One thing I hoped to do this year is to cover more titles that come under the broad genre of nature writing. This book makes it a handful, which is most of a handful more than last year, so that’s a win already.
I was drawn to The Grove because of its sharp focus on those little strips of land that separate our houses from the street, barriers between us and the world (if you’re lucky enough to have a front garden that is). Whether neat and tidy with tiled paths, quintessential cottage style, laid to lawn with a feature shrub or birdbath, or just left a little wild, there’s something about a front garden, that hasn’t been replaced with gravel or paving for parking. And who, admit it, when walking down the road, doesn’t look into other people’s front gardens?
Gardener Ben Dark has a favourite street with lots of them near his South London home, which he travels past regularly whether on his way to the station for his commute or out walking his young son in his pushchair.
This is not to suggest that every garden on Grove Park is a joy. There are plenty with big cars and nothing else, profoundly sad places, all of them. This account has chosen to ignore them.
The book’s introduction begins with an inspiration and funny story – when on his second day as a horticultural student he recognised a plant in a front garden by its latin name for the first time. It was Fortunei Euonymous ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’, a much beloved ground-cover shrub to be found in gardens everywhere (I have one!). He goes on to tell us about it being brought back to England by botanist Robert Fortune, the man who defied the Qing emperor to bring tea to the Himalaya and thus to India. He loves the human stories behind the plants, and these will play a large part in the rest of the book. The following nineteen chapters each take one plant from one of the gardens he walks past.
Over the length of a suburban road and the course of a single year, I will set out everything I have learned in fifteen years of obsessing over gardens. History will unfold, not chronologically but in relation to this specific windowbox or that part particular bay tree. The people I have met, in person or on pages, will live again in stems and twigs; the ghosts of plants I have loved, killed and longed for will loom over every fence and wall. All I need is a buddleja, so I can recount my lowest moments; a Magnolia grandiflora, to enable a few grandiloquent paragraphs; and a proper tree, for scale.
I learned new terms like ‘polymorph’ meaning ‘a plant whose natural populations have more than one form or appearance’. He describes this property of some plants while discussing Centranthus ruber, red valerian – which can self-seed and come up pure white. Now I know that my Cyclamen hederifoliums are polymorphic – this autumn, I have a patch of white ones where previously I only had pink! (They’re in the wild end of my back garden, and have self-seeded everywhere, which is rather lovely (and a good excuse for not mowing the lawn).) He goes on to discuss many other polymorphic plant species.
Another lovely story from plant history comes in the chapter on Buddleja – Dark spells it with a ‘j’ not an ‘i’ as I would have, I checked and the official name is of course spelt with a ‘j’, ‘i’ is a variant. Anyway, the Butterfly Bush is a vigorous self-seeder into cracks in walls and pavements when allowed, and Dark tells the story of Sir Edward Salisbury who spotted ‘vegetation growing in London’s new ruins’ after the Blitz. He identified trouser turn-ups as one human vector of weed seed spread.
Muddy boots were a preoccupation. Sir Edward swept up the dust from beneath church pews and strew it on sterile soil. From his sowings he grew iron grass, frog rush, pearlwort and daisies, and all this from a congregation in their Sunday brogues. Salisbury wondered about the feet of the Romans. The legionary’s hobnailed sandal was the perfect ride for a mud-born seed. There was, of course, the dirt between the soldiers’ toes…
Other chapters cover the wide panoply of front garden plants, from the climbing wisteria, to the much maligned by Vita Sackville-West privet hedge, via pelargonium bedding, tulips and irises, and a few trees of varying sizes in the mix and lawns too, but finishing with the quintessential front garden rose.
I hear you asking what about the half garden?
Well, Dark reserves that for himself, giving us his vision of the perfect Grove Park front garden; it’s the perfect ending to this book.
I really loved his mixture of anecdote and memoir, botanical history, literary references, garden description, seasonal comment, and of course not forgetting a gardener’s expertise on growing the plants and many others in question. The Grove was such an enjoyable read and, dare I say it, would be an ideal Christmas present for any gardener, whether of the active or armchair variety.
Source: Review copy – thank you!
Mitchell Beazley hardback, 320 pages.
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