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Once upon a time, or until about 1960 that is, there existed a genre of horticultural literature called, colloquially, ‘the chatty gardening book’. In fact, the phrase did these books less than justice, for they were generally interesting, amusing, literary works written by educated, cultured people for the edification of an equally educated gardening readership. I collect as many as I can find in second-hand bookshops for, even if the spelling of plant names in them is sometimes archaic, they are still a pleasure to read.

The genre is scarcely alive these days. For the past twenty years the highly illustrated, large-format gardening book which is expensive to produce, full of dreamy ‘inspirational’ colour photographs and often with a truncated and colourless text, has been the order of the day. The quality of garden photography is so high, the images so winning that, in the words of the American writer Charles Elliott, ‘It’s pretty difficult for mere prose to match the grandeur of a photograph, in full glowing colour, of a perennial border in high summer, say – especially if the photographer thought to use a sky filter.’

There are still, however, one or two publishers prepared to publish small, modest-looking hardback books containing nothing more than a few line drawings, and sometimes not even that, for the quality of the writing alone. I have been a beneficiary of this enlightened outlook and so plainly has Charles Elliott, whose The Potting Shed Papers, subtitled On Gardens, Gardeners and Garden History, was published by Frances Lincoln in 2002. Strictly speaking, this is a reprint, being a collection of essays first published in that most upmarket of American gardening magazines Horticulture. They are really home thoughts from abroad, for Charles Elliott lives in London and makes a garden in Monmouthshire. Indeed his earlier books are entitled The Transplanted Gardener and A Gap in t

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Once upon a time, or until about 1960 that is, there existed a genre of horticultural literature called, colloquially, ‘the chatty gardening book’. In fact, the phrase did these books less than justice, for they were generally interesting, amusing, literary works written by educated, cultured people for the edification of an equally educated gardening readership. I collect as many as I can find in second-hand bookshops for, even if the spelling of plant names in them is sometimes archaic, they are still a pleasure to read.

The genre is scarcely alive these days. For the past twenty years the highly illustrated, large-format gardening book which is expensive to produce, full of dreamy ‘inspirational’ colour photographs and often with a truncated and colourless text, has been the order of the day. The quality of garden photography is so high, the images so winning that, in the words of the American writer Charles Elliott, ‘It’s pretty difficult for mere prose to match the grandeur of a photograph, in full glowing colour, of a perennial border in high summer, say – especially if the photographer thought to use a sky filter.’ There are still, however, one or two publishers prepared to publish small, modest-looking hardback books containing nothing more than a few line drawings, and sometimes not even that, for the quality of the writing alone. I have been a beneficiary of this enlightened outlook and so plainly has Charles Elliott, whose The Potting Shed Papers, subtitled On Gardens, Gardeners and Garden History, was published by Frances Lincoln in 2002. Strictly speaking, this is a reprint, being a collection of essays first published in that most upmarket of American gardening magazines Horticulture. They are really home thoughts from abroad, for Charles Elliott lives in London and makes a garden in Monmouthshire. Indeed his earlier books are entitled The Transplanted Gardener and A Gap in the Hedge: Dispatches from the Extraordinary World of British Gardening, which gives you some idea of his angle. Like the late Henry Mitchell, Allen Lacey, Eric Grissell, Michael Pollan and Eleanor Perényi, he is a member of a group – much underrated this side of the Atlantic – of highly intelligent gardening writers with the gift of making their musings both readable and intriguing. But Elliott seems the most valuable of them all to us Anglocentrics because he lives over here. Britain and the United States are separated by a common horticulture just as much as by a common language. We often use the same tools and the same expressions – with the exception of the word ‘sod’, of course – yet we are nearly always divided by differences of climate, soil, plant varieties and, most especially, bugs (that is, insect pests). So it is a delight to come across an American in sympathy with us, yet sufficiently detached to laugh gently at our foibles and point up our idiosyncrasies. Elliott’s writing is wry, and dry as a vodka martini. He does not pretend to be a gardening expert, although he seems pretty knowledgeable to me. But, as he says: ‘Fortunately . . . there . . . seems a place for those of us content merely to potter around the subject, peering from the outskirts, happy to explore its more curious, amusing and unexpected aspects.’ He has certainly found plenty of those. In The Potting Shed Papers he writes on a great variety of subjects: on plants, such as the peripatetic peony; on people – anyone from Joseph Rock to Geoff Hamilton – and on what he calls ‘husbandry’, which includes botanical names; on how to keep records; and on a notable garden designers’ spat entitled ‘Design and its Discontents’. He seems never happier than when he is sitting engrossed in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library in London, ferreting out arcane historical facts: for example, that Père Delavay, an obscure French missionary in China in the nineteenth century, sent back to France 200,000 dried plant specimens, representing at least 1,500 species new to science; that the coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is named after a half-Cherokee scholar who invented a written language for his people; or that our humble (and threatened) house sparrow was introduced into the United States to eat the snow-white linden moth caterpillar and is now the commonest bird to be found there. There is, I’m afraid, one notable difference between this book and earlier ones written by English authors like E. A. Bowles or Reginald Farrer, H. E. Bates or Beverly Nichols. Those books, although laboriously put together by printers without the aid of computers, almost never contained a typographical error. There are a disturbing number in this volume, usually words mysteriously missing. For a man who was once senior editor for the New York publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf that must be peculiarly painful. Elliott knows his Proust, his Longfellow and his Gerard Manley Hopkins, which is consoling for any reader who thinks they might be wasting their time on ‘just a gardening book’. They certainly would not be. The Potting Shed Papers is a perfect choice for bedtime reading – especially in winter – since it is small enough to be held easily in one hand. Two chapters a night are enough though, for facts are scattered as thickly on its pages as groundsel seed in my borders. While elegantly written, it is also quite dense. It is like a rich pudding, which is best when savoured slowly and reflectively.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Ursula Buchan 2004


About the contributor

Ursula Buchan writes regularly for The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph. She has published twelve books of which the last two – Good in a Bed and Better Against a Wall – are collections of her journalism. These contain not one dreamy, inspirational colour photograph.

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