‘Of Rhubarb and Roses: The Telegraph Book of the Garden’

(Please note: this review was originally published in Gardens Illustrated, January 2014.)

Edited by Tim Richardson

Published by Aurum Publishing Group

The Telegraph has a longstanding relationship with gardening. Since the late 1950s a garden column has featured daily among its pages, now replaced by a more expansive Saturday supplement. From this dense archive editor Tim Richardson has cherry picked some glittering examples of the very finest in British garden writing. Covering the latest controversy at Chelsea to the merits of mulching and studies of the nation’s favourite gardens, the result is a hefty hardback brimming with essays spanning the vast spectrum of horticulture.

Though the avid gardener is sure to pick up some useful insights along the way, practical advice is not this book’s primary aim. It is foremost a celebration of garden writing. Despite their divergent styles the contributors are bonded by their ability to deftly manoeuvre between the practical and the poetic. For instance the veteran columnist Fred Whitsey memorably depicts the compost heap as a ‘vast sponge sandwich cake’ composed ‘with the same devoted application that a pastry cook with Cordon Bleu standards brings to her task’.

In all the selected pieces the character behind the words shines through. Be it the sensual pleasure of eating a home-grown tomato or the joy of spring buds emerging, the writers communicate an emotional and personal appreciation of the garden. Along with its selected obituaries and biographies of gardening greats this collection is a charming reminder that gardens are, after all, about people first and plants second.

The occasional news stories and readers’ letters also act as something of a historical record, charting Britain’s changing social attitudes since the Second World War. However, thankfully Richardson playfully arranges the articles into rough themes, rather than a dull chronology. Without an index this means that it is difficult to navigate back to favourite pieces or writers, but the effect is like that of an assorted box of chocolates. I happily skipped between essays by the likes of Vita Sackville-West, Germaine Greer and Sir Roy Strong, greedily consuming one after the other in quick succession. For those with a little more restraint this is a book which promises many hours of savoured delights.