Tag Archives: Book Review

You Should Have Been Here Last Week – Book Review

I was sent this book to review by the lovely people at Pimpernel Press – I’d never really heard of a garden critic before and thought it sounded entertaining – it was! The opening line of the introduction is ‘You should have been here last week. That’s what people always say to garden writers.’ I don’t think it’s saved just for garden writers – I’ve heard that exact phrase from members of my local gardening club when it’s their turn to host a visit. It’s like the fish that got away.

Tim Richardson is quite a prolific author, having written a number of books about landscapes and gardens as well as being a regular contributor to publications such as the Daily Telegraph, Country Life and House and Garden. He writes about all manner of garden-related topics from trends and events to ghosts, films and accidents in gardens. We visit Europe, the US, China and South Korea, as well as the breadth of the UK in this book and I was pleased to see a few Scottish gardens making the cut – Little Sparta, Jupiter Artland and Broughton House.

‘Sharp Cuttings From a Garden Writer’, the byline for the book title, is about right too, it felt absolutely right that I should photograph the book next to a cactus! Richardson is certainly provocative and I can see why his musings have caused outrage and/or demands for apologies from all quarters – education establishments, gardens, gardeners, gardening bodies and committees. He sticks to his guns too – in one such incident The Garden Design Journal issued an apology to The London College of Garden Design, however below the apology was a statement from Richardson making it clear that he stood by his article. He does remind me, somewhat wryly, of my dad – he doesn’t mind ruffling feathers and I get the distinct impression he aims his grenades with precision and then sits back waiting for the explosions with glee! I’m almost petrified to write this in case he should happen upon it and tear me off a strip or two for my own ignorance and presumption.

This book is a collection of articles that were published mainly in the Telegraph and Garden Design Journal (before he was ‘let go’ after some tongue in cheek comments about a fictitious award/sponsor/winner) between 2004 and 2016. The reviews on the jacket tell us we’re in for “informed criticism”, “an entertaining read”, “incisive, witty, opinionated and thought-provoking” – it’s all of these things. It’s not the sort of book you can sit down and read in one go but is delightful to digest a couple of short articles at a time. As a result of reading the book, I can say that I’ve been educated. – I thought it was plants/gardening I know little about – it turns out there’s so much more that I’ve never even considered. I now have an extensive list of places I would like to visit, both here and further afield, as well as a couple of film recommendations – Alan Rickman and Kate Winslet in ‘A Little Chaos’  sounds right up my street!

Unlikely, but I really do hope that one day my path crosses Richardson’s – he seems like exactly the sort of person you could pass a wonderfully, intelligent, frank (waspish) and entertaining few hours with, over a drink or two. Which has just reminded me about his story of nearly getting taken out by a viburnum that had been blown out of a living wall some 60 foot above, while he was sipping champagne at some fancy gardening event – that’s exactly the sort of thing that would happen to me!

This is a great read for anyone who likes to challenge the status quo, enjoys gardening or visiting them and has ever wished they could stick a literary two fingers up (and for it to mean a damn)!

 

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane – Book Review

I’m a lover of language and when I see an interesting-looking word I just have to try it out loud to see how it trips off the tongue. Living in Scotland is perfect for indulging this little hobby with place names such as Kircudbright (pronounced ‘kurcoobray’) Ecclefechan (‘eckelfeckan’), Auchenshuggle (‘awkenshuggle’), Auchtermuchty (‘awktermucktay’) and Findochty (‘fineckty’). Not to mention words like dreich (rainy, miserable), sleekit (cunning, sly), wheesht (shush!), coo (cow), crabbit (grumpy), stookey (plaster cast)  and bampot and eedjit (both meaning idiot). But enough about me…

Robert Macfarlane is a collector of words, words primarily about nature. He’s written several books on language but Landmarks is the first time I’d come across him (it was on on the kindle 99p offer a while back and sounded like my kind of read). It’d been shortlisted for a couple of awards (The Wainwright Prize and The Samuel Johnson Prize) so also packs some literary clout behind the cover-blurb…

Landmarks is Robert Macfarlane’s joyous meditation on words, landscape and the relationship between the two.

Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes are grained into our words. Landmarks is about 
the power of language to shape our sense of place. It is a field guide to the literature of nature, and a glossary containing thousands of remarkable words used in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales to describe land, nature and weather. Travelling from Cumbria to the Cairngorms, and exploring the landscapes of Roger Deakin, J. A. Baker, Nan Shepherd and others, Robert Macfarlane shows that language, well used, is a keen way of knowing landscape, and a vital means of coming to love it.

