‘lessons from the great gardeners,’ with matthew biggs

biggs-and-great-gardeners-bookHOWEVER THEIR DREAMS were realized, author Mathew Biggs writes about the 40 icons covered in his book “Lessons From the Great Gardeners,” their aim was the same: to perfect the art of the garden.

What special innovation in technique, exceptional plants, or flair with color or design did each of those 40 hand down to the rest of us? Matthew Biggs’s book is loaded with their garden wisdoms, and also with the charming tale of each luminary and how they got to the garden in the first place.

Matthew, who trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is the author of various earlier books including “The Complete Book of Vegetables,” and is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 4’s “Gardener’s Question Time” and a popular broadcaster and garden writer in the UK.

Read along as you listen to the Dec. 5, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

q&a on the great gardeners’ lessons, with matthew biggs



Q. I was so glad that the University of Chicago Press picked up this book for the American market, Matthew.

A. It’s a real honor for me, and what I found particularly fascinating was to look more at some of the American gardeners, and to see this great and longstanding link between them and the gardeners in the UK.

Q. When I first began gardening, I remember that it was right on the cusp when it was still fashionable to study British gardeners in particular, and admire them and read their work. A few years later, it was like, “No, no, we all need to be American and proud of our own gardeners.” So I was glad to see that this book has a mixture from many different nations.

A. The whole idea when we thought about it was to get gardeners from different nations, and also from a different time scale. We’ve gone back quite a way. Also, as you might imagine, we found that a lot of the gardeners [we included] are the more contemporary gardeners. There was a lot of gardening done, and recorded, during Victorian times in England. Prior to that of course the great houses had gardens and gardeners, but much of that gardening was for subsistence and to feed the house.

The great Victorian gardens most certainly had their ornamental gardens, because it became a time in Britain—the time of the Empire—that gardening was a way of showing off, if you were wealthy. There were some amazing plants coming in from China, Japan, and the American plants were already in our gardens of course much earlier. If you were not so wealthy, you gardened to feed your family. It was only lately really that gardening has become this indulgence for more people on a great scale, that anybody can do it—people like you and I can have a lovely garden and enjoy it.

Q. It’s quite a group you have assembled for the book. There are 40 icons in it, but what was the first list when you first sat down to make a list—100, or 2,000? [Laughter.]

A. It was about 100 to be honest. First, I was thrilled to be asked; it was such an honor to be asked by the Royal Horticultural Society to write a book. When I had recovered from the shock, I sat and thought, “How are we going to do this?”

They had told me to go through history, and geographically, but then I also thought it was important to make sure that as many styles as possible were covered, because I think that was essential. It was very easy to go with the European styles, and the English styles, but we needed to include the Oriental styles and the formal gardens.

I wanted to make sure that every garden style was covered, and then I started to look for the people who were the big names, if you like.

I think we needed to include some of the big names—people like Beatrix Farrand, for example. But then I wanted to bring in people who I discovered who were less well-known but could still contribute to the book, and also deserved to be better-known. I saw it as opportunity.

rae-selling-berryThere was the most extraordinary lady, and she’s still one of my favorites, called Rae Selling Berry. Her garden was a plants person’s garden. But I was always enchanted by her, because she started off knowing nothing about gardening, with a couple of pots by the door, and then became totally absorbed by it and immensely passionate, and created a fantastic garden. [Portrait of Berry from Portland State University’s Rae Selling Berry Seed Bank and Plant Conservation Program, named for her in 2011 after her former garden, which had been preserved as Berry Botanic Garden, closed.]

I thought she almost like lived the dream, if you like, for lots of people. You expect the wealthy in a way to have a great garden, but then for a lady like this who was just consumed by the pleasure and the passion and joy, and the excitement of gardening—she really was one of my favorites. So I wanted to bring more people like her to the fore.

Q. There are names that many gardeners will know, like Sackville-West and Gertrude Jekyll, who made more than 400 gardens—and she’s in the list of course. But then as you say is someone who started with some pots by the door. There were other names that were unknown to me, and one—Mildred Blandy–was unfamiliar, yet her last name rang a bell because of the boxwood called ‘Graham Blandy,’ which apparently was named for her husband. So that was fun: Who is that? I kind of know her name, but I don’t know her name.

