Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Book Review: Gardeners’ World Practical Gardening Handbook

It’s been a while since Gardeners’ World has produced a comprehensive, practical guide to gardening, so with a new lead presenter last year, it was almost inevitable a fresh companion volume to the programme would appear on our gardening bookshelves.

Gardeners’ World Practical Gardening Handbook is aimed at beginner gardeners or those with some experience who would like to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. It’s also designed to be inspirational: for readers to find their ‘inner gardener’ and begin to explore the enjoyment to be found outside their front and back door. In this aspect the book works pretty well: Toby Buckland has a chatty, friendly approach and has plenty of ideas for both fun and practical projects.

The book is divided into three parts: Getting to Know Your Garden, Growing Your Garden and Living in Your Garden.

Getting to Know Your Garden

This chapter assumes the reader is taking over an established garden, rather than a new build plot. Here are the techniques needed to take care of overgrown, weedy areas, to prune back overgrown shrubs, improve garden boundaries, make new borders and start composting. I was rather surprised to find getting to know your soil wasn’t given an earlier mention and I found the inclusion of a couple of pages devoted to slugs and snails at this stage rather mystifying.

This section’s strength is the lists of suggested plants, shrubs and trees and where they can be used. However, it was all rather let down by the lack of photographs, which are plentiful elsewhere. Much more could have been made of the sub-chapter called Outsourcing, a look at recycling and reusing materials (including composting) and where they can be found. Toby is really keen on this aspect of gardening, yet I felt he didn’t really get the chance to fully express his passion or ideas.

Growing Your Garden

This is the largest section and looks at how to grow from seed, propagation techniques, growing fruit and vegetables, lawn care, greenhouse/polytunnel growing, some basic pest and disease care, plus ways to encourage wildlife into the garden.

For me, this part of the book worked the best: there’s plenty of practical information, good photography and it’s laid out in a more logical order than the preceding chapter. However, more step by step photography guides would have been helpful, particularly in the propagation section. There's too much reliance on the reader being able to follow what needs to be done from the text alone, which could be rather daunting for beginners.

Living in Your Garden

This chapter looks at the enjoyment a garden can bring, an aspect of gardening overlooked in most books of this kind. There’s more practical projects such as creating a garden swing for the kids, fruit juicing, and creating a ‘hangi’ - a temporary garden oven often used in New Zealand. I was pleased to see a way to disguise our ever growing collection of refuse bins – build a nifty garden store complete with green roof – which was tackled well. But I was surprised this chapter was a mere seventeen pages in length. After all, the book’s overall ethos is gardening is fun, not a list of chores.

So, does this book bring the Innovative ideas, Expert skills and Traditional techniques as advertised on its cover?

Sadly only partly. There’s lots of ideas and techniques and I expect plenty of people will be enthused to get out and start gardening after reading this book. However, quite a lot of the tasks have been over-simplified, so the information is misleading or doesn't fully deal with what’s needed. The section on pruning Clematis for example, is most confusing.

As mentioned before, the book would benefit greatly from more pictorial step by step guides. For example, I would struggle to complete many of the practical projects: if only they were all explained as well as the Comfrey Feeder is. I did ask NAH to look at these too: he said he could tackle most of them from the information (or picture) given, but the fruit cage explanation and diagrams were woefully inadequate. It would probably collapse (owing to no strengthening cross beams) and we both noticed that the door had no frame, but was attached to the cage’s netting instead.

But what really lets this book down is its editing, particularly in the first section. I was quite happily reading about soil type and aspect, when whooosh… I found myself reading how to plant up a wall crevice and make a timber raised bed, before being taken back to soils a couple of pages later. A lot of the pages in this chapter seemed to be in completely the wrong order, thus jarring the flow of information. One of the pictures showing how to plant a tree wasn’t explained and some of the useful hints and tips found in the margins needs to be moved. Their position is often totally unrelated to the main text next door and they should be moved up or down the page to their rightful place. A more extensive index would have been helpful, as would a list of further reading, particularly for anyone wishing to dig a little deeper into a particular topic.

I know from reading Toby’s articles in Kitchen Garden magazine previously that he can write succinctly and informatively without misleading the reader. It’s a shame those skills haven't been fully exploited here because if they had, this could easily be the book to inspire a new generation of gardeners.

Note: I was kindly given a copy of this book by the publisher for independent review.

Update: Just like buses there's two book reviews from me today. My review of Parks, Plants and People by Lynden B Miller is now up on ThinkinGardens. It's all about about one woman's amazing achievements with public planting in New York.

11 comments:

  1. Thanks VP for the in depth review. I think that I either will give this one a miss or have a peek in the library when it arrives there :) You wonder sometimes how many people read books before they are published.
    I was surprised that you say that "This chapter looks at the enjoyment a garden can bring, an aspect of gardening overlooked in most books." Did you specifically mean publications of a similar ilk - ie the practical how to books rather than gardening books in general ? :)

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  2. A solid review. Should like to get my hands on this book if only for the lists of suggested plants, shrubs and trees, and where they can be used.
    Like Anna, I'll wait for the library copy.

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  3. I have just posted my review too. I didn't mention the editing but should have - you are quite right!

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  4. Another great book is the Tickle Me Plant Book. They show you how to easily grow a real plant that MOVES when you Tickle It! The leaves instantly fold and even the branches droop when you Tickle It
    Men and woman love to play with this plant that seems to love affection
    (Http://tiny.cc/Ticklemeplant) See the video if you need a fun gift or your have kids and want to get them interested in plants and nature.

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  5. LOL! I thought the above anon comment was taking the P out of Toby's frequent use of "tickling the soil/roots/whatever".

    It sounds from your review like the book bears a strong resemblance to TB's Gardener's World role.

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  6. Eek! The above comment was from me but I seem to have managed to send it from my test blog under my "other blog's name". All too confusing!

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  7. Lol, tickling and confused cashmere. I suspect that these comments are more entertaining than the book. Interesting review VP, thank you :o)

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  8. Could you write a blog post about what is wrong with the advice on clematis in detail? I find it annying when people say "so and so is wrong", but don't clarify how or why...

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  9. Hi everyone - I hope this review helps you to decide whether the book is for you or not.

    Karen - welcome to Veg Plotting!

    Anonymous #1 - you're really spam but amusing spam so you can stay.

    Anonymous #2 - sorry you find that annoying, but it was just an illustration to explain why the book's disappointing. Perhaps I should have chosen a simpler example and I could then have explained the correct way. To explain why the Clematis section is wrong and then what should be done would need as much space again as my review. However, I've added your request to my posts 'To Do' list.

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  10. Having completed my (very rambly) review I feel free now to read what others have said about this book. I think I shall enjoy this part of the task and, although I arrived trepidly, I find lots of parallels in what you say here. (Fruit cage n all!)

    About the muddle in the first chapter - I was so alarmed by this I emailed the publisher because I assumed the book had been mis-printed.

    Esther

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  11. Esther - I also didn't read your earlier parts of your review so that I could do my review with a fresh mind. It's been good to see that you, Elizabethm and myself have been consistent with what we've found and thought about the book. I feel that a real opportunity has been missed with this book which is disappointing. I wish I'd thought of your idea about contacting the publishers about the first section muddle though!

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