Byline: David Sexton
FIRST, the case against. Richard Mabey's new book Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature (Profile, [pounds sterling]15.99) is a celebration of "disreputable plants ... vegetable guerillas".
A weed famously is "a plant in the wrong place" -- but this is a coarse definition, Mabey emphasises, subject to change. The Stinking Hellebore is now a garden favourite "but when the distinguished plantswoman Beth Chatto first exhibited it at the Royal Horticultural Society's show in 1975, she was almost disqualified for entering what, because of its origins, was classified as a weed".
We can choose what we blacklist as weeds. "Mine would include oil-seed rape and cherry laurel," says Mabey combatively. The distinguished rosarian Humphrey Brooke, who loved the old varieties, once, in his cups, shouted out "Vegetable rats!" at a gardener tending his lurid modern shrub roses.
Weeds are part of the human story, Mabey argues, created by the development of cultivation. "From that point on the natural world could be divided into two conceptually different camps: those organisms contained, managed and bred for the benefit of humans, and those which are 'wild'... Weeds occur when this tidy compartmentalisation breaks down. The wild gatecrashes our civilised domains, and the domesticated escapes and runs riot."
Mabey's study of this contested ground is fascinating, ranging widely in time and space, from John Clare's love of ragwort and "weed picnics" to the problems posed now by "the terrible triplets: giant hogweed, Indian balsam and Japanese knotweed". Mabey's sympathies are, frankly, all with the weeds. He records with glee how the weeds erupted after he moved to his current home in Norfolk. The garden had previously been "tidy to the point of prissiness" but after a summer of benign neglect exploded into life -- although even he would like to eradicate the infestation of ground elder ...
Robin Lane Fox, the Financial Times's Oxford don gardening writer for the past 40 years, has no such wussy tendencies. As he explains in his third collection of columns, Thoughtful Gardening: Great Plants, Great Gardens, Great Gardeners (Particular Books, [pounds sterling]25), for him gardening is in the end all about flowers -- "trying to grow plants well, whatever their origins, and placing them in a setting that suits them and us". Lane Fox loves fertilisers and pesticides, formal borders and improved varieties; he detests ornamental grasses and "eco-planters". And he expresses these prejudices with wit and clarity, interspersing essays on particular plants with visits to great gardens around the world and incisive accounts of such individuals as Christopher Lloyd, Rosemary Verey, Arthur Hellyer and Nancy Lancaster. Thoughtful Gardening, beautifully produced in Germany, is the armchair gardening book of the year.
Last year's must-have was the magnificent Bulb by Anna Pavord -- but this year's offering, her collection of columns from the Independent, The Curious Gardener: A Year in the Garden (Bloomsbury, [pounds sterling]20), isn't anything like as shapely and pointed as Lane Fox's and includes far too many chatty, personal pieces that served the day but don't merit revival, dished up in an overfamiliar month-by-month format, punctuated by superfluous lists of seasonal tasks.
Also oddly disappointing was Christopher Lloyd: His Life at Great Dixter by Stephen Anderton (Chatto, [pounds sterling]20), which didn't truly get to grips with Lloyd as a gardener, while being faintly salacious about his private life and overanimated by dislike of Lloyd's overpowering mother Daisy (aka "the Management"), who dominated his life until her death in 1972, aged 92.
A much better read, much better illustrated too, is a charming book of brief recollections from many different hands, Dear Christo: Memories of Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter, edited by Rosemary Alexander with Fergus Garrett (Timber Press, [pounds sterling]18. …