Book Review: The New English Garden by Tim Richardson

I met Tim Richardson, almost accidentally, last September in London. I’m republishing a review of his still very relevant The New English Garden. Take a look if you haven’t read it.


Tim Richardson’s new book, The New English Garden, is a beautifully photographed, sensuously appealing volume slathered with full-page photographs and huge double-page spreads so large you feel you could fall into them. The book is a hedonistic delight and a source of many hour’s diversion and, if you’re so inclined, a pleasant opportunity for learning. Having my own recent experience with photographers who don’t know how to photograph gardens, the impressive work of photographers Andrew Lawson, Jane Sabire, and Rachel Warne is executed with knowledge and skill. One could hardly do better than study the photographs in this book to learn something about how to do it right.

More important, if not as visually eye-catching, is Richardson’s text. This isn’t filler. Richardson looks at each garden in the context of several influences prevalent in British gardening over the past several decades, influences he believes have marked new directions:  the New Perennials style (Piet Oudolf at Scramston Hall and Bury Court, Henk Gerritsen at Waltham Place) since the mid-1990s, England’s own self-born roots in a the naturalistic style as exemplified most notably by Beth Chatto and carried forward by Dan Pearson and others, formalism and tradition as refined in new gardens by George Carter and Jacques and Peter Wirtz that go far beyond mere recreations of traditional design, old gardens such as Pettifers revitalized by the lively new ideas of Gina Price, even the occasional unique (truly) iconoclast such as Keith Wiley at his new garden Wildside, an exercise in landforming and new planting on a massive scale and, vastly different, Christine Facer’s Througham Court, which Richardson says “could best be categorized as of the Charles Jencks School of Cosmic Gardening.”

There are many more gardens in this extraordinarily beautiful book. Among my personal favorites are Dan Pearson’s work at Armscote Manor, a Jacobean manor house where he reworked a series of walled and hedge-enclosed garden rooms in a naturalistic style so light-handed and sensitive you might not notice it. One of the opening photos of this garden, eremurus lilies mixed with a stand of coyote willows (Salix exigua), is magic. Also a favorite is Tom Stuart-Smith’s extraordinary melding of elements of traditional English border design with the New Perennials influence at Mount St John, and his masterful work with Piet Oudolf at Trentham. Also of note is Christopher Bradley-Hole’s New Perennials-influenced garden at Crockmore House, made, as usual, on a grid system that disappears as the plants mature, and his gridded grass and perennial garden contrasting with Piet Oudolf’s garden (on the opposite side of the house) at Bury Court. I also have to mention the delicate new double border designed by James Alexander-Sinclair and the more structural design elements by Arne Maynard at Cottesbrooke Hall.

Only two gardens make me question why they are in this book. Highgrove, the Prince of Wale’s garden, and The Laskett, Sir Roy Strong’s garden, both of which have received substantial criticism. While recognizing their faults, Richardson attempts to explore their virtues. I wasn’t convinced. It’s certainly possible to think they were included to improve the sales of this book (not a bad marketing strategy), but one can make a good case for evaluating two such widely known and disputed gardens simply to clarify what they have to offer and to propose an objective critical conclusion. Richardson is wont to pursue intellectual challenges so this may just show his desire to win a point or two in a difficult case.

Will Americans buy this book?

Many American gardeners seem to exhibit a knee-jerk rejection of most things English, though that happily seems to be diminishing. They may have the same reaction to this review, which throws garden names they may not know at them willy-nilly. I think the usual reason for this negative reaction is that our climate is so different that anything the British do or say seems irrelevant. But there’s a little too much vehemence in this rejection of all things British. After 300 years of American gardening culture, do we still feel inferior? Richardson doesn’t think so. His most recent “big book” was Great Gardens of America.

It’s too bad really, because we miss so much. We have a tremendous amount to learn about planting design by studying how plants behave in various climatic conditions, and not just in England. I don’t mean to characterize Tim Richardson’s The New English Garden as a plant book, which it most definitely is not, but the fine photography shows beautiful planting designs that can spark new ideas.

