My Top Five…

Garden Books for Christmas Reading

What can be better at this time of year than to catch up on some horticultural reading? With so many new garden titles hitting the shelves daily where does one begin to look for great garden writing? I constantly find myself returning time and again to some ‘classic’ books of the past – here are my top five authors with some titles to try.

Favourite garden books

Favourite garden books

I make no excuses for starting with Vita Sackville-West; it was reading her books on gardening that greatly encouraged me to want to visit Sissinghurst (driving down from Yorkshire in a vintage VW Camper on my ‘Grand Tour’ of southern gardens in the late 1980’s). Vita’s gardening books are selected gatherings from her weekly gardening columns that she wrote for the Observer newspaper for 15 years between 1946 and 1961. Titles rather unimaginatively include, The Garden Book, In Your Garden, More For Your Garden and Even More For Your Garden. Throughout, Vita writes about plants with such affectionate personification and with first-hand knowledge on subjects from trough gardening to pruning that you can’t help but be drawn in and begin dreaming up new and exciting planting arrangements.

Another writer/gardener/nurseryman that I enjoy reading is Graham Stuart Thomas – as Gardens Consultant to the National Trust for nearly twenty years, his hands have perhaps more than anyone’s shaped the way many of our great gardens look, advising as he did at over 100 gardens including Hidcote and Sissinghurst. With over 19 titles to choose from it is to his, Perennial Garden Plants, written in 1975, that I keep returning. His observations on plants, their likes/dislikes, best forms and what they might look good with has for many years assisted me when working up planting schemes. Since returning to Sissinghurst I have also taken to reading his series of Rose books, which are simply great and a must for anyone interested in old roses.

Rose books by Graham Stuart-Thomas

Rose books by Graham Stuart-Thomas

Margery Fish is another woman gardener who, like Vita had a great ability not only to garden exceptionally well, but also to write about plants and gardening in a way that is both engaging and practical. She gardened in Somerset at East Lambrook Manor and her first book, We Made A Garden, published in 1956, told the story of establishing the garden at East Lambrook. Other titles soon followed including, Carefree Gardening, Cottage Garden Flowers and Gardening in the Shade.

Margery Fish classics

Margery Fish classics

Two current authors I hold in high esteem are Anna Pavord (her Bulb book is my current reading) and Stephen Lacey, who’s first book, The Starling Jungle offered an enthusiastic approach to romantic gardening and is a lovely bedtime read.

Bulb by Anna Pavord

Bulb by Anna Pavord

All make perfect winter reading, both practical and inspiring.

Plants for Winter Cheer

Hamamelis
Loved by Vita and perhaps the best known of the winter flowering plants are the witch hazels or Hamamelis. When little else is in bloom they bring cheer to the garden, the flowers remain even in the harshest of frosts, making them the mainstay of the winter garden. The curly spider-like flowers sit wriggling along the entire length of the naked branches. Like grated lemon zest with wine stained calyxes the flowers fill the air with a delicious scent, heightened when planted in a sunny place. (Follow this link to read more about witch hazels: https://sissinghurstcastle.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/in-the-deep-mid-winter/

Hamamelis sp.

Hamamelis sp.

Sarcococca
A small retiring shrub, originating from China, in summer you would hardly notice its charms, but in winter it is a thing to be cherished. The flowers are nothing more than a cluster of stamens with claret coloured calyxes, but they sure pack a punch in the scent league table, a sensory punctuation of high intensity to stop you in your tracks. Plant it next to your house door, from where on wintry air the scent will proclaim its presence.

Sarcococca confusa

Sarcococca confusa

Galanthus
The tide of winter is surely on the turn when the first signs of the humble snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis brave the cold air and begin to show. Flowering from January through to March a carpet of the nodding white flowers is a spectacular sight

Daphne
Daphne’s are all grown for their wonderfully scented flowers, which start as early as December and continue to fill the cold air with fragrance until March. Their stiff branches are covered with glistening reddish pink, silky waxen flowers, each one having anthers like pools of sulphur drawing you deeper into the flower, intoxicating you in the heady and exotic perfume.

Chimonanthus
Another winter-flowering shrub loved by Vita is the Chimonanthus or Winter Sweet. A Chinese shrub of rare beauty, with long leafless branches loaded with strongly scented, strange translucent yellow and maroon claw like petals during winter.

Chimonanthus praecox

Chimonanthus praecox

 Troy Smith (Head Gardener)

Happy Christmas from the Sissinghurst garden team.

13 thoughts on “My Top Five…

  1. Daphnes and Chimonanthus are my two favourite winter shrubs. Chimonanthus also makes a great bonsai specimen which can be brought indoors when in full flower – it’s truly spectacular

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  2. Happy Christmas to you and the team. Living on the ‘other side’ of the world in Australia, I too hope to be indulging in my passion for books both old & new, escaping the summer heat! I’m looking forward to a return visit to Sissinghurst next May with the ‘Gang from Great Dixter’ – see you then. Enjoy the cold and the armchair by the fire!

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  4. I’m so pleased you’ve mentioned Margery Fish, Troy. I picked up a first edition of ‘We Made A Garden’ for next to nothing recently. When I first got into gardening it (goodness knows how I’d heard of her). At the time East Lambrook was being sold and there was some concern with what the new owners would do with the garden. Happily it is open to the public – I should love to visit. Sorry to say I couldn’t get to grips with ‘The Tulip’ though. (Yep, I know everyone else on the plant rates it). Dave

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