An Axe, a Spade, and Ten Acres

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Most American readers of AN AXE, A SPADE AND TEN ACRES will find some aspects of Courtauld’s garden make-over hard to duplicate. Few of us are lucky enough to come into possession of ten acres on the family estate. Still fewer Americans have the advantage of hired help in the form of gardeners, hedge trimmers, orchard men, and gamekeepers. Courtauld’s book is not simply a “how-to” work, however, and readers on both sides of the Atlantic can enjoy it as an engaging and entertaining account of one man’s effort to turn his land into a landscape.

Courtauld must be a believer in the spiritual value of hard work, for he eschewed labor-saving devices such as the backhoe, preferring instead to create a pond from the pit of an old clayworks with a spade and wheelbarrow. Unwanted trees were hacked down with an axe, and the stumps smoked out with wet leaves. The result of all this labor was not a formal garden, although roses and flower beds were included in the overall plan. Rather, Courtauld and his family set out to create a controlled, natural environment.

The story of this twenty-year process is arranged chronologically. Courtauld planted trees to allow for particular types of undergrowth. New species were introduced, not always with success. He removed plants that did not flourish in the wet clay soil of East Anglia, and he encouraged shrubs attractive to different types of wildlife.

The description of the Courtauld garden project is accompanied by attractive line drawings and maps. The author tells his story with good humor, and the gardening technicalities are interspersed with often irrelevant but charming anecdotes about his children and the rural characters who people the vanishing world of upper-class country society.