Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Review: The Ivington Diaries

by Monty Don

Christmas approaches apace, and I thought I’d share with you one of the most inspirational gardening books in my collection. So for those of you be in the enviable position of having already finished your gift shopping, you’ll still have time drop weighty hints suggesting that the course of the festivities will run far more smooth for you having discovered a copy of this excellent book wedged into your stocking on Christmas morning.

Monty Don is probably best known as the main presenter of the BBC’s Gardener’s World, a role to which he made a welcome return this spring after an absence of over two years. The Ivington Diaries is an account of how he has developed his own garden in Herefordshire, from two-acres of open field in 1991 to the beautiful and productive space with which readers of his (several) other books as well as viewers of Gardener’s World will be so familiar.

The book is a handsome object in itself, with its sturdy illustrated boards and purple cloth-bound spine, thick cream paper carrying elegantly typeset copy and photographs of the garden taken by the author. As for the content, quite apart from the depth of knowledge you would expect, Monty Don’s prose is a joy to read for its own sake – he has a facility with language to which many other writers, let alone garden writers, can only aspire. Even were you to have no interest in gardening, you’d be a cold fish indeed to remain unmoved after reading an entry or two.

In one of my favourite passages, he muses on his connection to the soil that he works each day and, through it, to those who worked it before him:

I think about ghosts a lot. They all live underground. When I was a child I knew that both my great-grandfather and grandfather walked beneath the walnut tree. They were a friendly, gentle presence. This garden too is filled with people who have cultivated this tiny, particular piece of land, out of sight but as real to me as the pieces of pottery and footings of buildings I scratch against three feet down in the vegetable garden.

This is a diary of a garden and, as a garden only exists in relationship to those who create, maintain, and use it, there is inevitably an autobiographical element, although those seeking a truly autobiographical account of the author should read the 2004 book The Jewel Garden, which Monty wrote with his wife Sarah. Featured throughout are details of the folk whose lives intersect with the garden, but it is the narrative of the garden which remains the star to the end. It is both a book to read in one go, or a book to dip into just to see what it has to say on any given day – remarkable for the ability to deliver a timely insight pertinent to the world beyond your back door. The purple-spined volume occupies a favoured spot on my bedside table, as its gentle enthusiasm never fails to restore perspective after a frenetic day, or instill hope in what might be achieved tomorrow.

For gardening old hands or for beginners looking for seasonal instruction, for those seeking in-depth detail on the development of an wonderful garden, or merely a very good read, I couldn’t recommend The Ivington Diaries highly enough.