What are Gardens for? by Rory Stuart, reviewed by Sheppard Craige

November 22, 2012

in Book Reviews, Reviews

You may well wonder why we have two reviews of Rory Stuart’s new book for thinkingardens.

Well, I was given one when I had already commissioned the other. It’s not the first time thinkingardens has offered more than one perspective, and it won’t be the last. And, as you will see, Rory himself has written about Sheppard’s garden here , rather complicating things… I needed a review you could all see was objective, as this is an important book which I trust you are going to buy.

I need to add a disclaimer myself, because Veddw is given critical attention in this book. I leant on no-one and I am taking Rory’s critique very seriously.

Here’s the first review, by Sheppard Craige, accompanied by some illustrations of his own garden.

Anne Wareham, editor

What are Gardens For? Rory Stuart copyright Anne Wareham for thinkingardens, Veddw, Monmouthshire, South Wales

What are Gardens for? Visiting, Experiencing and Thinking about Gardens

Rory Stuart, Frances Lincoln, 2012

Sheppard Craige:

An English gardening eccentric  (was it one of the Sitwells?), when asked what a garden was for, replied that it was a place to stand.

So here, with his new book “What are Gardens For?”,  we have Rory Stuart, a figure standing in a garden. He’s not chattering, and he’s not taking photos. He’s not even pruning or watering. What he is doing is paying attention to where he is.

Hence Stuart’s work is a new kind of “how to” gardening book: How to pay attention in a garden. Let me say at once that this has nothing to do with stern advice.  Stuart’s attentiveness  relies much more on pleasure than effort. Pleasure in recognising, pleasure in remembering, pleasure in understanding, perhaps even pleasure in approaching a mystery. It hardly matters in which garden we find ourselves. We can be in an old garden, a new garden, a famous garden, or our own garden.

Il_Bosco_Della_Ragnaia_1.copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens, Veddw, Monmouthshire, South Wales

Stuart keeps theory to a minimum and goes right to the matter by offering essays which compare and contrast several gardens.  For example, he describes the Florentine gardens La Gamberaia and La Pietra. There’s no fault-finding here, but he does come to a judgement of why one is obviously superior to the other. This, he seems to be saying, is what a creative garden criticism could be like.

Three contemporary British gardens are also examined:  the bold Old Vicarage in Norfolk;  the large, unfinished Alnwick Garden in Northumberland;  and the thoughtful Veddw House in Monmouthshire. Stuart says that he takes each garden seriously, tries to respond to what he feels is its character, then makes a guess as to the motivations of each designer. Finally, he asks if these motivations have been achieved or not. Overall, he makes an effort to “rein in his personal prejudices”.

Why are we just now getting around to this kind of  critical writing about gardens? ( Stuart notes that for years we have had restaurant critics, so why not garden critics?)  I’m not sure he comes to an answer about this, because it may be outside the scope of his book . It would be interesting to know his ideas.

Il_Bosco_Della_Ragnaia_2 Copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens, Veddw, Monmouthshire, South Wales

“What are Gardens For?” is a book about discernment. But what about those readers who, like myself, close the book still not sure about their powers of discernment? To us, Rory Stuart says: relax, because “no good garden was ever made from anxiety”. We should continue to see as many gardens as possible, old and new, famous and obscure. And we should be very careful about following current fashions in garden taste.

As for flowers, he tells English and American garden novices to relax about these as well, reminding us that Islamic and Oriental gardens have for centuries done largely without them.

At the end of his book Stuart recalls a fine quote from Russell Page: a garden should have “a quality peculiar to itself”. Now this remark may appear very obvious. But I think it really does represent the highest ideal of garden making. It’s that still point at which Rory Stuart’s garden writing seems to be aiming.

Sheppard Craige

Sheppard Craige portrait for thinkingardens





See also Sheppard’s piece on The 9/11 Memorial Park  and Bridget Rosewell’s review of What are Gardens For?

Il_Bosco_Della_Ragnaia_3 Copyright Charles Hawes for thinkingardens, Veddw, Monmouthshire, South Wales,


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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Galena Goodwin September 16, 2013 at 9:38 am

After reading this, my mind is made up, I am going to buy the book!


Jack Holloway January 6, 2013 at 2:08 pm

This definitely looks like a book I should read! I will seek it out. I am currently reading Stephanie Ross’ “What Gardens Mean” . I’ve only read Chapter 1, 10% of the book, but it seems a very academic exercise, whereas Sheppard Craige’s opening comments make it clear that despite its reflective nAature, Rory Stuart’s book is quite practical. I should try to read them back-to-back!


annewareham January 6, 2013 at 2:10 pm

They are quite different, both good, Rory’s probably most accessible. A page turner!


Paul Steer November 24, 2012 at 10:21 am

It is a book I will be buying. I concur with Faisal, gardens for me are about an inner experience, about reflection. Since reading ‘The Bad Tempered Gardener’ and having met Anne, I have been seeing other gardens and my own in a different light. I do wonder how I would have seen The Veddw if I had not met Anne and Charles or read the book. I feel encouraged and excited by the idea that gardens are more than just about design and flowers and horticultural knowhow, although they can be about all these things. I suppose I am distilling this new knowledge and discovering what a garden is for me, and perhaps this book will help in the process. Helpful review, thank you.


Faisal Grant November 22, 2012 at 8:50 am

I like the idea of discernment, for a real garden, to me, isn’t about copying, but about elaborating or exposing the uniqueness of site. And I like the idea of standing in a garden, and I like the idea of simply apprehending a garden, slowly perhaps, without reference to fashion. We’ve all got so busy and competitive and up to the minute, we forget that gardens are simply places to be in ( when we chuck the tools down ) – islands, sanctuaries. Yes, what they are for is an inner experience.


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