For gardeners in England, Dan Pearson is not just a hugely talented landscape and garden designer and plantsman, he’s also a much-loved gardening writer, and for ten years he was a columnist at The Observer. During that decade he tended his own urban garden in Peckham, south London and then moved on to 20 acres of undulating Somerset countryside where he has set about creating a very different sort of garden, that sits cheek by jowl with the wilder landscape beyond.
Natural Selection: A Year in the Garden is a collection of those Observer columns, ordered by month, and drawing together Pearson’s evocative musings on his favorite plants, his design processes, and his evolution from childhood enthusiast to seasoned professional. And through them we get to dip into Pearson’s own two gardens as well as his design practice garden just south of the Thames in London, and a sneak peek into his many private commissions too.
Photography by Huw Morgan except where noted.
Pearson was gripped by horticulture at a preternaturally young age and was surrounded by gardeners as he grew up; at five he spent a summer closely monitoring aquatic life when he built a pond with his father. He befriended gardening neighbors (who turned out to be key mentors and sometimes employers—he had a Saturday gardening job with one), and by his early teens he was consuming Beth Chatto’s catalogs and Christopher Lloyd’s garden writing.
But perhaps most formative for Pearson was his parents’ decision to buy a nearby derelict house, Hill Cottage, which, although inhabited by an old lady, had been all but consumed by the overgrown garden. It became the family home through Pearson’s teenage years and there he would start his own design journey with a border of his own.
For Pearson, getting thoughts down on paper has been almost as important as gardening itself, and a fundamental part of his design work. “Writing is something that I enjoy for the act of pinning down a thought that may be fugitive or transitory,” he says. “Gardening is when the best of these thoughts happen, and so one, it seems to me, would now be almost impossible to do without the other.” He was originally encouraged to write at school by his English teacher Joan Wiggins and soon he was compiling garden notebooks and stories before going on to write several books and his feted columns.
Despite working on the most incredible private and public projects, Pearson is always able to relate to regular size gardens and their keepers and Natural Selection is packed with brilliant plant advice and recommendations, which are all the more precious since they are based on Pearson’s lifelong experience in seeking out the very best cultivars; from ornamental grasses to climbing roses, from a delicious-scented hamamelis to light up the winter to the most beautiful magnolia to add to your own garden.
And just like the gardeners who mentored him, Pearson is generous with his knowledge. If you want the character of an old oak in a small garden, then he suggests planting a black mulberry. If you are in need of a tree to create some dappled shade then he recommends Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Sunburst’ as a beautiful garden tree for shade in place of the more ubiquitous Robinia pseudoacacia.
One of the great joys of this book is the progression of the seasons. Pearson’s delight in each phase of the gardening year is infectious and a compelling reminder to drink in those moments, rather than rushing through them, wearied by a never-ending to-do list.
Although arranged month by month, each column in the book is as diverse as Pearson’s own design life, which makes this a great bedside book to dip into. But Pearson’s deep passion for his subject also makes this book inspiring and compelling and chances are once you’ve started it you probably won’t be putting it down too often. It’s the sort of book where a handy notepad is required for jotting down all the sage advice, inspiration and time-honored tips. And while Pearson gave up his Observer column, fans of his writing can keep up with his projects on his weekly blog Dig Delve.
N.B.: See more of our favorite Dan Pearson gardens: