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
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