Essay on Gardening by Henk Gerritsen, reviewed by Catharine Howard

March 30, 2017

in Book Reviews, Reviews

This review made me buy the book. It’s a real thinkingardens treat. But the cost on Amazon made me blench. Couldn’t find it cheaper. I ended up with the paperback at £27, with all the photos in black and white (see below).

And I wanted to buy  Site, Sight, Insight: Essays on Landscape Architecture (Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture) by John Dixon Hunt. The Kindle Edition of that (at least there is one) costs £44.65. 

So I didn’t buy that. Shame. Once upon a time an organisation like thinkingardens would have had a library, but that’s not much use when we are so geographically separated. Perhaps the day will come when we can have a digital library.

Anne Wareham, editor

Portrait Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes

Henk Gerritsen. Essay on Gardening on thinkingardens 1. 20170328_151737

Henk Gerritsen: Essay on Gardening, reviewed by Catharine Howard

Hefting in at one and a half kilos , “Essay on Gardening” simply cannot be that.  (OED “A short piece of writing on a particular subject”).  I suspect a Gerritsen tease.  For the gardener who wants to be enlightened and provoked in equal measures, treat this book as your bible.  I have read it twice.  Once to get a handle on the plant lists, botanising expeditions and the fairly unusual guideline to garden maintenance.  Second time round to  savour the philosophy, the relationships with people and the deep awe of nature.

The foreword is by Piet Oudolf,  friend of Gerritsen’s and co-author of other books.  Of their endless debate on horticulture: “we talked about spontaneity, which plant would fit into your image of an ideal garden: they had to be plants that visitors would think had simply walked out of nature which also knew how to behave”.  There you have the philosophy of the ‘New Wave Dutch’ planting rolled out by Gerritson, Oudolf,  Leopold and others.  There is beauty in the acceptance of death and decay in the garden followed by reincarnation each spring.

Born in 1948 and trained as a biology teacher and artist, Gerritsen and  his partner Anton Schlepers,  came to live at Anton’s parents farm in Schuinesloot  in the 1980s.  The gardens of Priona are buried in a patch of reconstructed land which in the 1950s had seen lengths of canals infilled and high ground cut into, resulting in a drear landscape scrubbed clean of its indigenous flora and fauna.  Priona held onto some of its oaks – a prize in the ‘dystopian’ suburban landscape of small-holding farms.   The partners started to develop the gardens in 1986.  Inspiration came from a handful of designers – Mein Ruys gardens are a short distance away and provided impetus.

Above human influences, nature is Henk’s muse and the superior partner that he must dance with, observe, copy, respond and react to with respect.  He knows this first hand from growing up hitching to and otherwise visiting plant communities beyond the reach of industrial agriculture.  The Balkans, Afghanistan and later South Africa.  His enthusiasm for learning plants is like that of a stamp collector.  There are considerable plants lists in “Essay” and I am guessing that the average reader will be a less knowledgeable plantsman, happy to look them up and learn.  The book is embellished with jaw dropping  photographs. (Black and white in the 2010 edition. ed)  More of that later.

Henk Gerritsen. Essay on Gardening Oct 2010 on thinkingardens 2 20170328_151824

The pictures in my copy come out like this. (ed.)

Priona Gardens are at the heart of the book and in them Gerritsen carries out his  experiments  – not all successful – with  plantings,  from meadow sowings to reseeding breaking out in the vegetable garden. It is refreshing that things are not perfect: plants walk or seed  to become prolific weeds.  As in nature, change will see the garden marching towards dull climax vegetation,  unless human intervention takes a hand.

Garden ecology gets a good deal of emphasis and I got a little confused in these chapters. However I grasped the concept of “ecological amplitude” as what  suits a certain plant and took on board the firm rule not to add to the fertility to the soil. Nitrogen rich promotes sappy growth and favours nettles, brambles and ground elder.

