Although I’m an intermittent (and not always successful!) gardener, I do love a good gardening book. I’ve spent many happy hours in the company of Beverley Nichols and Vita Sackville-West, admiring their efforts and mammoth gardening achievements; though I’m afraid that my fingers are anything but green, and most of my minor attempts at improving my small patch have met with varying degrees of success… However, “A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed” by James Fenton promises a different and refreshing approach from those intricately planned and spectacular displays you see in the more ‘professional’ gardens; so I was, of course, keen to see what the book had to recommend… ;D

The point is not to make things harder. The point, to recap, is to look at the flower garden at the beginning of the season as if it were a vegetable garden and ask simply: What do I want to grow this year? Forget design for a moment. Design has become a terrible, stupid, and expensive tyrant. The emphasis here is all on content.

“A Garden…” started life as a series of columns back in the Guardian two decades ago; and Fenton took as his credo his wish to move away from gardening as almost a military exercise, involving rigid planning and laying out, as well as strict guidelines and trends. Rather than have a regimented plot, Fenton advocates planning your garden annually in much the same way as a vegetable gardener plans out his allotment – what do I actually want to eat/grow this year? Before the fashion for manicured and extremely controlled landscaping took hold, that’s probably the way most home gardens grew – and it’s certainly the way I’d like to plant in mine!

(On Venus Navelwort): Gray-leaved and with spikes of white flowers, this twelve-inch annual brings with it thoughts of broderie anglaise, white needlework on white, the underwear of the high minded.

As Fenton points out, so many people are spending a fortune on trees, shrubs, plants and expensive features; when in fact some simple packets of seed can provide beauty and also usefulness in a garden. So the book has 12 chapters, covering such groupings as colour, size, flowers for cutting, poppies and herbs. Fenton thinks that with 100 packets of seed, often no more than £1 each, a gardener can produce stunning results, and in each chapter he lists his suggestions according to the categories chosen. These are usefully listed at the end, as well as books and tools which may be of help and some basic tips.

(Of the growing of chives): Obvious, yes, but it is better to be obvious (and have a supply of chives) than to be subtle (and purchase plastic packs at irritating prices). And besides, it is traditional to have chives growing by the kitchen door.

However, apart from being a sensible and wise book, blowing away all the hyperbole around gardening, “A Garden…” is also a wonderfully entertaining read owing to Fenton’s lovely turn of phrase, and slightly sharp asides; the book really is a joy. He’s happy to puncture pretentions, has a down-to-earth attitude towards growing things and recognises the sheer fun in planting something and seeing it grow. The section covering the trend towards wanting to create a meadow in your garden was particularly interesting, and Fenton came up with an intriguing idea of planting a micro meadow which I’m sorely tempted to try…

Snapdragons! (Off2riorob (talk) / CC BY ( – via Wikimedia Commons

During lockdown, many of us have turned to our gardens as a source of solace and pleasure; suddenly, what we have locally seems very important. Because of this, “A Garden…” has apparently seen quite a surge in its popularity and I can well understand that, because not only is it a useful guide to the kind of seeds to plant to get lovely results, it’s also a wonderful and entertaining read. And although the results might not be as spectacular as something that Vita or Beverley would produce, I’m sure they would approve! If you have any interest in gardens, growing things or just entertaining writing about the subject, this is highly recommented – a lovely book!


Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! As an aside, my copy came with a bonus packet of snapdragon seeds – now, I don’t always get results from seeds (though I *did* recently plant some amaryllis seeds and they seem to be doing something, so fingers crossed…) So the snapdragons have been duly planted and we shall see if the Fenton influence will work – watch this space for updates! ;D