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Digging up an alternative take on gardening

Penelope Lively’s book about gardening is so much more than a how-to guide

03 July, 2018 — By Maggie Gruner

Penelope Lively

IN the leafy oasis of the Regent’s Park Botanical Gardens rebellion was stirring. Its source was gardener William Robinson, who became a 19th century horticultural revolutionary.

As Penelope Lively relates in her new book, Life in the Garden, Irishman Robinson came to England as a young man and found work at Regent’s Park.

Within a few years he was a garden writer disseminating “ground-breaking” ideas, defying formal Victorian taste in gardening and advocating a walk on the wild side.

He wrote, among other works, The Wild Garden (1870). Lively writes that Robinson “jeered” at the typical garden of the day in which, he complained, “only scarlet geraniums, yellow calceolarias, blue lobelias or purple verbenas were used”. He said the constant repetition of scarlet, yellow and blue was “nauseating” even to those with little taste in gardening matters.

His criticism was “pungent”, writes Lively, whose book shows that gardening provokes vigorous dispute, as well as inspiring writers, painters and running like a rich seam through the history of civilisation.

Her book’s appeal extends beyond the keen gardener. Even those of us who don’t know our hellebores from our astrantias will find shoots of interest in her narrative.

For example, she notes that in Kentish Town the line of trees along the ends of back gardens is a legacy of the field boundaries before the houses came. Fields in Kentish Town? Her writing conjures up vividly verdant images, as when she observes that the proliferation of urban ivy makes her think that “if the human race vanished from London it is the ivy that would rapidly take over”.

A resident of a north London garden square (she stops short of being more specific), Lively points out that the presence in gardens in a particular part of north London of the loquat – with yellow fruit and sweet-smelling white flowers – dear to Greek Cypriots, indicates many lived in that area.

The London garden can yield strange fruit. She recollects that next door to her earlier home a neighbour had dug up a London taxi “complete with seating and steering wheel”.

Now in her 80s, Lively writes that the two central activities in her life – alongside writing – have been reading and gardening. Her book is partly a memoir of her life in gardens, from Cairo, where she was born, to her grandmother’s garden in Somerset, to gardens in Oxfordshire and her current urban garden, where climbing hydrangea swarms over the back wall and the longest-lived plant is a corokia.

The book also explores gardens in literature, including Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bloomsbury author Virginia Woolf’s works and one-time Hampstead resident Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, with its opening use of the atmospheric ruined garden, and its “slaughterous red” rhododendrons. Lively admits she has never cared for rhododendrons, which she thinks have a “Triffid-like quality”.

She glides us through painters’ interpretations of gardens, contemplating the work of Monet, Matisse, Vuillard and Van Gogh among others.

History winds through the book, which notes that a rose appears on a 3,500-year-old Minoan fresco; that Pliny wrote of roses; that speculation puts the Garden of Eden in present-day Iraq – though the Mormons insisted the garden was in Missouri; that rosebay willowherb, also known as “bombweed”, colonised London’s bomb sites after the war.

The book concentrates on the effect of gardens and gardening rather than the nitty gritty of the task, but at times points to practical help – for example: “If you want to know how to create a lawn where lawn there never was, go to Margery Fish” – who wrote We Made a Garden.

But your garden is probably not in the same league as that of Mrs Fish. She and her husband created their gardens after buying East Lambrook Manor, Somerset, in 1938.

A lot of those mentioned in Lively’s absorbing book are upper crust, gardening on quite a grand scale – though the author herself, who has had big gardens in the past, now has just “a few square yards of London”.

She acknowledges health-enhancing claims for gardening and suggests the taste for it is getting younger – “no longer the preserve of the middle-aged and beyond”.

When gardening, we “step beyond the dictation of time”, creating order, designing and directing, escaping worldy worries.

She insists we’re not bred to be perpetually under cover. Whether it’s a private space or a public open space such as Hampstead Heath, we like and need gardens.

Life in the Garden. By Penelope Lively, Penguin, £9.99.

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