So for us in North America, Tim Richardson’s The New English Garden should be much more than a puny voice crying in the wilderness.  Though not directed to the North American audience in particular, it’s a well written, intelligent, questioning, and stimulating overview of the effects of broad movements and individual genius on the course of English garden design in the past several decades. Anyone with an open mind and a desire to learn new things can easily sort out what works in England from what might be of value in the US.

This is far more than the usual coffee table book on gardens, with extraordinary photography and intelligent text conceived and written by one of the most learned and perceptive writers on gardening in the English Language. Needless to say it would make a great holiday gift.

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31 thoughts on “Book Review: The New English Garden by Tim Richardson

  1. I’ve been slowly absorbing this book. It’s too big & overwhelming for me to take in quickly. Anyway, I’m the type that devours photos repeatedly before reading the text. But I believe you’ve pretty much nailed it. Good review, James. One question….Who are these knee-jerkers who reject English garden design? (We must run in different circles.) American garden designers have so much to learn from our counterpoints in England. English designers create exquisite garden spaces as this book shows. We should be so fortunate to have their gardening culture, training, clients, & budgets. To turn my back on their work is unthinkable.

    1. Carolyn,

      I’ve encountered this anti-British garden bias among mostly American gardeners and particularly those devoted to use of native plants, not among professional garden designers. I’ve found it rather shocking. This is a book I’ll be thumbing through for years. One really beautiful garden (how does one choose favorites?) was Pettifers (photo on the cover), where Gina Price has sort of “reinvented” some traditional British approaches to borders and use of color, but with a new twist. I don’t know Pettifers and I was totally enchanted by the garden there.

  2. Ok, It’s in the stocking. Who cares if it doesn’t relate to someone’s climate – appreciate it for what it is, a book about English gardens. The clue is in the title.

    This knee jerk reation. What’s that all about? I have experienced the exact opposite. Americans always seem to me to have have high appreciation levels tinged with a little self deprecation about certain things – usually history. I just don’t get it. I spent a couple of weeks ten years ago visiting the extraordinarily beautiful Art Deco districts of Miami. Yep, I stayed in the Raleigh hotel on Collins and took a couple billion photos of the South Beach area. Fabulous. Nobody did the twentieth century like the yanks. So go on, treat yourselves and buy a book about English gardens. I’m off to buy one about tropical gardens and we have a frost forecast tonight. Cheers.

    1. Rob, I hope I’m wrong about the “knee-jerk” reaction, but I have encountered it in several books and other media. Since you point out the book is about English gardens, perhaps I should mention gardens in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland are not English and non are in the book. Speaking of tropical, do you like Roberto Berle Marx?

  3. Thank-you James for the excellent review, I too have bought the book.

    I’ve never encountered anti-Brit gardening bias (though I do think it would be a pleasant bias to have, given how freighted other biases are!) and I give the British credit for their gardening knowledge and sophistication.

    That said, they are blessedly unaware of our predatory deer. Can’t we dump a herd or two at Sissinghurst and see how that goes? Also, their great gardens are often old, or replanted on old bones (keeping nature at bay, I think) and more to the point often have a permanent garden staff. This is rarely the case in the United States or Canada: we fight our lonely battles like the pioneers. So I might argue that underlying this bias would be the old spectre of class, or class anxiety. Which on some level is what a garden is about.

    1. Ross, judging from the comments, I seem to be alone in thinking there is an anti-british gardening bias in the US, but I have encountered it several times. Now that the Europeans are growing “prairie gardens” perhaps this has changed. I can see what you mean about class anxiety underlying both that bias as well as the whole of garden culture. But I see that on a superficial level. I think there are also much deeper meanings and motivations.

      Aren’t there deer problems in parts of England? There are certainly fox problems in London. (And I might add, raccoon problems in Brooklyn.)

  4. Thank you for the thoughtful review, James! I’ve had this on my wish-list since it came out…and I’ve been hinting about it being a perfect Christmas present 😉 I didn’t realize there was still an environment of bias against British gardens…maybe because I love them so much (am an avid reader of Gardens Illustrated). If anything, I’m jealous of their attitudes towards gardening…it’s on TV for goodness’ sake!