A. [Laughter.] And her garden is the most beautiful garden; again quite formal, and there are a lot of Australasian plants in there. Bringing somebody in from a place like Madeira, geographically, would be interesting.

Most people know where Madeira is, but it’s not something that most people around the world would necessarily associate with gardening. I think that was very important, too. It would have been very easy to have just gone through the ones like you just mentioned—the big names—and they do have a place in there.

Something that I really wanted to do was to really find out things about these gardeners that nobody else would know, or that weren’t recorded elsewhere. I didn’t feel there was any particular mileage to be gained in just reproducing everything that you could find quite easily in books. So when I researched, wherever possible, I looked in obscure places.

So for example with one of the people, there was a great TV gardener over here called Geoff Hamilton. I did the whole story, with an interview with his son, who is also in horticulture and I happen to know. I looked in obituaries, the BBC radio program called “Desert Island Discs,” where people choose their favorite records and in between, they are interviewed about their life.

Quite a few of those people I included who had passed away, I went to the archive of “Desert Island Discs” and listened to the program to be able to pluck quotes from there. So it was just trying to get the little stories about them.

Q. Leave no stone unturned. [Laughter.]

A. Yes, I just felt it should be interesting. Like lots of people, yourself included I am sure, you love things where there is a wow factor, where it’s “Oh, that’s interesting, what an amazing person.” Or, “What an odd thing to do.” I think it’s those things that just lighten the stories.

What I learned it that it was as much about the character of the individual that explains why the garden is as it is. Or it could have been their financial situation. As lots of people live the dream, the kind of thing that you and I would love to do in our quiet moments, they could afford to do because they could lavish money on gardening, or had plenty of time or could have staff.

One of the fascinating things is looking at this book and seeing what can be done when time and money are no object.

CR3116 Rows of plants in gardens of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville VA

Q. Among the Americans, you included someone who maybe surprised me: Thomas Jefferson. What was Jefferson’s contribution that made you want to highlight him? [Above, a view of Monticello, from Biggs’s book.]

A. Again, from a personal point of view, to think of somebody who was the third President of the United States, and link him with the Declaration of Independence, it almost seems odd that someone so powerful and such a capable man and had so many talents was also a gardener, and a passionate gardener at that and a successful gardener.

And he was somebody who just loved gardening. Somehow I found it a little incongruous. You don’t tend to find world leaders these days—our current leader, your current leader—you wouldn’t expect either of them within recent history to think, “I tell you what: I’m going to have a hobby, and I’m going to call it gardening.”

Q. [Laughter.]

A. I would love to go to Monticello one day and see the garden. It sounds as if there has been a wonderful restoration program there. I think one of the great things about going to a garden like Jefferson’s garden is that you can walk where Jefferson walked. I love history, and I love to think—although I know it is slightly ridiculous—that we could walk on the same soil, or within the same grove of trees that the great Thomas Jefferson once walked in.

And then there were little things that I discovered, like his love of peas, and his competition with his friends about growing the first peas of the year, and whoever grew the first peas would invite friends round.  It suddenly makes the great Thomas Jefferson a person, rather than just a politician who lived in a rarefied atmosphere, and perhaps his gardening was a way of keeping in touch with reality, because that’s what it does for most people.

When you think of it: He grew 31 types of temperate fruits, quinces and almonds and nectarines and pears, and he has this wonderful terrace. He was totally passionate about gardening, and I just think it’s a wonderful thing. That’s why I selected him—just for the fact that he was a great politician and Renaissance man and gardening was one of his priorities.

Q. With each of the 40 that you include, you have a page in their entry called “Lessons from the Greats.” In Jefferson’s, you mention that he had this aha about succession sowing—don’t sow it all at once, but stagger your sowing to get a long harvest, which of course is a primary thing any vegetable gardener would want to hand down to a new vegetable gardener.

And you mentioned pathways—walking the same pathways—and in the takeaways from Jefferson’s section in the book, you say he believed in having curved pathways to slow people down as they moved through a garden, inviting inspection. The Japanese do that as well, with stepping stones.

Those types of things—those are the kind of takeaways from the book. Even though he was this big guy, and the President, he was thinking about these little things that make all the difference in the garden.

