Reading Garden Books

My usual trick for finding interesting books, is to rummage through the shelves in charity shops at second-hand traders and book fairs. It’s possible to find some real treasures that way.

I have to confess it can take me a while to get round to looking at them, let alone reading them, but eventually I get there. I’ve just finished an inspiring read called, ‘On the Wild Side; Experiments In New Naturalism’ by Keith Wiley. It’s the story of his time gardening at a property called The Garden House in south Devon, England. I started reading this book on the flight to Invercargill, before my trip to the Sub-Antarctic Islands, and call it coincidence or call it synchronicity, but the landscapes I saw during that week only reinforced what Keith was writing about.


Around the world, naturalistic styles of planting are en vogue, but Keith takes it one step further. His various field trips have inspired him to try a far more relaxed style, “I have become totally convinced by the concept of taking gardening ideas from natural landscapes”. He does make a point of cautioning us readers that he’s talking about stable, flower-rich communities, such as the fynbos of South Africa and not abandoned junk yards colonised by invasive species.

He has several points to make about the lessons he’s learnt from gardening this way:

  • Observing the way plants grow in the wild helps you better understand how to care for them.
  • The greatest displays of flowers are often on impoverished soils, not the ‘perfect’ rich free-draining loam, so anyone can do it.
  • The most brilliant displays of flowers are usually in areas of maximum sunshine and good air flow
  • The density and variety of plants growing in the wild is much greater than what gardening books would have you believe
  • Work towards all the plants in a given area flowering together giving a more spectacular, albeit shorter display rather than trying to make it work all year round

I certainly don’t know it all, but I thought I knew about soil management, until I read that the standard approach as we gardeners know it today, is based on the tradition of growing vegetables as large as possible, and which isn’t necessarily the same thing needed for flowers. Rather than striving to create luscious soil, Keith proposes that, “the community of plants together is more important than any individual within it” and to be “more relaxed about your soil and going with the flow.”

I like the sound of that.

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