When I was a student at Kew Gardens in the late 1970s, all my horticultural knowledge not acquired in lectures or through practical work in the gardens was drawn from the written word. A bookish childhood had given me a taste for fine writing, the more florid the better, which was not satisfied by the severely utilitarian prose of Percy Thrower, Roy Hay or Arthur Billitt, the bestselling garden writers of those days. I was driven to collect works by the prominent gardening writers of the previous hundred years, in particular William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll, Frank Kingdon Ward, E. A. Bowles, Vita Sackville-West and, above all, Reginald Farrer.
Reginald Farrer (1880‒1920) was unprepossessing in appearance, with a hare lip (the result of a cleft palate) only partially hidden by a moustache, a ‘pygmy body’ and a high, piercing voice. The son of narrowly Anglican parents (his father was a well-to-do landowner and Liberal MP, and the family were closely connected to the Sitwells), he was educated at home, at Ingleborough Hall in Clapham, in the Yorkshire Dales, and spent his boyhood gardening and searching for rare wild flowers on the nearby peak of Ingleborough.
Farrer went up to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1897, where things got much more complicated. He was desperate to be popular with his peers, but his waspish tongue put off those Olympian beings, such as Raymond Asquith, whom he wanted to attract. His deep feeling for Aubrey Herbert (‘the man who was Greenmantle’) was never reciprocated; indeed, it seems Herbert found his suffocating attentions a nuisance, not surprisingly. Then, in his twenties, Farrer converted to Buddhism, thereby alienating his parents, probably deliberately.
This temperament and his subsequent talent for mischief-making in print made many prominent gardeners wary of him. Nevertheless, he became a hard-working, practical plant nurseryman and a highly skilled botanist. He was also a gifted and assiduous plant-hunter, i
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