On diving in to the book, it is the type of book that beckons you to just jump right in, it immediately becomes apparent that the author is a logophile (a lover of words deriving from the Greek – logos, meaning
“speech, word” and philos, meaning “dear, friendly”) in extremis. He’s clearly spent a very long time collecting an astonishing hoard of words from around the British Isles relating to nature, the weather and our landscape – words that have often been long-forgotten and in danger of dying out altogether . In Landmarks he now generously shares them, along with an insight to the works of some of his inspirations (Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, JA Baker, The Peregrine, Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams and Peter Davidson’s ‘The Idea of the North’).

At the end of each chapter there’s a glossary of words that will delight – some of my favourites include:

Aquabob – icicle (Kent)

Billow – snowdrift (E.Anglia)

Blinter – cold dazzle (Scots)

Drookit – soaked or drowned (Doric0

Fleeches – large snowflakes (Exmoor)

Foggit – covered in moss or lichen (Scots)

Glincey – slippery (Kent)

Haggy – boggy and full of holes (Scots)

Plodge – to wade in water (N.E. England)

Pollywiggle – a newt (Norfolk)

Roorie-Bummlers – fast moving clouds (Scots)

Spangin – walking vigorously (Scots)

Spuddle – mess about in the garden (Devon)

Turdstool – a very substantial cowpat (S.W. England)

Twitchel – a narrow path between hedges (Midlands)

Urchin – a hedgehog (Cheshire)

Williwaw – sudden violent squall (Nautical)

Landmarks is a wonderful read that transports you from the peat moors of the Outer Hebrides into the skies and on to the shores of our wonderfully varied landscape. I happily accept Macfarlane’s challenge of bringing these ‘jewels’ back and rewilding our language with these gloriously descriptive words. This really is a book that you need to hold and thumb through so I’ll now need to acquire myself a hard copy version.

As an aside – I’ve since read Nan Shepherd’s Living Mountain (purely because of this book) and Macfarlane’s effusive praise is not unwarranted- it’s probably the best book about people/place I’ve ever read. Macfarlane provides the foreword in the copy I have. I’ve also added most of the other books he mentions in Landmarks to my wishlist.

 

Making For Home – A Tale of the Scottish Borders (Book Review)

I was recently sent a copy of Alan Tait’s new book – Making For Home – A Tale of the Scottish Borders to review. This is the story of Polmoodie, a decayed sheep farm house in the Moffat valley that was bought by the author in the 1970s and gradually brought back to life as a farm.

Living in the same part of the world and with dreams of one day having my own smallholding I was pretty sure this was a book that I would love. I wasn’t wrong, although not what I was expecting at all – it wasn’t the usual story of someone falling in love with a run down house in a remote area with ensuing tales of getting it in to shape and the locals. Instead, this is a journey from a bleak coastal village on the Solway Firth to the Scottish Borders in search of ‘THE’ house via a Glasgow tenement, all interwoven with a rich history of people, places, the landscape and agriculture through periods of great change.

This is a deeply insightful book that connects the reader to the landscape through its inhabitants over the years. It breathes life into forgotten and difficult times for sheep farmers and how economic and environmental forces beyond their control influenced the rural communities of today. The beautiful photography will transport the reader into Alan’s world as it bring’s it to life. It’ll make you want to grab your coat and head out to the hills, or, if it’s raining, online to search for old run down farmhouses for sale.

I’ve also been inspired to head back to our local auction after reading about the authors collection of paintings, furniture and masonry acquired from various places over the years as he weaves a new and eclectic history into the farm’s story.  I’ve now bought the author’s previous book, ‘A Garden in the Hills’ for some further reading.

Alan is an art historian with a particular interest in the history of landscape. For the last forty years he has lived in the Moffat Water valley in the Borders where he farms and gardens. He’s also the author of The Landscape Garden in Scotland 1735-1835  and A Garden in the Hills.

Making For Home is priced at £30 and is available here on Amazon

 

 

 

Seed Saving – this book has inspired me to give it a go!

