Ambra Edwards has given us a treasure of a book, a joy to read, insightful, informative and provocative. I have enjoyed it immensely and recommend it unreservedly.
She has interviewed fourteen head gardeners, a diverse group with only a few fitting the stereotypical image, yet all might be described as people at the pinnacle of gardening achievement with a wealth of experience, wisdom and green thumbs and, thankfully, a willingness to share their lives and insights with us.
Those of us who are interested in this subject, this book and the people presented to us in it, are most likely gardeners ourselves and I feel this puts us immediately at a disadvantage as we begin our reading for we have a concept of gardening and what a gardener is based on our own experience and this leaves us frightfully ill informed and terribly misguided regarding the life and work of a head gardener. “Gardening” as we know it – the tending of plants and gardens – forms but a very small aspect of the work of the present day head gardener. Garden management is a major part of the job, the organisation, guidance and training of those who work with them. Gardens must not only be tended and developed they must also be sold to the gardening public so as to finance the garden work. He head gardener is the one who must look to the future, not simply a year ahead but to where the gardens will be in ten years or even one hundred years from now. And then, the head gardener will be the one who must ensure the gates are closed, the lights switched off, the staff paid, the blog written, requisites ordered and checked on delivery and the list goes on and on. The head gardener must truly juggle innumerable duties and be master of them all.
The selection of head gardeners featured in this book appears to have been chosen to present the reader with a wide range of garden types and head gardener experiences; it is certainly eclectic, interesting and entertaining. Some of the usual limelight head gardeners are here – Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter springs immediately to mind and the reader might wonder what is there left to read about him as he has been interviewed here, there and everywhere already but I found it one of the most insightful of portraits which revealed aspects of his character and practices at Great Dixter which I had not known of previously and was a perfect example of the depth of the interviews conducted by the author and representative of the others in the book.
As for the other thirteen head gardeners in the book, I feel I would spoil a great enjoyment on you if I revealed them to you here. Some you will acknowledge immediately as deserving of their place in the book while others may surprise you but when you have read their chapter you will understand why they were so very deservedly included. Mike Calnan, Head of Gardens at the National Trust is quoted in the introduction: “It’s difficult to imagine a class of people who have such tremendous skills, who contribute so much to society and who are so thoroughly undervalued.” I can only add that society needs to read this excellent book and this perception will be blown to the winds.
Finally, one statement which I loved and which epitomises the honesty throughout the book. When garden designers are hogging the limelight and are viewed as the stars of the horticultural world it is good to read Alistair Clark, head gardener at Portrack in Dumphries which houses Charles Jencks’ “Garden of Cosmic Speculation”: “Charles is a clever, clever man, there’s no disputing that. But he doesn’t know the first thing about horticulture. He didn’t when he first came to Portrack and I don’t think he does yet.”
Head Gardeners, A Celebration of the most exciting gardeners working in Britain today, Ambra Edwards with photographs by Charlie Hopkinson. Pimpernel Press, London, 2017, Hardback, 240 pages, £35, ISBN: 9781910258743240.