Essay on Gardening”  came out in 2008, and it must have shocked  with unorthodoxy in both plant palette and maintenance suggestions. I love the way he writes it and see a smeary mirror held up to my own behaviour.  The  typical gardener is outed:
Like an addict, he clings to a dream world and refuses to face reality.  In winter he swoons over the photos he took the previous summer, forgetting that this very same summer was one long successions of storms and rain, collapsed border and a constant slipping and sliding over seas of slugs.  These things he neglected to capture in photographs.”
Henk Gerritsen. Essay on Gardening Oct 2010 on thinkingardens 3 20170328_155217
If we can alter this mindset, the mantras are there for a realistic  regime.  Never use chemicals or fertilise the soil and use water sparingly.  Disturb the soil as little as possible by grazing  like a cow, gardening  like an elephant.  The ‘grazing’ allows cut back of perennial weeds without pulling – and the elephant prunes overgrown shrubs judiciously in the winter months.  He has quite a lot to say about weeds: our perception of them and how to live with them in a glyphosate free way.  Take ground elder: tall perennials will cohabit stretching way up high and shading out the elder’s vigour.
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Apart from Priona, Waltham Place is the only other garden to have a serious place in this book. Gerritsen writes about his trials with rabbits and muntjac and provides a list of plants so disgusting that they will remain untouched. Again the co-habitation of ground elder, kept in check behind box hedges. His patron for that garden, and indeed this book, Strilli Oppenheimer, was adamant that bindweed with its ethereal look, should remain in the garden. And so we see experiments underway  which give fuel to our own gardening activities. (I was entertained to learn that they tried to grow bindweed over arches, and failed. Takes a weed to drive you mad.ed.)

Through the book, plant names and images come fast and furious. The photographs, mainly  by Henk are awe inspiring. An incredible world of botany beckons, seen in intimate detail.  The labelling is a tad confusing but never mind – how often do you get to pretend to be a pollinating insect?

The last chapter is the piece de resistance, giving the main choice for the plants at Priona and raison d’être:  “shifting from the rare and spectacular to the trivial, and on first appearance, unsightly” umbellifers, the daisy family, the thistle family amongst them. Nature is brought into the garden – in this, Henk was a huge influence on Piet Oudolf’s developing plant palette as he shared his philosophy of what was garden worthy, resilient and good in form.

Strange and sad that so many in the cast are  longer alive. Henk, aged 60, died a few months before this book was published. Rob Leopold, seed nurseryman and philosopher, in 2005 and Anton Schlepers in 1993. But a lively strain  courses through the chapters as Henk works with Anton’s diametrically opposite  attitude to plants, planting and the garden. Anton is a  tangible presence as Henk grapples with the disintegrating scarecrow, pays homage to bedding  planting and looks for inspiration to replace his quirky impermanent designs.

He writes of Leopold’s funeral: “We gathered to witness Rob’s transition to another gradient, more than to take final leave of him: indeed, he will continue to inspire us”.  And this too could be Gerritsen’s own epitaph. From this book, he speaks as directly as someone in the room, sometimes admonishing, on occasion hand-wringing, but in the main inspiring and teasing.

           Catharine Howard   Blog

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Cheryl Cummings March 30, 2017 at 11:46 am

Thank you Catharine, a beautifully written review and an inspiration for me buy the book immediately. Now more than ever, all of us who have gardens must come to terms with nature as she is, not as we think she should be and understand that we must nurture our environment and gardens thoughtfully. In our own misunderstanding pests and weeds are are simply the names we have chosen to call the things we would rather not have. Foolish us, if dandelions were sold in pots we’d love them.

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Catharine Howard April 8, 2017 at 1:59 pm

Cheryl as Anne points out, this book is expensive but I would gladly edit most other horti tomes on my shelves to make way for it.

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John Kingdon March 30, 2017 at 3:05 pm

Thank you for this review. Even without reading the book itself, there’s more than enough to think about. I’ve deliberately tried to make a feature patch of variegated ground elder (Anne never gave me the plants I asked for, probably doesn’t like copycats!) and failed. I’m such a bad gardener that I can’t even grow weeds! And Cheryl, a few years ago Gardening Express did offer potted dandelions for sale and, I recall, sold out! We aim for some perception of weed-free perfection and waste a lot of time and energy failing to achieve that. But, in general, what we call weeds are merely wild flowers and, being native, have their role in the environment around us. A modicum of control is OK but I avoid eradication. The message is good – instead of fighting a losing battle against nature, we will achieve far more by working with her.

