George is an enthusiast for dahlias and consequently The Hope borders blaze in a delicious inferno of dahlias.

We hear much more about disasters than we do about the occasional triumph (such a relief not to feel constantly inadequate), and Llewellyn has a wonderfully light touch when it comes to describing the seasonal changes that affect all gardeners' lives. Here he is on the "Spring Express, panting and roaring and spewing energy in all directions. When this particular train pulls into the station there is no time for hanging around, because it is not going to wait, and the stationmaster is drunk and the porters are asleep, so there is no help to be had. All you can do is hurl your bags into the goods van and jump after them, and stagger like James Bond over the waggon roofs to the footplate to see if you can drive this thing before it drives you."

He knows much more than he admits (it's usually the other way round) and being a good seaman, uses his eyes for evidence. With each succeeding piece, The Hope is furnished in more detail, the winter foliage of the gunnera "sprawled on the side of the pond with its leaves folded over its crown like the beast from the Mappa Mundi that sleeps wrapped in its gigantic ears," the bullfinches, sated with buds and "waddling around on their branches like bankers staggering home from lunch."

Gradually, we also hear more about The Duchess of the title as she emerges from the tower at The Hope, dressed in a boiler suit "and some of her second-best diamonds. She pulls a hoe from the toolshed and makes a couple of dummy swings, like a golfer at the tee."

Is she real? Does it matter? No. The Duchess becomes an essential catalyst in the story of The Hope and a superbly wayward companion on the travels – Scotland, the Caribbean, Sri Lanka – that Llewellyn so brilliantly describes. There are 25 separate episodes in Digging with the Duchess. Limit yourself to reading just one a day. That'll carry you through the dog-days of the New Year to emerge triumphantly with the first snowdrops.

Like Sam Llewellyn, Dr Ken Thompson charts his own course. His speciality is challenging received opinion, and having earnt his living as a lecturer in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at Sheffield University, he is always careful to back up his arguments with good evidence. The titles of his books hint at his style: Do We Need Pandas? The Uncomfortable Truth about Biodiversity; No Nettles Required: The Reassuring Truth about Wildlife Gardening. Put a shibboleth in front of him and in his hands, watch it explode.

The smelly subject of compost tea is a typical target. Many organic gardeners swear by this brew (made by soaking a bag of green waste in a bucket of water) and use it as their fertiliser of choice. Thompson analysed a major project undertaken by the UK Horticultural Development Council and came to the conclusion that though it's unlikely to harm plants, compost tea is equally unlikely to do them much good.

His latest book is Where Do Camels Belong? (Profile Books, £10.99) and covers the stories behind various invasive species and the science underpinning their study. It's a well-timed book, given the hysteria currently surrounding Himalayan balsam. Gardeners are to blame of course, since the balsam, as well as Japanese knotweed and ragwort, were first brought into Britain as ornamentals.

Personally, I think bracken is more of a problem, particularly now that the EU has made it very difficult to get hold of Asulox, the only herbicide that controls it. Bracken is a highly successful native and as Thompson writes, "In the UK, as elsewhere, successful species, alien or natives, are symptoms of change rather than drivers of that change, and all they are telling us is that they are very pleased with the changes we have made to their environment. We have the plants (and animals) we deserve."

Norfolk Gardens and Designed Landscapes (Windgather Press, £29.95) is a superb book instigated by the Norfolk Gardens Trust and put together by landscape historian, Patsy Dallas, Roger Last, whose own garden at Corpusty Mill became an object of pilgrimage for garden lovers, and Tom Williamson, Professor of Landscape History at the University of East Anglia. It's a laudably comprehensive gazetteer, covering 300 gardens, laid out clearly in alphabetical order. Of course, you'd expect to find Houghton and Holkham here, but being so well-known, details about these historic gardens is not hard to find. What I particularly enjoyed about this book was the access it offered to gardens I didn't know, such as Kettle Hill at Blakeney, made from 1989 onwards and The Pleasaunce, a Lutyens-designed garden at Overstrand. It's a treat. And beautifully illustrated.

Weekend work

What to do

* Check bowls of hyacinths rooting in whatever dark, cool place you have put them in, to see that the compost is not drying out.

* Once vines have dropped their leaves (late this year) you can start to prune. If you've already established a framework, simply cut all new growth back to within two buds of the main stems. The job needs to be done before the New Year.

* Mulch beds and borders, round the bottoms of currant and gooseberry bushes, round roses, climbers and wall shrubs – it's the best Christmas present you can give your garden.

What to see

* 'Keep it Fresh' is a handy 20-page booklet which seedsmen DT Brown are sending out free with all seed orders. In it, Rachel Cole suggests simple ways to save food waste: five million potatoes chucked every day, four million apples, nearly three million tomatoes. A head of celery will easily last three weeks in the fridge, she says, if you wrap it in foil, rather than leave it in the supermarket's plastic bag. For a copy, call 0845 3710532 or go to

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