Book about people not just the plants

Gardening books with a story.
Gardening books with a story.

There are arguably more books written about gardening than any other subject so it takes something out of the ordinary to catch the eye of a seasoned browser-collector.

It may be an excellent reference volume on the identification of a specific fruit, or perhaps a comprehensive A to Z of pests and diseases. Such books are priceless because you can reach for them whenever a query arises.

The other type of gardening book tells a story. It can be about plant hunting, triumph over adversity, horticultural delights in a particular country, or the making of a garden. These are fascinating to read and something to reach for when inspiration is required.

My latest acquisition falls into the latter category and is special because the subject is a local place, Herterton House in Cambo, three miles from Wallington. I passed the road-end several times as a young gardener in the late 1960’s en-route to plant exchange visits at Wallington, completely oblivious of the 16th century farmstead buildings that stood in ruin a short distance away.

In the early 1980s we suddenly became aware of this new place, open to the public and selling plants raised in the nursery. The buildings and garden had been saved from dereliction, and what we saw was a revelation – a place you know you’ll want to return to.

Herterton made such an impression that I recall buying a potted version of the striking plant group growing in the garden, Aegopodium Podagraria ‘Variegata’, commonly called variegated ground elder.

This garden was clearly going to be different, but what was the story behind the transformation and who was responsible? These questions are answered in the latest addition to my bookshelf, Herterton House and a New Country Garden, by Frank Lawley. Published by Pimpernel Press, and on sale now at £30.

Frank and his wife Marjorie were art lecturers when their Herterton adventure began, but as the demands of their project increased, they grew into full time horticulturists.

As Frank revealed at the recent Barter Books launch of his book, they travelled far and wide in search of inspiration. Hidcote and Great Dixter were considered, but Sissinghirst appears to have made the greatest impression.

I admire the book as I have the garden because it tells a story not only about plants, but also people and a way of life. But it’s not just the text, Val Corbett’s photography pulls everything together seamlessly.

Especially innovative is the full garden plan with named varieties inside the front and back covers. Imagine the thrill when browsing this to find Aegopodium still listed and growing next to the classic Rosa Versicolor.

What happens to this treasure of a house and garden in the distant future is of great concern. The Lawleys lease the property from the National Trust and will no doubt continue their endeavours as long as possible. Thank goodness the story of it’s rescue and transformation has been so well recorded.

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