WHAT ARE GARDENS FOR? – Visiting, Experiencing and Thinking About Gardens

by Rory Stuart

Publisher: Frances Lincoln  (2012)
ISBN  978-0711233645



I was particularly interested in reading this book because working in gardens and visiting gardens has been my main passion, and also because the  author, Rory Stuart (not to be confused with a Conservative MP with the same name), seems to have followed a similar career path to mine, working first in teaching, then in horticulture. He leads garden tours, and now gardens in Italy.

There, the similarity ends, as he is immensely knowledgeable, and was Stephen Fry’s English teacher, and (as far as I know), I have no grateful famous ex pupils.

In the first chapter, my heart sank as he quoted some of the virtues that gardening induces: caring, self-discipline, humility, optimism, patience.  Patently, this is not true in this age of makeovers when you can throw a lot of money at a garden for instant effect, and the owner of a small plot can display a less than caring ruthlessness when a plant has fallen out of favour.

The author then goes on to talk about the spiritual and healing power of gardens. There is no doubt something very satisfying about the mixture of mindless work such as raking leaves, and the acquisition and application of knowledge in creating and caring for a garden. It is true, as the author states that gardens are where we can express ourselves as artists, even on a small scale and with very little money. This is why it is so difficult to be critical of other people’s gardens, without seeming to attack the owner’s taste and personality, like some gruesome episode of ‘Come Dine With Me’.

This is where the book comes into its own, approaching garden criticism as if it were literary criticism:  using criticism to describe, classify, contextualise, interpret and finally evaluate the garden. He stresses the importance of viewing the garden in the context of its culture, in order to understand and appreciate, for example, a Chinese garden.

I found myself in agreement with many of his views on the gardens I have visited. In his description of Ninfa, there is a slight error, in that the creators of the garden were the English woman, Ada Caetani, her daughter in law the American Marguerite Chapin and Marguerite’s daughter Lelia Caetani. Stuart does not criticise that strange design feature of a lavender edged path through the grass going nowhere, nor does he warn you not to go on the odd Sunday when it is open to the public, when you are marched through in an enormous group, lectured to in Italian and kicked out again after 40 minutes. It is a garden to savour slowly.

He finishes by naming the world’s 10 best gardens. You are unlikely to have the same list unless you are very, very well-travelled, but it is fun to make up your own list. At present, my favourite garden is Marsh Villa in Par, but there is no room here to tell you why; you will just have to go and evaluate it for yourself, after reading this book.

Joan Farmer