Well Dug In

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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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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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