It has been a busy summer and time for reading has been at a premium, but some books just invite you into their pages. The Generous Gardener (£30, Pimpernel Press, ISBN 978 1 91025 897 2) is one such book.
Its author, Caroline Donald (@seedysunday on Twitter and @pacets on Instagram), has been gardening editor of The Sunday Times since 2000. In that role she has been invited in to see gardens grand and small, important and ordinary, and has met countless gardeners and garden owners. The book, a collection of some 43 article or essays, most of which have been published in The Sunday Times, references Caroline’s thoughtful and conversational interviews.
Teasing out the gardens’ stories and the way the garden owners enjoy their own private space so that we can all step through these private garden gates seems effortless. And the main emotion that greets us, as we walk with her and the garden owners, is of their generosity of spirit in inviting us to wander in their private spaces, endorsing the book’s sub-title: Private Paradises Shared.
Caroline describes them all, however well known, simply as people who love their gardens and that is clear in her telling of these garden tales: everyone is equal whether they have diamond-handled trowels or not. Their successes or failures, engagement with or distance from their gardens, are revealed to us through her interviews.
Each article is located in time with the date of her visit or publication. In revisiting those articles that were published in The Sunday Times Caroline has provided a footnote explaining any dramatic changes, such as a move to another garden (Julian and Isabel Bannerman), the demise of the person she interviewed (Natasha Spender) or updates about new designs (Christine Facer).
It feels very comfortable walking and talking with Caroline: even though many of the owners and designers are well known, she introduces them afresh, offering just enough information to make us feel that we know them more than we really do. Hers is a delicate brushstroke that fleshes them out and leads into a gentle riff that explains what the garden means to them and how they work in it or whether they work in it all! There is nothing didactic, no “how-to”, it is all conversational.
Many of the gardens are in the UK, some are in Europe and North Africa, and Jilly Cooper gets in twice… Caroline admits the inclusion of the second article is “a little off-piste” but has included it because both Jilly Cooper and Caroline have an entourage of much-loved pets (mainly dogs) who shadow them in their gardens. Many stately homes have pet cemeteries and in the same tradition in the grounds of her Gloucestershire home Jilly Cooper has created a woodland pet cemetery where her many cats, dogs and even a fish, have come to rest.
So the generous gardeners of the book’s title include authors (Jilly Cooper), an architect (Will Alsop), a racehorse trainer (Henry Cecil), a singer (Corinne Bailey Rae), actors and actresses (Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton), and a mini-swathe of plants people and garden designers including Penelope Hobhouse, Bob Flowerdew, Roy Lancaster, the Bannermans, Dan Pearson and Huw Morgan, Luciano Giubbilei and Fergus Garrett.
I have been fortunate to have interviewed or visited a couple of the owners that Caroline includes, so it has been a pleasure to learn more about them and their private gardens. Both Caroline and her garden owners are generous with anecdotal details, and each article presents a view into the lives of the people and the places that delight them.
The book concludes with a list of gardens that are open to the public, however briefly or irregularly that may be. I feel a severe bout of garden visiting coming on… even if it is in my armchair!