EIGHTY GREEN THUMBS: Review of LESSONS FROM THE GREAT GARDENERS: FORTY GARDENING ICONS & WHAT THEY TEACH US by Matthew Biggs

Lessons from the Great Gardeners: Forty Gardening Icons & What They Teach Us popped up, unbidden, in the Brooklyn Public Library’s online catalogue during a search for one of the gardeners profiled in its pages. It’s not the cheesy “lifestyle” book I was expecting, but a terrific primer on who matters in the gardening world, and why. The expertise of author Matthew Biggs comes through in his interesting, carefully chosen selections, and in his sensitive and intelligent writing.


Biggs, whose brief biography asserts that he is “[a] well-known broadcaster, garden writer, and personality” is perhaps more well-known in the United Kingdom than here in the States. (I thought, What kind of personality?) Of the gardeners profiled, Bigg notes that they were “chosen for their impact on the gardening world, and that “[m]any of the decisions were difficult and the selection is inevitably subjective.”


Interestingly, Biggs has grouped the gardeners not by assessments of their styles, but presents them “in chronological order, by the gardeners’ dates of birth.” Each entry is just a few pages, giving a brief biological sketch, an idea of each gardener’s philosophy, and hallmarks of their styles. Photos (from various sources) are accompanied by very informative and descriptive captions, along with botanical illustrations of “plants that will forever be synonymous with the gardener or their garden;” sidebars called “Lessons from the Greats” gives practical application to their ethos.


Geographically, Biggs has cast a wide net, featuring gardeners from Japan, China, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Africa, Portugal, South America, Italy, South Korea, New Zealand, The Netherlands, and Australia. There are nearly twice as many men as women; people of color make a poor showing. (This might say less about the author than the gardening world, and the world at large.) Among the women featured are two princesses, which picks up on another criteria for selection: you had to be rich! I suppose this stands to reason: to be any kind of gardener, you need land and the time in which work it.


Most of the featured gardeners had help of some kind or another. Pierre S. Dupont (United States, b. 1870) had an entire staff, the takeaway lesson of which Biggs interprets as “Your garden should be a pleasure, not a pressure; get help if you need it, even to trim hedges or mow, allowing you to make time for more interesting jobs”— industrial capitalism, say.


Biggs writes, “Gardening ideas and styles have changed over time, and history informs the present and the future.” He reaches far back to make his first selection, to a Zen garden “attributed to the artist Somai” (Japan, b.1480) the style of which was popularly reproduced in miniature for a tabletop model: a few rocks in wooden tray, with a little rake to comb the sand around them. Biggs writes that “the meaning [or this arrangement] is unknown, it is incumbent on the individual to discover the meaning for themselves.”


Bossier gardeners are in no short supply. Margery Fish (United Kingdom, b.1892) dictated, “‘The four essentials of a good garden are perfect lawns, paths, hedges, and walls; if the surroundings are unkempt, the flowers will give no pleasure.” Gertrude Jekyll (United Kingdom, b.1843), a painter by training, maintained that “planting ground is painting a landscape with living things.” To this day, Jekyll is widely regarded as a master of color in the garden, and maybe the kind of teacher Madame Ganna Walska (United States, b. 1887) had in mind when she advised, “‘learn the techniques of the great artists and…imitate them. First to do as well as they do, then to try to surpass them; then to surpass yourself.’”


Some of the advice of “the greats” is generalized; some is quite particular. Christopher Lloyd (United Kingdom, b. 1921), is “not keen on lawns; they take a lot of upkeep. A decent lawn is a much work as a complicated border and it seems to me unforgivable that part of gardening should be boring and labor intensive.” Biggs has found a way to convey not just the gardeners’ ideas, but aspects of their personalities, in these little evocative snippets. Of Edward Augusts Bowles (United Kingdom, b. 1865), Biggs writes, “In summertime, Bowles was often to be seen dressed in his blue and white striped Edwardian bathing costume and straw boater, wading into the pond to clear it of blanket weed.”


The gardener I’d originally been researching was Piet Oudolf (The Netherlands, b. 1944), who uses “mostly herbaceous plants and grasses in a naturalistic way.” To Oudolf (and presumably others connected to “The New Perennial Movement” to which Oudolf is strongly affiliated), plants have to look interesting even when they are dead and brown. Oudolf notes, “‘I like to connect people with the processes of their own lives. What it takes humans a lifetime to experience, a plant will experience in its own yearly life cycle. In that sense, gardening is a microcosm of life.’”


Judging by the bibliography, Biggs’ book seems to be the result of quite a bit of reading, and to me the gift of it is that it generates a reading list of its own. (Titles I plan on investigating are Jekyll’s Color in the Flower Garden and Fish’s We Made a Garden (with its especially promising-sounding “candid” chapter, “We Made Mistakes”).) The library’s copy of Lessons From The Great Gardeners looks vintage, like it has already existed a long time; it has a faded ecru cover with some colored botanical flowers and a blueprint of a garden plan; there’s even an attached purple ribbon for marking your place. I think if you owned this book, you’d come back to it often, if only to see where to go next.


Matthew Biggs, Lessons from the Great Gardeners: Forty Gardening Icons and What They Teach Us, The University of Chicago Press, 2016, 224 pp.