David Culp’s writing transports his readers, even those at the other side of the Atlantic, to an enjoyment of his garden in Pennsylvania, USA. It is a gardener’s garden and a gardener’s book, written for fellow gardeners who will understand so very well the happinesses, dreams, successes, trials and errors and great fun and enjoyment which go into the making of a garden.
Over the years, David’s name would pop up regularly on social media as we share an interest in snowdrops and when he wrote his first book, The Layered Garden, I sought it out immediately and was delighted with it – it described his gardening and planting methods in a most informative and enjoyable way and was, very deservedly, an outstanding success. I knew that A Year at Brandywine Cottage would be another excellent book and I have not been disappointed and, I should add, both books are remarkable – viewed from this side of the Atlantic – in that their garden style and plant content is perfectly relevant to gardeners here and would be described here as modern cottage garden style, even Robinsonian.
David has enjoyed great success in the horticultural world as a garden designer, nurseryman, plant breeder, horticultural lecturer and writer as well as involvement in several gardening organisations and events and also opens his garden to visitors. Despite this very impressive background and experience or, perhaps, because of it, I would describe the garden at Brandywine as modest. Now, it is important to clarify this statement immediately lest it give the impression that I consider the garden less than impressive when the truth is quite the opposite. The garden is modest, I believe, because David never attempted to impose any grand ideas or designs on what he found when he came to live there thirty years ago. He has lain a gentle hand on the landscape, treating it with respect and planting in a style and with a content which blends in perfectly with the environment. Brandywine is a modest garden, a garden without pretentions, a natural garden, at once a humble garden and a consummately beautiful and complex garden, one of great depth, of great gardening, of wonderful plants, unbound enthusiasm and unending dedication. A year at this garden is an experience to savour.
David presents the garden to us in the sequence of the seasons of the year but through six seasons rather than four for he, as others do, regards the traditional count somewhat simplistic to encapsulate the cycles of the year so we have Early Spring, Late Spring, Summer, Early Fall, Late Fall and Winter. The narrative moves seamlessly though the seasons describing highlights and favourites and it is clear that the author lives by his own dictum, “Look closer” for his observations are so very precise and insightful, displaying a great depth of knowledge and experience. For the reader it is enjoyable, informative and inspirational.
The progress of the year is interspersed by what I will describes as several significant sidelines and regular lesser digressions which all add to the richness of the book and the enjoyment of the reader. David takes time to give a little extra space to snowdrops, a passion of his, and to the discussion of “water-wise plants”, essential in light of climate change and scarce water supply and also to weeds – well, what gardener is not aware of weeds! He suggests, “If you are going to have weeds, you might as well have ones that are pretty, useful, or both” and embraces those generous self-seeding plants which add to the nature of the garden at Brandywine. Every gardener who produces vegetables and fruit will, almost inevitably, have a little flair in the kitchen and David and partner are no exception and they have sprinkled the text with very attractive and tempting recipe, some familiar and many new and exciting. David is a man of good taste in his plants and in his food!
I have enjoyed this book very much, a wonderful distraction in the middle of a miserable winter, a transportation to a garden on the other side of the Atlantic which holds so very much of beauty and of interest for us.
[A Year at Brandywine Cottage, Six Seasons of Beauty, Bounty and Blooms, David L. Culp with Denise Cowie, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2020, Hardback, 295 pages, $35, ISBN: 978-1-60469-856-5]
Please note that the illustrations above are my photographs of the book and are only a faint approximation of the quality of Rob Cardillo’s excellent photography in the book.