The All-Seasons Garden

Author John Kelly is the Curator of Abbotsbury Sub-Tropical Gardens in Dorset as well as a well-known television personality in England on the BBC’s GARDENER’S WORLD. His delightfully opinionated personality sparkles throughout this fine book. He views annuals as mere “fillers of gaps,” yet he waxes poetic about rhododendrons, with their “short season of fat, blowsy trusses like frilly bathing caps.” While a brief plant guide toward the end of the volume lists some species, this is clearly not a beginner’s manual. Solid familiarity with many varieties will be required to understand much of the text. For clarification, one should consult a standard plant encyclopedia such as Donald Wyman’s.

Working from the premise that “gardening is the one creative art that is accessible to all of us,” the book is divided into four main parts, one for each season of the year. The chapter on spring is typical, discussing the thematic importance of springtime being a period of rebirth and which fragrances and colors best express this season of awakening. Aesthetic effects are considered while assessing individual species, as in citing how magnolia flowers can be best set off against the dark green background of an evergreen oak.

The color photographs, some of which fill an entire page, are exquisite, demonstrating the interplay of shapes, textures, and colors in some truly breathtaking English gardens. In the text accompanying one such photo, an ancient stone fortress of a home “dramatically bare of plants” is contrasted with the lily-padded pond and lush evergreens below, showing how the various components achieve a sense of seclusion in the garden. Additional topics covered include Japanese gardens and general considerations of form, structure, and the design relationships between conifers and deciduous plants.

Unlike the dry, scientific writing one finds in many gardening handbooks, Kelly’s prose is lively and engaging, in the manner of a cantankerous eccentric whose views are both outrageous and full of insight. He emphatically dislikes unnecessary pruning, superfluous feeding, and overly contrived planting designs, among other things. There is much to learn here for the experienced gardener.