Natural Selection: A Year in the Garden by Dan Pearson reviewed by Tristan Gregory

September 27, 2017

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Someone somewhere may have been wondering why Thinkingardens had disappeared. My apologies – I’ve been on a post garden opening holiday and recovery break.

I am especially grateful to Tristan for this review, knowing how fraught his life also is these days. Whoever thought garden makers have a quiet life?

Anne Wareham, editor







Natural Selection by Dan Pearson


Natural Selection: A Year in the Garden by Dan Pearson is a considered collection of pieces drawn from his ten years as an Observer columnist.  It is presented as a diary and includes writings based on his Peckham plot and his place in the Somerset countryside. This review has been a long time coming as not only did I struggle to get through it but I also struggled to arrange my thoughts about it in a worthwhile review.

I found it a difficult book to read because the original material, written as a periodic newspaper column, was not meant to be read as a book.  I was not convinced by it as a diary as it was too disjointed and as I slogged through the winter months the little repetitions and sense that there was no actual chronology just made the mire that little bit stickier.  Each month gets a few paragraphs of “new writing” at the start but while nicely done these were just too short to effectively set the tone for the month’s entries.

When I struggle with a book my instinctive response is to call it boring and to put it down for that other day which seldom comes, but here that would be unfair, for despite the constraints of the format the content delivers.

Natural Selection by Dan Pearson

While each piece is freestanding and does not require anything within the preceding pages to lend it purpose or context, to say there is no narrative is not quite true.  Within the introduction Mr Pearson describes his career and the characters and experiences that both guided his choices and progression in horticulture, journalism and garden design.  Some may roll their eyes at the idea of a biography of Dan Pearson but it would be churlish not to say that he has had some influence within the industry and that his career and its successes may be of interest to someone working in horticulture and wishing to move from its hinterlands to its centre.

The clarity of the introduction is not carried on through the book, though where those snippets that lend something to the readers’ understanding of the writer are diluted by planting ideas and reflections on the practicalities of gardening in the particular week, month and season the column was written for.

Natural Selection by Dan Pearson

So what of that particular aspect of the book, the gardening diary element?  Well at some point your interests and horticultural passions are likely to overlap with his and you will find what he says about them useful and illuminating.  I am not so grand or confident in my own skills to not find reassurance when somebody who is clearly both of these things thinks as I do on so many matters concerning gardening in a large area.

Furthermore he is clearly a plantsman of the highest order and unlike some others can communicate this knowledge in a compelling way.  I found myself rather less interested in his descriptions of city gardening in Peckham, and his advocacy of certain plants I know to be unreliable outside a big city’s microclimate a little dull. But that would hardly be a fault to city gardeners.

Natural Selection by Dan Pearson

Well, I’ll be honest and say I persisted with this book because I had agreed to review it and I am glad that I did. Not because I got to the end and in the manner of some great novel the last few paragraphs drew an interesting yet disparate set of ideas and images together like a singularity at the centre of a dying galaxy, but because there were enough of those ideas to justify the slog through the packing material.  I enjoyed reading about those first experiences of horticulture, the ones that turned his blood green. For me it was growing the seeds of tropical fruit from the supermarket.  I appreciated the affection with which he wrote about his friend Geraldine who inspired him to look more carefully at the plants that were starting to fascinate him. Many of us have those people somewhere in our lives, especially those of us with the good sense to follow a vocation.

Lastly there is the tone of justification.  There is an undertone of ‘look at what I have accomplished’ and ‘who I have met’ and even at ‘the good life I have made for myself’.  How unfortunate that someone at the top of our pyramid still seems haunted by the thought that he might have accomplished more in another field.

Tristan Gregory 

Head gardener at Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire

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Alex October 1, 2017 at 6:46 pm

It’s funny, I just bought this book and now I feel a little less interested in it. But Dan Pearson remains, at least for me, one of the important garden designers for this time and mostly a person from which we could learn a thing or two. Thank you for the review, I enjoyed reading your argumented and specialised opinions.

Katherine Crouch September 27, 2017 at 8:10 pm

Thank you Tristan, a review like this makes me want to head to a large book shop for a happy hour leafing through this and other works before buying another lovely new smelling gardening book as a legitimate business expense. Buying books on line is not for the unconvinced…

Tristan Gregory October 1, 2017 at 10:58 am

You are very welcome

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