Yesterday, on the way back from the day lily farm, Phil and I stopped briefly at a roadside nursery. At checkout, the couple in front of us were buying plastic branches of flowering dogwood and a few annuals, little shapeless blobs of color. The impulse to take something of beauty from nature, even in the form of a plastic imitation, must be a sign of hope.
Noel Kingsbury's most recent book, Natural Garden Style: Gardening Inspired by Nature, is about making natural-style gardens. It too is a sign of hope - though of an entirely different order. Kingsbury has something of great value to say to that couple at the nursery. They certainly will never read about it in this book, but the ideas he is seeding about may eventually reach them via more indirect cultural influences.
This most recent work is a 'how to' book, but a 'how to' book of ideas, concepts and examples, not techniques. A list of the chapter titles tells much: Meadows, Prairies and Borders, Trees and Woodland, Sculpture and Ornament, Gardens and the Wider Landscape, Sun and Stone, Creating and Maintaining. Call it a 'how to' book of big ideas. You won't find a recipe for making a prairie. What you will find is a description of what a prairie is, how a natural prairie differs from the simulacrum of a prairie we may choose to make in a garden. You will learn about the incredible density of plants in a natural prairie - numbers and varieties of plants in a square meter, for example - and how that affects maintenance - by, for example, creating a stable matrix of plants that 'naturally' keeps weeds out because they can't find a place to put down roots.
Unlike the couple at the checkout counter, Kingsbury works from a highly informed position. From the start, he readily acknowledges the contradiction in the term 'natural garden': "No garden is really 'natural'. Leave a garden to the forces of nature and the result will nearly always be a tangled mess of vegetation that will give little joy ... We have to be honest. What we want from a patch of land and what nature would do with it, given half a chance, are very different. The nature we want in our gardens is a refined and tidied-up version, preferably one that is pretty and keeps us interested for as much of the year as possible."
Kingsbury's garden writing is among the best you will find in the English language. This book, like his others, is well organized, based in scientific research, aware of its historical context in the long line of proponents of naturalistic gardening going back to William Robinson in England and Karl Foerster in Germany, and generous in its use of photographic examples of the work of many of today's notable garden designers - among them, Dan Pearson, Wolfgang Oehme and James Van Sweden, Piet Oudolf, Neil Diboll, Isabelle van Groeningen and Gabriella Pape, Jinny Blom, Henk Gerritsen, Cleve West, Tom Vanderpoel, John Brookes.
I expect any new work by Noel Kingsbury to be a thoroughly enjoyable, nonstop read, and this one maintains his high standard. Kingsbury has established a worldwide reputation through his many works, though I do wonder how well known he is in the U.S. His signature themes of naturalism and sustainability are right on spot for the times, and his clear, well paced, and superbly organized prose is a pleasure to read.
Kingsbury has always recognized the importance of North American contributions to 'naturalistic' garden design as well as the importance of our flora as a source of many of the plants used to make such gardens. I have never seen another European garden writer give such prominence to the contributions of Neil Diboll, founder of Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin, to garden design. I hope more North Americans can overcome an aversion to British garden writing (because thought irrelevant to our climate) and buy this book.