Small gardens, anyone? Book Review by Susan Wright

November 17, 2016

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Is this the book everyone wants? Small gardens?

Anne Wareham, editor.

New Small Garden by Noel Kingsbury reviewed by Susan Wright

New Small Garden reviewed by Susan Wright

New Small Garden is Noel Kingsbury’s latest book.  It’s a comprehensive guide to the  “principles, planting and practice” of small gardens, a statement accurately reflected in the content. Though the gardens featured don’t look what you may think of as ‘contemporary’.

New Small Garden by Noel Kingsbury, reviewed by Susan Wright
Split into nine chapters, each with with numerous smaller sections and a comprehensive index, this is not only an appealing and extremely easy book to navigate but a good size to handle.

Its 200 pages are full of advice and information about  setting out small gardens and are as well written and researched as one would expect from Noel Kingsbury.  The tone is a touch dry and text booky at times, though leavened by welcome touches of humour here and there.

 New Small Garden by Noel Kingsbury reviewed by Susan Wright

It is also absolutely full of photographs, some too small to enhance  the text much, but most are fine.  To my surprise and mild irritation, the majority seem to be of Dutch or Belgian gardens (the photographer is Dutch) and so have very recognisably European look.  Will that, I wonder, sit well with the post-Brexit reader?

By far the most interesting  chapter was the one on layering with plants.  Ideal for novices or the many  who  look at their gardens  wondering why they don’t  quite work, this excellent chapter about the strong graphic effect of layering might well help.

 Noel Kingsbury New Small Garden reviewed for thinkingardens

As one would expect given the author, the book has a strong ecological message and favours naturalistic planting with bird, bee  and insect friendly plants.  The hand of the garden designer, where there is one, is very subtle. The illustrated gardens are sturdy and densely planted in the main.

Do not consult it if you want to create a formal garden or a clean, modern look within your small space, for none is included. But for other all purposes, including container, small fruit and vegetable gardens, this would be an excellent choice for a novice looking for  solid, basic and fairly priced (at £20 new) book.  Experienced gardeners need not apply.

Susan Wright
Susan Wright portrait Copyright Anne Wareham, thinkingardens

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Katherine Crouch November 21, 2016 at 7:58 pm

…and that last picture of the steel edges separating two colours of fine chippings on a chapter about porous surfaces. Porous is good…..

…..but can we have a photo of the same gravel a couple of weeks after the neighbourhood cats have discovered it please, Noel?
just keepin’ it real….

Jeremy Spon November 19, 2016 at 6:52 pm

A (small) complaint – what has Brexit got to do with how readers view the choice of photos?! More seriously, if Noel’s book really does explain ‘contemporary principles, planting and practice’ then good for him – this could be a certain amount of the ‘why’ Tristan is looking for. But perhaps Tristan means not ‘why do it this way rather than that’, but ‘why do it at all?’ How many gardening books today make the case for gardening, rather than just preaching to the converted? Not many, I would guess. Publishers generally seem to work on the basis that providing ‘how-to’ manuals (of varying degrees of originality or depth) is the only way to make a (small) profit. Perhaps they are right?

Katherine Crouch November 21, 2016 at 11:09 am

yes, there are plenty of books preaching to the converted, I can’t think of any that deal with ‘why garden’ instead of ‘how to garden’. Although Christopher Lloyd often addressed ‘why’ to the converted.

I guess it’s because truly non-gardeners would not buy anything with ‘garden’ in the title.

Jane November 21, 2016 at 1:44 pm

Yes I feel very sad about the “why”, though I do realise there are many competing joys – screens, shopping, struggling from half paid uncertain job to half-paid uncertain job, technology enabled bad behaviour, complicated fitness regimes.etc.etc. Oh for the joys of gentle neighbour-over-the-fence gardening, idle chit chat about the lawnmower, all those fifties things, shrubs.