I recently had to write an essay on Food Sovereignty and it was during this research I became totally fascinated with the Seed Sovereignty aspect of La Via Campesina’s movement – the right to breed and exchange diverse open source seeds which can be saved and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled. I had no real understanding of the devastating impact on our biodiversity due to a number of factors, not least, the agri-behemoths who control seeds around the world for farmers and home gardeners alike. 94% of our seed varieties have been lost (forever!) since the turn of the 20th century – that’s frightening!

But, there are people all around the world doing their bit to save our seeds and ensure we don’t lose our precious heirloom varieties and to keep our food heritage alive – Janisse Ray is one of them. A writer, naturalist and activist, Janisse is a seed saver, seed exchanger and seed banker and has been growing food for nearly 30 years!

The Seed Underground is a charming read – it’s a collection of stories about her past and people she has met along her way, characters who are striving to save open-pollinated varieties that will be lost if people don’t grow, save and swap their seeds. These are not activists in the militant sense, just ordinary people who are connected to their environment and the food that they produce and eat. If you’re interested in gardening and food then this book will be a light and happy read that’ll still make you think.

I’ve been massively inspired and as a result I’ve been experimenting with heritage varieties this year and will be trying to make my own contribution to the movement by saving and exchanging my seeds. I’ve bought another book – Back Garden Seed Saving from The Real Seed Catalogue (where I also bought some heirloom corn and carrots ) which I’m hoping will help teach me how to do this. I can’t wait to give the tomatoes a go as well as a few other things.

And this one…

Beth Chatto’s Shade Garden – Book Review

I’ve only recently become a fan of Beth Chatto after a recommendation from Monty on Gardeners World. I promptly bought and thoroughly enjoyed her book ‘Garden Notebook’. I’d put her Shade Garden book in my amazon wishlist so it was perfect timing when I was asked if I would like to review the revised and updated version which was has just been published.

Beth is well known for coining the phrase and gardening philosophy of ‘the right plant for the right place’ and holds the RHS’s highest award, the Victoria Medal of Honour as well as being awarded an OBE. She is a plantswoman. garden designer and author who created her own famous gardens and nursery in Essex in 1960. The Beth Chatto Gardens comprise a varied range of planting sites totalling five acres, including dry, sun-baked gravel, water and marginal planting, woodland, shady, heavy clay and alpine planting, and now include the Gravel Garden, Woodland Garden, Water Garden, Long Shady Walk, Reservoir Garden and Scree Garden. It was the development of these sites that prompted her to write books on gardening with what could be considered as “problem areas” using plants that nature has developed to survive in differing conditions.

The Shade Garden was originally published in 2002 and describes how she transformed a dark, derelict site into a garden that is tranquil yet full of life in every season. She offers a palette of more than 500 plants that will flourish in the shade. The book begins in Winter and follows the seasons in a diary style. We begin with snowdrops, aconites, narcissus and hellebores heralding the awakening of the garden and move through to the Summer when the overhead canopy provides the perfect habitat for ferns, hostas and grasses. Autumn brings the berrying shrubs and the glowing colours that are synonymous with that time of year. The book also contains a reference section of shade tolerant plants for specific hardiness zones.

I really love her writing style, it’s personal, based on her many years of experience and trial and error, it’s not like a more traditional factual gardening manual. You really get a sense of the gardens and her love of nature through the narrative and it’s illustrated throughout with lush photography. I’ve been sneaking up to bed early every evening so that I can read this and now have a growing list of plants to put into our shady border bed under a beech hedge where to date, we’ve had little success. Attention has been duly paid to ‘the right plant in the right place’ principle which should stand us in better stead this time around.

This book is great for anyone who has a shady area that they’re a bit stumped with or just for a good old interesting read that fills you with a rosy glow of well-being. It would make a great gift. I’ve also now purchased a copy of her book The Damp Garden that I shall savour for another day – she’s still winning fans at the age of 93, I’m one of them, which is pretty impressive. She still lives in a house in the gardens where she continues to work with her team, I’d love to visit one day.

The Shade Garden has an RRP of £30 however it’s on amazon for £20!

The Third Plate – an inspirational food-growing read

This book was so inspirational that I had to share. It’s a really easy read and anyone with an interest in cooking, eating or growing food will find it a delight.

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The author, Dan Barber, is a well known American chef with a restaurant on his farm and education centre in the hills outside New York. His thoughts on food and agriculture are widely shared and respected and he was been named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2009.

He’s also an incredibly engaging speaker and writer – I’d seen and thoroughly enjoyed a couple of his TED talks – How I fell in love with a fish and A surprising parable of foie gras – both stories are more fully explored in the book but they’re well worth a watch to give you a flavour.

