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Cornucopia - Book Review – Dream Plants for the Natural Garden

Book Review – Dream Plants for the Natural Garden
Jeremy Spon

A few months ago I was browsing through the books in a local charity shop (I know, it’s no wonder the garden is in such a mess!) and I came across a book which had somehow passed me by when it was first published in 2000. Written by Henk Gerritsen and Piet Oudolf, it is called ‘Dream Plants for the Natural Garden’, and as it has just been republished in a new edition, and as there may be other members like me who did not know it, I thought a brief note about it might be useful.

The authors, especially Piet Oudolf, are now very well known; they were perhaps less so in 2000, but this book goes a long way to explaining why they have become so influential in the intervening years. I may as well say straight away that this is one of the best gardening books I have ever read. It is not principally about garden design, although that is what Piet Oudolf has become famous for in this country, and it does contain many fascinating planting ideas and explanations of the authors’ gardening philosophy. It is really a book about plants (nearly all herbaceous, but also some shrubs and bulbs) and very few books demonstrate such deep knowledge and experience of actually using plants as this one. As the title suggests, it is biased towards a more ‘natural’ style of gardening, but this is by no means the same thing as ‘wild’ or even ‘weedy’. What this book does is separate the wheat from the chaff where herbaceous plants are concerned; the information it contains is just as relevant to more formal styles of gardening as to natural ones. The authors are not afraid to say what they think, and what they think is so clearly based on what they have observed. They think above all that we need plants that give a big return on the work involved in growing them, and who of us, short of time to manage our gardens, can disagree with that?

The other great attraction of the book is the way it is written. I will find it hard to go back to using other, more bland, works of reference after reading such comments as this, on Aster novi-belgii: “Michaelmas Daisy. Sadly enough, indestructible. Endlessly bred, formal, in many colours which never quite live up to expectations. As far as we are concerned, these plants can become gardening history”. Or this, at the end of a page on the subject of ‘Battling with ground-elder’: “As you know, we want absolutely nothing to do with weedkillers! "Is there no hope at all then?" you will be asking, doubtfully. The answer to that is definitely "No!"” Or this, on the subject of wildlife (friendly and otherwise) in the garden: “Perfection is an unattainable illusion. If what you want is total control, you should tarmac your garden now and stick plastic trees in it.”

I could go on quoting for pages - it is that sort of book. But better to try and summarise why I like it so much. Apart from the fact that they like just the same things in plants that I do (which is obviously a matter of personal taste) I like the fact that Gerritsen and Oudolf are unfailingly accurate, honest and inspiring. Time and again I read a description of a plant and thought, “Yes, that is exactly right!” You could give this book to a newcomer to gardening, and they would really never need another book on (mainly) herbaceous plants in order to make a beautiful garden. In fact I said to Hilary that one could almost manage with this as one’s only gardening book, and her eyes lit up at the prospect of us throwing out the hundreds of other books we already have - at which point I had to backtrack rather! But I definitely think that even at the new full price of £20 it is good value, and for £7 in a charity shop it was the bargain of the year!

First published in the Kent Group Newsletter Winter 2013-2014
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 34.
© Copyright for this article: Jeremy Spon

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2014. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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