Partly I blame the horticultural pundits, there’s far too much dishonesty, prescriptiveness and bossiness. Experts need to to prove their expertise and the whole approach is too top down. People are way too nervous and don’t even begin to garden now, just buying a plant, taking the pot off, digging a hole and sticking it in. If they do, they spend a lot of time and energy worrying and lamenting about what’s wrong. They seem to feel completely disempowered and embarrassed by any sort of failure and that must have something to do with the greater distance between ourselves and “nature”, whatever that is now. My only useful suggestion is that there should be much less telling people what to do, more encouraging them to do what they would enjoy. Gardening should be enjoyable, if it isn’t you need to do it differently (pace Anne). I make a religion of only doing what I like, but eventually one’s definition of enjoyable extends. At the moment the dishonesty of television programmes, the prescriptiveness and competitiveness of books and magazines, puts people off doing anything casually or for fun. They make a stab at it and retire hurt and bewildered.

Unfair not to have read this book and yet add my tuppence in. But I haven’t read it, though I would take a look. The title wouldn’t work for anyone who hadn’t cottoned to the idea that there was an “old” small garden. I always liked the “room outside” idea and at least it didn’t mention “garden”!

Katherine Crouch November 21, 2016 at 7:52 pm

amen to all that! Indeed I am frustrated by my own and other people’s lack of time for gardening these days, but more frustrated by the unwillingness to have a go, and even more, by the inability of some people to have sympathy with soil and plants, and to learn by observing their own mistakes.

One client this year bemoaned the near-death of a lollipop privet in a pot in September. It was in full sun and a windy spot.
‘have you watered it at all this summer’
‘have you fed it at all – ever?’
‘do you regularly feed and water your 9 month old daughter?’
‘yes, but why is the plant nearly dead now?’
….and then I stabbed him with my secateurs and buried him in the compost heap….. well, I wanted to….
this is a true story and similar tales of woe are becoming more common. A shame they stick in the mind so. I also have lovely clients who rejoice in their gardens and use their common sense – hurrah for all of them.

Tristan Gregory November 18, 2016 at 4:39 pm

In reference to Katherine’s comments it is the why rather than the how that should be occupying the keyboard smoothed fingers of our most energetic gardening brains.

John Kingdon November 18, 2016 at 10:43 am

What’s immediately missing is a definition of “small”. Dear old Vita once said that however small your garden might be, you should always “make room for half-an-acre of snowdrops”. As my nearest decent bookshop is 30 miles away, I have to resort to buying online and would not be tempted to risk £20 just to find out that “small” means, maybe, 2 acres or 10 square feet.

Katherine Crouch November 19, 2016 at 7:15 pm

With a new build Persimmon 2 bedroom box a garden means 5 by 4.5 metres or thereabouts. I’d say that was small by anyone’s reckoning. For old cottages, it was considered that the width of the cottage times 82 feet (5 rods) was enough for a working man to grow vegetables for his family without taking too much time from his work. (And it was my grandma that did all the gardening…don’t get me started…) In my mind, a ‘tiny’ garden is anything smaller than the former size, and a ‘medium’ garden anything more than cottage width times 18m / 60 feet long – ish. Half an acre of snowdrops – yes please!

Katherine Crouch November 17, 2016 at 5:57 pm

I shall look out for this for a flick through, whether I shall buy it is a different matter. I think many keen gardeners will be filling their small plots with interesting plants already, whether to good effect or not. I hope a book like this will illlustrate such good effects.

However there is an increasing disconnect between how books like this imply we could be gardening and how many people actually use their small gardens. Take the train into any major town and gaze upon the small gardens behind the terraced houses along the embankment. Last time I looked they were 95% rough grass, wheelie bins and trampolines where a hundred years ago they may have been mostly prams, dustbins and potatoes.

Most small garden designs I have seen illustrated in garden design books or on Houzz, are behind expensive urban properties where expenditure of time or money on good materials and labour may be justified, relative to the value of the house. Families with young children in small suburban houses with small gardens occasionally book me for consultations but seldom wish to devote resources to radically rethink their garden, yet they would gain the most benefit from doing so.

Twice recently I have suggested simple changes to small country retirement gardens where there was real need – a half-blind man requiring visible routes and a seriously overgrown garden needing severe pruning and border renovation for a disabled woman. Neither project got off the ground because the budget required (under £2000 each) just wasn’t there. I felt sad for them, but I can’t do owt for nowt.

I am now concentrating on medium and large gardens for mostly middle class well off retired people because there is very little profit money in small garden design work round here (South Somerset). The DNA from the left wing radical side of my ancestry is twitching in protest.

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