Sunday, 9 April 2017

My Life With Plants, a review

Old wisdom says that you should never meet your heroes, but I've met my gardening hero three times now and it's done me no harm! If you had to write a list of 'great heroes of gardening' then the late and very great Christopher Lloyd would certainly be on the list, as would the very influential Beth Chatto, but I would hope that most lists would included Roy Lancaster.

For me, Roy Lancaster is the very epitome of what a plantsman (or indeed plantswoman) should be; friendly, warm, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, informative. There are those who think that plantsmanship is about men in corduroy trousers or women in floral dresses and big hats professing that a plant merrily living its life in a border should be ripped out in favour of some obscure plant (nearly always something the 'plantsperson' grows themselves), while gaggles of 'lesser gardeners' frantically try to make notes and capture this great 'wisdom'. In truth I find this to be an abhorrent definition of plantsmanship, and I would dearly like to see these 'ships in full sail' barred from gardens nationwide. For me 'plantsmanship' isn't about collecting rare and obscure plants to try and show off to other gardeners and make them feel inferior, plantsmanship is about understanding plants, their diversity and their needs, to make the best selections. You can be a plantsperson using Photinia 'Red Robin' or Potentilla fruticosa 'Abbotswood' (a favourite of mine)- it's not the obscurity of the plant that makes a scheme work, it's the suitability of the plant for the purpose.

Anyone who has heard Roy Lancaster give lectures, been with him on garden tours or come across him in the media will know that he has an infectious way of getting everyone interested in plants; it was Ian Hodgson (former editor of the RHS magazine 'The Garden') who once said “he could make the most nondescript, green looking plant the most interesting thing on the planet just by the very words and passion he conveys”. This is what I believe plantspeople should be like, not bogged down in pointless hierarchies and one-upmanship!

Roy has written several books over the years, ranging from fairly easy going general books about trees and shrubs right through to 'My Travels In China', an impressive and possibly sometimes daunting book about, not surprisingly, his travels in China and the plants he saw there. Roy was also a critical part of the creation of arguably the most influential reference books for serious gardeners, 'The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs', the latest edition of which (with Roy Lancaster and John Hillier as consultant editors) describes over 13,000 woody plants without any pictures whatsoever! It's very easy to enjoy the fruits of Roy's research yourself- every gardener should own a copy of The Hillier Manual!

Roy's latest book is very much the odd one out in that it focuses very much on him. 'My Life With Plants' is a very enjoyable and fascinating autobiography which takes us on the journey of his life, from his early days in his native Bolton to his national service in Malaya and up to recent times, and talks with great fondness of the people who influenced him and got him into the world of plants. Of course there are plants mentioned on nearly every page, plus birds and other wildlife found along the way, so even here the reader is being fired up with enthusiasm for plants!

The style of the book is very light and easy, and you quickly finding your mind reading the words with a Bolton accent! Some stories will be familiar to anyone who has been to Roy's lectures while others are probably less well known. I found the chapter on Roy's garden particularly interesting; I've long wondered what his garden is like but don't really have the connections to wangle a visit, so reading about it was the next best thing. Finding out that Roy's garden is around 1/3 of an acre but contains around 1,000 species further cemented one of my beliefs of plantsmanship and that is that you don't need to have a huge space to have an excellent collection of plants!

There are parts of the book that I suspect have been edited back pretty hard, particularly stories of plants he's seen in the days since leaving the Hillier Arboretum, but I daresay those stories would make up another book on their own. In fact I really hope they do make another book on their own; while 'Travels in China' is an astonishing in-depth story of Roys various trips to that seemingly never ending botanical paradise it would also be nice to have a book more centred around Roy's more recent experiences in gardens and wild places around the world, trips where he has had first hand experience of some of the most remarkable plants in the world? Either way, this book is sure to delight fans of arguably Britain's most enthusiastic plantsman!

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