Book of the Month for Jul 2011

Thoughtful Gardening
Thoughtful Gardening book cover
Robin Bell


Thoughtful Gardening, Robin Lane Fox; publisher: Basic Books (November 9, 2010); 384 pages, hardcover; publisher's price: $29.95; Amazon price: $19.77.

I found this to be an interesting & enjoyable book. Though it is not, perhaps, the first book that an alpine gardener would pick up to find out about growing conditions for gentians, it is worthwhile for anyone who loves gardening & doesn’t read the Financial Times. The author, Robin Lane Fox, is an Oxford don who, between lectures on ancient history, contributes a weekly garden column to the Times. According to the cover blurb, his effort is now the ‘longest running garden column in print today’.

Reading the essays, one is struck by the facility with which Fox relates gardening—this most defining of human endeavors—to almost any other element of human life. The author is ingenious at finding ways to springboard from discussing such earthy issues as pest management or cultivar selection in gardens to critiquing a film of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, or offering bus directions to Princess Chumbhot’s Wang Suan Phakkat garden in Bangkok. Many other unusual & eclectic diversions around the themes of gardens, plants & the people who deal with them pepper the book.

The book is replete with practical information. As well as bus directions, Fox has advice for growing snowdrops in (English) sun, fertilizing all manner of plants, deadheading, and equipping the pocket for the collection of cuttings “with permission if necessary”! Considerable ink is spilled discussing cultivars of different common & not-so-common garden plants. Except for some coastal regions of the Eastern & Western U.S., much of this information will not be relevant to most of us, quite apart from the question of the availability of the cultivars themselves.

Fox has more than a touch of the iconoclast about him, perhaps not politically, but certainly in his garden views. Not for him the exclusively pastel border or organic-only. Nor does he have an aversion to big & bold, or to chemical gardening or, even, to foxhunting. The portraits of gardeners, famous & less so, are worth the price of admission alone, and his descriptions of public & private gardens all over the world make me want to change the way I travel.

Overall the book is dominated by a passion for what he does and is written in a stylish and funny way that makes it tremendously appealing and a wonderful read in the cold & dark crannies of winter, northern-U.S. style.