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annewareham March 30, 2017 at 3:22 pm

I forgot. You can have some to try again if you like, John.

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Cheryl Cummings March 30, 2017 at 8:19 pm

Great that you feel the same John, it’s good to know there are at least two of us!

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James Golden March 31, 2017 at 5:07 am

I read Henk’s book a long time ago and remember it mainly for its “aura” and for Henk’s description of himself “weeding like a cow.” I still say I enjoy weeding like a cow, wandering through the garden, pulling this and that. An important book that you review has inspired me to read again. I visited Priona last summer. There’s a very fine restaurant in the middle of it now, part of an attempt to keep the garden alive.

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Catharine Howard April 8, 2017 at 2:02 pm

Yes that new restaurant has a celebrated chef and is a cool place – tell people to visit. Think I must go on bicycling holiday with landscape architect son – Mein Ruys is just down the road too.

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Helen Gazeley March 31, 2017 at 1:36 pm

Hi, Catharine. Beautifully written review. Love the idea of ground elder under taller perennials, though I don’t think it’s something I can transfer to my smaller garden easily.

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Catharine Howard April 8, 2017 at 2:03 pm

Hello Helen
I think Anne, Gerritsen and the bods commenting here on ground elder must have space (I know Anne does) I do not and so am less relaxed when the elder starts to romp.

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Kathleen Whalen March 31, 2017 at 6:00 pm

Great review for an interesting sounding book. Anne, your comment about books and libraries reminded me that we should all be able to get these books from our own local public libraries via “inter-library loan”. That is one of the values of the public library system. At least it is then possible to see if you want/need to buy your own copy for these pricey editions.

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annewareham April 1, 2017 at 12:05 am

That’s true,Kathleen. That system has worked wonderfully for me in the past. Thanks for the reminder.

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Catharine Howard April 8, 2017 at 2:09 pm

Dear Kathleen. Thank you for your comments. The inter library loans do not have a great selection of horti books. I have been trying in vain to get a look at Gilles Clement’s “Planetary Garden”. Not available. I would love to know whether it is readable in translation. I don’t know who to ask so I shall ask you!

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Lucy M. Clark April 5, 2017 at 5:08 pm

This book will be a big boost in my garden experience. I am always fascinated towards gardening life and I am lucky enough to connect myself with nature. There is a deep connection between human behavior and nature. With the change in human behavior, there is a change in environment. Now, it is evident from present scenario.

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Catharine Howard April 8, 2017 at 2:11 pm

Yes Lucy it will be a big boost. I am sitting beside my son who is preparing his dissertation on the value of Nature for physical and mental health. The formal study is landscape architecture.

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Jane April 6, 2017 at 8:04 pm

Just ordered it. I visited Priona years ago and couldn’t imagine exactly how it was all kept aloft. He seems to have been a real inspiration and this was an inspiring, exciting review. Thank you.

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Catharine Howard April 8, 2017 at 2:13 pm

It is amazing how the garden is kept up. There is a trust but I think we need to shout about the garden. Not enough people have heard about Gerritsen. Enjoy the book. One to keep going back to.

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Lucia Holmes April 16, 2017 at 5:05 pm

I’m not surprised by the bindweed tale . Very Strilli Oppenheimer. Her garden in Johannesburg, Brenthurst, had gardeners babbling for years about weeds and not “proper gardening”. She inherited a magnificent classical English type garden from her mother in law, only to dig it all up and replant with indigenous grasses and shrubs . Horror of horrors, to the very proper garden clubs in Johannesburg. This happened long before it was “cool” to be green or environmentally aware. The garden today is wild,there is no true design. Plants are left to live and die in situ. If it were not for the bones of that original garden, paths, axis, vistas, I”m not sure I would have found my way out. A very interesting and down to earth woman who wants us to garden with Nature as our Muse.

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Catharine Howard April 20, 2017 at 8:56 am

Hello Lucia
I think the older we get/the longer we garden this alluring way of gardening can take hold. For the philosophy, with Nature as our Muse – I take note that you relied on the designed bones to get you out of Strilli’s garden . So we are not talking complete randomness. It is a delicate balance.

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