In The Third Plate the author explores his vision for a new food system, one that is sustainable and an integration of vegetables, cereal and livestock management that produces truly delicious food. He challenges everything we think we know about food through his eloquent and entertaining tales of meeting people around the world who are working in harmony with the soil, land and sea.

It’s further inspired me to get more livestock and grow lots more food – I have an especial hankering to try some landrace wheat and make my own flour – the fact we don’t have the land, a mill or any knowledge for any of this is by-the-by 🙂

Not convinced – perhaps some of these reviews might tempt you…

‘Dan Barber’s tales are engaging, funny and delicious…I would call this The Omnivore’s Dilemma 2.0…a brilliant culinary manifesto with a message as obvious as it is overlooked. Promote, grow and eat a diet that’s in harmony with the earth and the earth will reward you for it’ Chicago Tribune

‘Compelling…The Third Plate is fun to read, a lively mix of food history, environmental philosophy and restaurant lore…an important and exciting addition to the sustainability discussion’ Wall Street Journal

‘In this compelling read Dan Barber asks questions that nobody else has raised about what it means to be a chef, the nature of taste. and what “sustainable” really means. He challenges everything you think you know about food; it will change the way you eat. If I could give every cook just one book, this would be the one’ Ruth Reichl (author of another favourite book of mine Garlic and Saphires)

 

 

The Scything Handbook – Book Review

I’ve recently been studying differently agricultural methods and a no-till approach where crops/vegetation are harvested or cut back but the remainder of the plant is left to decompose back into the ground was one method that I was particularly struck by – so much so, that I’ve actually done this using a sickle (a shorter one-handed version of a scythe) in our vegetable beds to over-winter. I’ve taken this a step further by using the vegetation as a mulch and covering with compost and sowing green manure seeds as well.

So I was delighted to receive a copy of Ian Miller’s The Scything Handbook to review, it felt rather serendipitous. Whilst I may not have a large meadow to mow or grain to harvest and the lawns are definitely Sandy’s domain, I’m very interested to see how a return to more traditional gardening methods can benefit both the gardener, the land and the wildlife around them.

scything

The blurb: 

A book about how to use the scythe, why one should use it, and what it can be used for. A scythe is one of the most elegant and efficient hand tools available. it is ideal for harvesting many types of crops and beats a strimmer hands down in time tests. There is a graceful, rhythmic quality to scything that once mastered can provide the ultimate mind and body workout.

In this book, Ian Miller teaches you how to scythe from scratch. You will learn about assembly, perfecting the stroke, uses and blade care. A scythe can be used for mowing the lawn, harvesting small grain and cutting back wildflower meadows without disrupting wildlife. The hay and straw can be used in the garden for mulching and composting or for food and bedding for household pets while small grains can be used for making bread and feeding poultry.

This book will delight all gardeners, allotmenteers and smallholders who are tired of their noisy, heavy, fuel-dependent machines and looking for better ways to take care of themselves and their land.

  • Quiet, efficient way to cut grass and grain
  • Ideal for awkward spots that machinery can’t reach
  • Fuel-free and environmentally friendly
  • Rewarding mind and body workout
  • The first new book on scything in 35 years

Ian Miller was a professional musician before exchanging life in a punk rock band for organic farming. He has a degree in environmental science and was introduced to scything while interning on a biodynamic farm in Austria. He took a class at the Austrian Scythe Association and it’s been a big part of his life ever since. He has worked for the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa where he looked after rare cultivars of vegetables, grains, legumes and flowers and managed their historic orchard. He is currently building an off-grid homestead inIowa where he will continue to use a scythe for hay-making and harvesting grain.

How did I get on?

Whilst this book is neatly segmented into chapters that will allow the reader to dip in and out as required, this is a book that I’m going to read cover to cover. It’s full of lovely little nuggets from the Tolstoy quote at the start to the sourdough recipe at the back and all the other little gems in between.

It’s pretty comprehensive with plenty of diagrams and methodologies and all written in a simple easy to follow style that anyone can pick up. Not only that but it’s a truly educational piece from the history of scything through to it’s relevance in modern day agriculture on a domestic or larger scale.

I think I have a little bit of a lifestyle crush on Ian Miller and am very much looking forward to losing myself fully in his world.

The Scything Handbook on Amazon