Elevate Difference

Garden Anywhere: How to Grow Gorgeous Container Gardens, Herb Gardens, and More—Without Spending a Fortune

Gardens are a form of autobiography. - Sydney Eddison

Alys Fowler is British. Her book, The Thrifty Gardener, has been a hit in England. Garden Anywhere, the re-titled North American version, deserves the same success in Canada and the U.S. as it has across the pond.

Fowler started gardening as a teenager. Now roughly 30, she goes against the grain of British gardening—or so it seems. Her sartorial look—given to shades, plimsolls without socks, and a print shift that a First Nations artist might have designed—is somewhat neo-hippie. A shot or two of her dumpster diving for salvage to fashion into, say, a cold frame—a handiwork at which she demonstrates her grace and mastery of the power drill—captures her method and manner. This is very distant from Better Homes and Gardens.

As unorthodox as Fowler might seem, she’s no Sunday putterer. Trained at the Royal Horticultural Society, The New York Botanical Gardens, and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, she’s earned her gardening rep. Currently, she’s head gardener for the BBC’s TV programme Gardener’s World. That’s a cornucopia of gardening bona fides.

Garden Anywhere therefore contains ace gardening knowledge, such as “Knowing your light conditions is half the battle,” and “The single key to a stylish garden is love—it’s that simple.” Other information and advice abound, from dealing with pests (organically!) to hand and power tools to building a worm box to surviving the garden centre (“never spend money where it’s not needed”) to pruning and composting. One of my favourite tips, because of its sheer joie de vivre, is to “avoid dull municipal planting” and instead “plant bedding annuals in great masses and allow them to run riot”. Her advice on sowing drifts of bulbs shares the same spirit.

However unconventional she may seem on first glance, this spirit places Fowler in the tradition of British horticulture, with its roots in early-modern Romantic thought, and in American practice of the period, which strongly influenced British gardeners. The result is tend the garden, sure, but let it grow thither and yon, too, as its vegetal imagination shapes it. This view is contrary to the controlled French outlook, monumentalized at Versailles, wherein reason and order are the objects of verdant desire. I confess to a general Francophilia (movies, paintings, street demonstrations). Yet when it comes to gardens, the British way, which encourages the surprising and unpredictable, is, IMO, the superior path.

Fowler’s persona, prose style, and content are all a serious delight. Plus the book is au courant _in its contribution to the slow food movement. This makes _Garden Anywhere of great use and pleasure and puts its author right up there with such British heroines as Jane Austen and Vanessa Redgrave. In addition, the book is creatively designed by Carl Hodson. Its pages are variously intermingled pastel colours: olive green, pink, lavender, blue—just like a garden. The illustrations by Aaron Blecher are friendly. The many photographs by Simon Wheeler serve to illustrate the text while often being artistic, notably a helicopter shot of Fowler hard at work and nearly lost in her garden.

Is there a shortfall to this book? If you live in dry conditions and need to xeriscape, that genre isn’t covered. Fowler’s British, after all, and has gardened there and in New York. Other than this desert lacuna, Garden Anywhere is as chockablock as anyone could expect. If you need one gardening reference, or if you have many, this excellent book belongs on your shelf—or rather, in your soil-encrusted hands while you ponder whether to plant bush beans or pole beans in that wedge of dirt over in the corner near the forget-me-nots beside the wild rose behind the chard.

Written by: Neil Flowers, September 26th 2009