Header overlay

The Unobtrusive Gardener

Share this

I had just come home from a protracted springtime tour of English gardens. Perhaps it was their ravishing fresh beauty, or their complexity, or their immaculate neatness, or perhaps I had just seen one topiary box spiral too many. Most likely, it was the stark impossibility of ever achieving in my garden anything approaching the quality I had seen elsewhere. Whatever the reason, a light melancholy descended on me, like a thin summer rain. I went deliberately to the bookshelf and took down a book which I had not read since it was first published in 1997. I needed a dose of Geoffrey Dutton – poet, gardener, professor of medical science, white-water swimmer and mountaineer – to help me regain my usual cheery equilibrium.

Some Branch Against the Sky is a book about the nine acres of the Scottish Highlands in Perthshire where Geoffrey Dutton had gardened ‘marginally’ for forty years by the time the book was published. I hope he does so still. I turned to it because his experiences of making a congruous garden on acid soil in a wild gorge in the hills are so very different from my own on alkaline clay in the rolling lowlands of rural Northamptonshire, and his furrow, so to speak, is so much harder to plough. And also because he is one of the few writers who makes gardening and all its penumbra of weather, soil, light, shade, blossoming and withering, success and failure, both absorbing and revealing.

The hardest task for any gardening writer is to describe convincingly, and attractively, a garden, whether it is their own or someone else’s. Too often, garden descriptions degenerate into bald directions of the ‘Turn left at the fish pond’ variety. Atmosphere is so important to a garden, yet so elusive to conjure. The best gardening writers, like the best cricket writers, say, can explain what it is like to be there. In his book, Geoffrey Dutton first describes the garden, with good maps as an accompaniment, and then settles down to tell t

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

I had just come home from a protracted springtime tour of English gardens. Perhaps it was their ravishing fresh beauty, or their complexity, or their immaculate neatness, or perhaps I had just seen one topiary box spiral too many. Most likely, it was the stark impossibility of ever achieving in my garden anything approaching the quality I had seen elsewhere. Whatever the reason, a light melancholy descended on me, like a thin summer rain. I went deliberately to the bookshelf and took down a book which I had not read since it was first published in 1997. I needed a dose of Geoffrey Dutton – poet, gardener, professor of medical science, white-water swimmer and mountaineer – to help me regain my usual cheery equilibrium.

Some Branch Against the Sky is a book about the nine acres of the Scottish Highlands in Perthshire where Geoffrey Dutton had gardened ‘marginally’ for forty years by the time the book was published. I hope he does so still. I turned to it because his experiences of making a congruous garden on acid soil in a wild gorge in the hills are so very different from my own on alkaline clay in the rolling lowlands of rural Northamptonshire, and his furrow, so to speak, is so much harder to plough. And also because he is one of the few writers who makes gardening and all its penumbra of weather, soil, light, shade, blossoming and withering, success and failure, both absorbing and revealing. The hardest task for any gardening writer is to describe convincingly, and attractively, a garden, whether it is their own or someone else’s. Too often, garden descriptions degenerate into bald directions of the ‘Turn left at the fish pond’ variety. Atmosphere is so important to a garden, yet so elusive to conjure. The best gardening writers, like the best cricket writers, say, can explain what it is like to be there. In his book, Geoffrey Dutton first describes the garden, with good maps as an accompaniment, and then settles down to tell the reader what it is like to be there at all four seasons of the year. What Geoffrey Dutton calls ‘marginal’ gardening is looking after a place of obviously great natural beauty and drama, and intervening, horticulturally, as little and as carefully as is consistent with a desire to grow those exotic plants, such as rhododendrons, which happily settle into such an environment and don’t look out of place in it. As he puts it:
Gardening here can be termed marginal for two main reasons. First because of the soil and climate. Second because the site was already attractive: a tumble of birch and juniper scrub, heather moor and a moss-hung thundering gorge. Any gardening therefore had to be unobtrusive: a guiding of the latent design, a prolonged consultation with the Genius of the Place. Intensive horticulture would ruin it.
Would that more gardeners were so sensitive. Open the book anywhere at random and you will read a striking, memorable phrase or paragraph:
The path climbs to the next constriction, brushes through hemlock sprays and the stiffer protests of Abies procera, and turns left. It uncovers a prospect at which the 18th-century devotees of the Sublime might have fluttered their canes in approval.
He is particularly good on cold (the temperature regularly going below -15C in winter) and the many types of snow:
All is now hushed. Feet crump on dry powder. The silence is an insulation from, not an absence of, noise. There is a constant background hiss as airy cakes release themselves from branchwork, the slow following clouds of dust puffing against black trunks . . . I remember one morning in Coille Dubh [a part of the garden] when a great number of trees had been shattered [by snow], and others were here and there exploding with sharp reports in the stillness (for trees burst under stress). The air was acrid with birch-juice. Huge hanging chandeliers of ice, dizzy glaciers rotating far above your head, menaced progress. Light slanted through strange new spaces and snow-hung wreckage. It was dawn after an air raid. Landmarks had gone, those lichened columns known and patted for years; no familiar space-measurers, no eye-intervals, were left. And as it was April, birdsong thrilled through the devastation. Yet I recall such things with a kind of pleasure, looking at a changed Coille Dubh equally attractive now in its new right.
His observational powers are impressive, his knowledge of the kind of plants which will both survive in such unusual and trying circumstances and look fitting in the context, is exceptional, and he has the grace to recognize that he is only one of a number of creatures that inhabit such a glorious place. He was plainly an ecologist before we all knew the term. Best of all, he has both a broad hinterland and an understated, but piquant, sense of humour. Geoffrey Dutton (known in the world of published poetry as G.F. Dutton, in order to differentiate him, I imagine, from the Australian writer of the same name) has a number of books of poetry to his name, such as Camp One and The Concrete Garden, as well as ones on mountaineering and wild-water swimming (there is a natural swimming pool at the top of his sloping garden before the stream plunges into the gorge). However, he made his name with keen gardeners when he wrote a series of articles on his garden for The Garden, the journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, between 1988 and 1994. These, together with forty years of daily diary jottings, form the basis of the book. There seems to me only one aspect which disappoints, even slightly. Although the descriptions of the topography and plant life in the book are extremely clear and precise, they are not helped by the accompanying monochrome pictures. Some, such as one of the burn in the gorge, are dramatic, but too many are just a jumble of trees of indeterminate species. Considering what a remarkable and, I think one can assume, successful garden this is (and one which I do not believe is open to the public) this is a pity. Notwithstanding, this is a gardening book for all those allergic to the ‘plant it, prune it, feed it, let me make you feel guilty and inadequate’ school of horticultural literature. Take it from me, Some Branch Against the Sky is a dependable cure for mild melancholia.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © Ursula Buchan 2006


About the contributor

Ursula Buchan is a gardening writer and journalist who has a country garden in Northamptonshire, which is sometimes gardened rather marginally, but not in the way Geoffrey Dutton uses the term.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.