Reading British Gardening Books

– Posted in: Book reviews

If, as a cold climate gardener, you have a tendency towards envy, you would be better off not reading British gardening books. Take A Country Life: At Home in the English Countryside by Roy Strong, for example. A book of columns that he originally wrote for the British magazine Country Life, it is a pleasant enough read, good for a doctor’s waiting room, since all the pieces are interesting but short. But the author continually alludes to facts that, when mulled over, make one realize that Roy Strong lives in another gardening universe altogether, and doesn’t even realize how good he’s got it.

Less than two dozen pages into the book, describing the general conditions of his garden, he mentions ” . . . the bitter winters of the early 1980s; in one of those we suffered from 24 degrees of frost, which wiped out much.” (Italics added.) Now, just in case I was misunderstanding something, I consulted with Jane Perrone, a British native and author of Horticultural, who assures me that “24 degrees of frost means 24 degrees below the fahrenheit freezing point of 32.” So, that would be 8 degrees Fahrenheit, what we would call Zone 7b, but which Mr. Strong calls a bitter winter. I’ll be the first to concede that 8 degrees is no picnic, but if that’s as bad as it gets, around here we call that a mild winter, not a bitter one.

We’ll refrain from sarcastic comments about wimpy Brits, since we all know the hot weather I’ve been complaining about is business as usual for Texans, who say “Well, at least it isn’t over 100 today” the way I say, “Well, at least it’s not below zero today” in the winter. (And yes, there’s lots of other Southern gardeners out there, but I happen to know more Texas garden bloggers, so I single them out.) But it does clue you in to the idea that when Roy Strong says a plant is “perfectly hardy,” cold climate gardeners had better take it with a pound of salt.

In the “Spring” section, he describes growing tarragon and making Tarragon Chicken:

The new leaves seem to have a freshness and a pungency of flavour which is never the same later in the year, when the plant rampages across the herb bed, and throws up spikes five foot high with coarse, dull green leaves. . . . The chicken carcass is filled with garlands of the herb wrapped round lemon quarters, and roasted. . . . It is not long before the intoxicating aroma spreads through the kitchen and on up through the house, telling everyone that it is spring and that the long months of savaging only the bay and the rosemary have reached their end.

Reason to envy #1: Tarragon rampaging through the herb bed, and growing multiple 5 foot spikes. Tarragon is hardy to USDA Zone 4, but only if you have perfect drainage, which I do not. I did manage to bring it through one winter, but the solitary spindly stem never topped two feet, and didn’t show up the following spring.

Reason to envy #2: The poor things have had to settle for fresh bay and rosemary all winter, picked from the garden:

All that is needed from the outside world on most days, and certainly in bad weather, is concentrated into one major expedition undertaken before darkness falls. It is always a struggle. Emerging like a Brueghel peasant, one has to . . . harvest what vegetables and salad stuff are needed for the kitchen, without forgetting the herbs.

That’s a quote from the “Winter” section, specifically that time of year after Christmas but before the earliest spring bulbs “show their petals.” The big cooking event around here is Garlic-Rosemary Roasted Chicken, which I do in the fall, when the kitchen is cool enough to roast chicken again but the rosemary has not yet become a houseplant for the winter. Uh, do I look a little green around the edges? Cold it may not be, but dismal it certainly is, Great Britain in general being further north than the continental United States and receiving even less winter light. And he seems inordinately proud of harvesting 50 peaches. It’s too cold for peaches here, but is 50 such a triumph? He never says whether they are all from one tree or not.

There are certainly things to be learned from British gardening books, but you do have to be on the alert for their differing idea of what cold and hot are when it comes to climate. British authors who are intentionally writing to a more international audience will often have our hardiness zones in parentheses, which is a help. And Southern gardeners have to watch out for the problem of plants that do well in the United Kingdom not being able to take the heat. Of course, there are plants that do better here precisely because they need the heat to do well, but I’ll let the Texans figure that one out.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

When dealing with frost it is always best to be paranoid. In the spring never think it is too late for one more frost to come. And in the fall never think it too early.

~Rundy in Frost

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OldRoses August 8, 2005, 1:07 am

The islands of Great Britain are warmed by the Gulf Stream. It makes their winters warmer and their summers cooler than here in the continental US. Our “zones” don’t really apply to their conditions. After years of drought, what I really envy about British gardens and gardeners is all the rain they get.

Alice Nelson August 5, 2005, 10:14 pm

Wonder what the English would do with 20-30 below? Of course, we usually have enough snow here in Upper Michigan to insulate things pretty well, though some shrubs, like weigela die back every year here in Ishpwming, but do fine in Marquette. Exposed burning bush (say on a windy NW corner don’t do well but those on the east side of the same building flourish. And the weigela does fine in Marquette near Lake Superior. Makes gardening interesting if you have clients in both places. Of course, most perennials are covered with snow! (Often have 250 inches here.) Here in the U.S. we sure aren’t England.