Book of the Month for Mar 2021

The Garden: Elements and Styles by Toby Musgrave
Reviewer: 
Carlo Balistrieri

The Garden: Elements and Styles by Toby Musgrave

New York: Phaidon Press, Inc., 2020. $69.95 list price, $44.19 Amazon

For gardeners with an encyclopedic mindset, nothing is more satisfying than a hefty, “A-Z” compendium of all known knowledge on the subject under consideration. Witness the endless lists of plants that accompany any foray into the garden world press. Most gardeners treasure their books only slightly less than their plants. The alphabetized lists in these volumes create an accessible entry point to discovering information in quick hits, without reading the book start to finish. Rainy days are perfect opportunities to digest the rest of the text.

Some publications forego the foray and are flat-out treasure troves of alphabetical, floral fantasia, often under the imprimatur of organizations like the American Horticultural Society (AHS) or the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). Occasionally they are bookended with volumes that apply the same treatment to ‘gardening,’ cataloging hundreds of horticultural methods and techniques. Others apply the same treatment to garden genres, e.g. rock gardens or Japanese gardens.

None are quite like The Garden: Elements and Styles, the new offering from Toby Musgrave and Phaidon Press. By specializing on styles, elements, ornaments and features, it neatly slides itself into a niche in the garden book pantheon. Part historical treatise, part reference guide, it is a book that can be flipped open at random for inspiration.

While compendiums like this never offer ‘complete’ coverage (even if they say they do), The Garden presents over 200 entries, illustrated with hundreds of wonderful photographs from dozens of artful photographers, from incredible public and private gardens all over the world. It is a feast for the eyes--and the gardening soul.

Gardeners will delight in researching specific questions, but perhaps the highest and best use of this oversized volume (nearly 11x13” and almost 6 pounds!) is to leave it out somewhere well-travelled to allow frequent dipping in.

It is an intensely visual volume, and worth it on that score alone, but Musgrave’s text provides history, context and cross-references to related entries. Well-known to those who tread these paths, his resume and experience make him a trustworthy guide. While the entries are short, they provide great jumping-off points for further inquiry--and allow more page space for the visual component.

Downsides to this investment are minimal. A close look by gardeners with specialty interests will turn up missed opportunities and favorite styles may go wanting, but where does one stick a fork in it and call it done? Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the book is a horribly done “Picture Credits” page that makes it nearly impossible to sort out who did what and diminishes the work of a cadre of talented artists.

If there’s space on your shelves, put this next to the AHS and RHS tomes referred to above, The Oxford Companion to Gardens, Japanese Garden Notes, and the innumerable A-Z’s for any (and many) groups of the plants we love so well. If there’s no space left, take the suggestion made earlier and lay it out on a table, where all can appreciate your good taste and erudition, and you can steal away for a few minutes in The Garden.

Carlo Balistrieri is a garden writer and photographer who just finished sowing his NARGS seed exchange spoils…and like all of you, is checking the pots four times a day. Not content to grow only those things that will succeed in South Carolina he is shredding climactic boundaries of all sorts. Wish him luck (after you check your pots).