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Required Reading: Lessons from the Great Gardeners


Required Reading: Lessons from the Great Gardeners

March 31, 2016

In the UK, where there is a voracious appetite for great gardening books, Lessons from the Great Gardeners by Matthew Biggs was hugely popular when it was published last year. Gardeners, especially those who like to read about their passion, have been anxiously awaiting its translation from English to American. I am happy to say The University of Chicago Press has published the book stateside this month.

The book’s quirky capsule histories of 40 great gardeners from the past centuries—from Vita Sackville-West to Claude Monet to Somai—convey amusing facts and practical tips. Here’s a sneak peek at some of my favorite great gardeners:

Photography courtesy of Lessons from the Great Gardeners.

Will Giles, UK (1951-2015)


Above: Giles obtained this Doryanthes palmeri (also known as a giant spear lily) to hold court in his Norwich garden when it was 6 inches tall. Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ is planted in a ring of terra cotta pots at its base.

British horticulturalist and botanical artist Will Giles was since boyhood intoxicated by exotic plants. Giles, who died last year of cancer, spent more than three decades creating a spectacular tropical garden in England, on a south-facing slope, and brought indoors all but the hardiest of his plants every winter.

Gardening tips from Giles:

  • To overwinter exotics in an outdoor setting, cut back herbaceous plants and cover with an insulating blanket of straw and moisture-saving plastic sheeting (weighted at its edges).
  • Choose tropical plants for their leaves as much as for their flowers. Variegation, unusual leaf colors, and exotic shapes “are the foundation of a constant display.”
  • Grow tropical plants in pots buried beneath the surface of the soil so they are easier to move in winter.

Henry E. Huntington, US (1850-1927)

CBXW2T Desert Garden Sunset at The Huntington Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California

Above: This is how golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) looks when it is 100 years old. Flourishing at Huntington Botanical Gardens in southern California, each sharp-needled specimen weighs hundreds of pounds.

Railroad baron Henry Huntington was a collector—of paintings, manuscripts, and rare botanical specimens. He experimented with growing anything that struck his fancy, collecting melon seeds from restaurants in France and avocado seed from his men’s club in Los Angeles. His 120-acre botanical gardens are open to the public.

Gardening tips from Henry Huntington:

  • Hire a good gardener. Landscape designer William Hertrich, 26 years old when he started working for Huntington in 1904, nurtured the gardens for more than 60 years.
  • When repotting cacti, wear thick gloves or pick it up with a thick folded strip of newspaper to avoid puncture wounds.
  • When you come across an unusual plant at a market, in a garden, or on your plate, save its seeds and germinate them.

Thomas Jefferson, US (1743-1826)

Above: Thomas Jefferson grew vegetables in a 2-acre edible garden with 24 square plots at his hilltop estate in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson experimented with plants in his Virginia gardens, growing rare bulbs from Europe and introducing exotic edibles. In a garden journal he kept for nearly six decades, he made cultivation notes that enabled him to improve on his planting scheme every year.

Gardening tips from Thomas Jefferson:

  • Successive sowing of vegetables such as spring peas will extend the harvest season by several weeks.
  • Study your garden to determine where the warmest, most protected spots are; those microclimates are the place to plant early spring edibles or tender fruits (such as figs or grapes).
  • Keep a garden diary. It’s a reference you can use next year when you are trying to remember which plants did well and why.

Claude Monet, France (1840-1926)

Above: Impressionist painter Claude Monet also had an impressionist garden. After he signed a lease for his house in Giverny in 1903, he set out to transform a neglected orchard and kitchen garden sited on heavy clay soil.

Proclaiming himself “good for nothing except painting and gardening,” Monet was a hands-on gardener who dug, planted, weeded, and hoed his own garden: “in the evenings the children watered.”

Gardening tips from Claude Monet:

  • Don’t overlook the value of spring bulbs—they will extend the bloom season.
  • Plant densely. A crowded garden gives weeds less breathing space.
  • Keep your wisteria in check: “Although wisterias are sometimes planted to cover the front of a house, they have a strong impact when only a few stems are trained and look attractive, more formal, as espaliers.”


Above: Lessons from the Great Gardeners is $22.39 from Amazon.

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