A. The other thing is I feel is that there are so many wonderful things about gardening—so many wonderful things—but it’s a great leveler. When it comes to a garden, whatever you are doing, the basic principles are the same. So whether you are Thomas Jefferson, or Matthew Biggs, or whomever you are, the principles and practices of gardening and the requirements of gardening are the same. It doesn’t matter whether you are the great and the good with expensive glass houses. There are still pests and diseases; there are still problems with botrytis. There are still problems with deer. You have good seasons and bad seasons, and we’re all gardening under the same sky.

Q. It’s the great leveler, isn’t it?

A. I think one of the wonderful things is amongst all the peoples and nations of the earth—I can’t remember how many countries there are in the world these days—but add one to that, because there is also the nation of gardeners. I love the idea that when you’re putting your spade in the ground, and I’m putting my spade in the ground, there will be someone in India and parts of Africa or New Zealand—perhaps not right at the same time, because of time differences, but

there is a whole nation of people who have a very interesting outlook on life. I like to think that there is a nation of gardeners as well.

william-robinson-circa-1925Q. A number of the gardeners who made the cut of 40 for the book, including Beatrix Farrand whom you mentioned, left behind great writing, and I’d like to touch on some of them since I think it’s still good stuff to read today. Example: a real revolutionary of his day, William Robinson, a very un-Victorian Victorian who de-Victorianized some great gardens. What were his contributions? [Circa 1925 photo of Robinson from collection at Gravetye Manor, his former home.]

A. If I just may touch on this idea of writing: Whenever you write a book, or do any research on something, you discover things about life. One thing I realized was that a lot of these great gardeners wrote things down, or wrote books. In the days when wrote of course, there was no television, or no radio, so the way that you would broadcast your opinions was either to write it in books or pamphlets, or articles.

William Robinson had his own magazines.

Of course when you write things down they are there not just for the generation around you, but for succeeding generations, so we can read what he said.

I think with William Robinson, he was a visionary. One of the things that I love that was said about him: Richard Bisgrove, on a Radio 4 program about William Robinson on the BBC, said he was a “pugnacious paradox.”

Q. [Laughter.]

A. I thought that was fabulous, because you could imagine this irascible guy but very passionate about things, and he became passionate about social issues. A lot of those social issues were about feeding the poor, and caring for the poor. He was a very socially aware man and he hated the way that the children were treated in factories and then discarded once they had done their job, or got injured.  He likened bedding plants and the way that they were regimented to the imperialistic approach at the time. But he also talked about ecology, and thought about the state of the world. He planted lots of trees on the estate that he made, and when he came to North America he recorded about roof gardens, and then thought that the roof gardens in London would be a great way for providing food for the people.

So he was a really enlightened man. It’s remarkable that his books are still read today. His “The Wild Garden.

Q. It’s wonderful—and of course that style resonates and is being carried on and has shaken up for many places.

A. One of the fascinating things about William Robinson and the way he gardened is just as you say: It resonates today. I find that extraordinary with the naturalistic style the new perennial movement that has come so much to the fore—it’s really just an adaptation of using the principles that he was using, which I find extraordinary.

I think that’s why we also have an affinity with it, and we love it, because it is like nature. I think the prairie gardens strike a deep chord within our soul and psyche because that style of gardening remind us of the days when we roamed the woodlands and the open areas. It goes way, way back. I think for those who have still got their pre-Industrial Revolution genetics, there is that yearning for everybody to go back to how everybody used to be, and to be surrounded by some countryside and for life to be that little bit calmer.

To live in the kind of cities that we live in today, was something that began really in the Industrial Revolution, when industry rather than agriculture became the focus. I think that’s why people have a feel for open spaces, for new perennial gardens—because it just harks back in our minds to the days of yore, deep within us.

christopher-lloydQ. Another more contemporary person is in the book, Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter—one of the most spectacular places I have ever been, and was lucky to know him a little bit. There was so much to learn from him in all his books, speaking of someone who left a legacy of great writing. What would be one of the leave-behinds from Christo? [Portrait of Lloyd from Great Dixter website.]

A. The one thing that I think was that he liked to break the rules.

Q. [Laughter.]

A. He was an independent thinker. One of the things I’ve learned from him, and it really came to the fore, was just do your own thing. You don’t actually have to pander to what might be taste—some people might say, “Well, it’s in good taste.” In Britain, taste tends to be something which is nice and pastel and soft and unchallenging.

Q. Not Christo [laughter].

A. Not Christo. I am really sorry that I didn’t know him, because I think he was a bit of a scamp—a bit of a naughty boy. He delighted; he was mischievous, and he delighted in breaking the rules, but he did it so well, and it was his use of color particularly that I thought was really great.

I did have a lovely chat on the phone with Fergus [Garrett, now head gardener at the late Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter] about Christopher. I discovered that he was also a really generous man, and a really kind man, and there were many things that he did for people  that he never wanted to be known publicly—to help them out. I thought that was lovely, too.

I remember once seeing him at Chelsea Flower Show, when I was a student, and I knew who he was and I didn’t go and speak to him, and I think he built up that image of being irascible, probably because he had so many people wanting to stop him anyway, and he had lots to do.  I regret that I never even dared to say hello.

His writings were interesting, and his use of color, shape and form.

Something I have realized, and it is really illustrated so well with Christopher Lloyd, is that great gardeners think outside the box as well. They’re always thinking and questioning; they’re curious, and willing to experiment. I think for lots of us, probably myself included, we like to do things safely because we don’t want to challenge. The challenge is when we go to work or our daily life. But I think if you garden for a living in the way that Christopher Lloyd did, you could afford to experiment, and we need people to experiment—particularly in the world of professional landscape design.

72-cmargery_fishQ. We’re running out of time but there are so many people I want to ask you about in the book—like Margery Fish, a favorite of mine, with her little book “We Made a Garden.” Were there some wisdoms that you found in a majority or at least many repeat places? [Portrait of Margery Fish from East Lambrook Manor website, her former garden.]

A. There were, and I had to do a lot of sifting through to get something different for each one, because the basic principles of gardening have remained the same for centuries. The weeding, the importance of pruning, good garden hygiene and tidiness—they came up again and again. It was just the little things.

If you said to me, “What was the greatest thing I learned?” It’s that gardening, or gardeners, and gardens are all ephemeral.

Q. Yes.

A. We should rejoice in the fact that we live in eras of great gardens. Go and celebrate them; see their work. But don’t be too disappointed when gardens change, and when they move on.

how to win ‘lessons from the great gardeners’

514tmi4pxel-_sx376_bo1204203200_TO ENTER TO WIN a signed copy of “Lessons Fromt eh Great Gardeners: Forty Gardening Icons and What They Teach Us,” Matthew Biggs’s most recent book, simply comment below, answering the question:

Is there a great gardener whose books inspired you, or whose gardens inspired you when you visited them?

No answer to the question, or simply feeling shy? No worry; just say “count me in” or something to that effect, and I will, but a reply is even better. Winners will be drawn at random after entries close at midnight on Tuesday, December 13, 2016. Good luck to all.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Dec. 5, 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).



(Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)

  1. bett mac says:

    christopher lloyd great dixter gardens opened my eyes to the wonderful use of colour. love his books. he was also generous with me, a novice garden on a tour, taking time to explain some design elements
    beth chatto & her gravel garden & her books.
    vita sackville west lovely space
    rhs gardens
    helen dillon
    penelope hobhouse
    so many more

  2. Patty Meeder says:

    Definately Jefferson. Visited Monticello , and bought seeds of course! Interesting that he had Lewis and Clark bring him plant samples from their expedition.

  3. carroll reisner says:

    Love all the gardening books from Richardson Wright (American). I have read some of them more than once. Also, another great American garden writer I’ve read more than once: Henry Mitchell. A great, dry, wit.

  4. Karen P. says:

    So many Seattle gardeners and garden writers who taught me so much when I lived there and managed the Elisabeth Miller Horticultur Library – Dan Hinkley, Val Easton, Greg Graves and Richie Steffen from the Elisabeth Miller Botanic Garden, Charles and Glenn when they ran the Dunn Garden, Lorene Folkner…I could go on and on!

  5. Barbara Hendricks says:

    Thank you. Your interview included gardeners and gardens I know, as well as gardeners I want to “meet”.
    Look forward to reading this book.

  6. Susan Rieske says:

    I recently visited Dumbarton Oaks, originally designed by Beatrix Farrand. Her “Pebble Gardens” are fascinating!
    I would love to receive the book!
    ~ Susan

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