    1. Scott, I’m sure I didn’t make up the anti-British bias, but I have experienced it. However, that’s not the main point. I agree if would be good if we had such a widespread and deep garden culture in our country. Fortunately, the internet gives us a way to find others with similar interest. I now consider my computer to be my entrance ticket to a kind of global garden group.

  5. I was lucky enough to have a sneak preview of this book last spring when Tim spoke to a small group of women who were visiting English gardens. I’ve met Tim a few times now, first when he was visiting Montreal to promote his book on Great American Gardens (I think two Canadian gardens made the cut; one was my favourite, the Reford Gardens in Metis, QC with its fabulous garden festival). I met Tim again in 2012 at the opening of the Chelsea Fringe Festival, the garden equivalent of the Edinburgh Fringe festival. I’ve read a number of his books, and all re-pay multiple readings. I particularly liked Avant Gardeners, a book that looks at contemporary garden design around the world. And if you are interested in English garden history, he has a (very detailed) book about the period leading up to Capability Brown. Can’t remember the name off-hand but I do remember the excellent section on Rousham, William Kent’s masterful garden.

    1. How fortunate you are. I agree his books can take repeated readings, especially the last historical work you refer to, The Acadian Friends. That one is definitely on my to be read again list. I found it intriguing to learn how gardens reflected political alliances and philosophies and, of course, to read of a time when the garden was considered a major, it not the supreme, art form.

  6. Interesting to re-read this book review four years later. I’ve gone back to the book many times and have now visited over half of the gardens Tim writes about. Each one had something to offer and to inspire.

    One of the talks I give is about design ideas inspired by English gardens I’ve visited. As you write in your review, and as so many commented, there’s a lot to learn from the top rank of UK garden designers. The plants used may not suit one climate or another but ideas can be adapted.

    James, I’m missing your blog posts and hope that all is well at Federal Twist.

    1. Thank you, Pat. I enjoy experimentation, so I’ve never been bothered by the fact that many plants that thrive in the UK don’t make it over here. You know as well as I that it’s easy to “translate” the plant selections to work in our continental climate. I do wish I were blogging more. I find the platform, particularly WordPress, cumbersome to use, and that has become an impediment. I have many posts waiting to be done. We have also been in an uproar selling our Brooklyn house, buying a condo, moving to yet another apartment until all this is over, so I find myself with less and less time. I’m toying with the idea of moving my blog to Squarespace. I was able to set up my own web page with Squarespace and I think I would find it much easier to post using that simpler and far more attractive platform, but that means changing my blog’s url yet a third time! Well, it just may be time to do that (in the new year).

  7. Thanks for the review, this sounds very enlightening plus a good arm strengthening workout.

    I’ve seen some resentment of “English Gardens”, whatever that means given there seem to be many garden styles from the UK. Often the resentment is from folks who believe with a religious fervor one cannot categorize, list, organize, etc. anything, and who never learned design principles. Then there are the majority I meet here, who really want to have a very non-desert design including the plants.

    Both miss the point of learning lessons from one of the world’s horticultural centers! And I say that from an ecology that is so far from the UK region. A must-buy.

    1. I think the term “English Garden” is rather meaningless. I even get angry when people refer to any garden in the US with a lot of flowers and green as an “English Garden.” But the UK has a long and deep garden history far exceeding ours in historic impact, and their 18th century landscape gardens may be their greatest contribution to art. Not that their gardens are any better than ours, but their garden history is much more deeply rooted in their culture than ours is. That said, I like gardens from any part of the world. By the way, Tim Richardson also wrote “Great Gardens of America.” I even dream of having a desert garden, but chances of that are slim in New Jersey.

  8. I’ve got to admit to a certain bias towards English gardens, they just seem so opposite to the concerns we deal with in California garden designs, and perhaps it does have to do with a bit of professional jealousy of budgets and class over there. I have a better relationship with those British garden designers that share my own interests in subtropical and Mediterranean/Latino/Hispanic design traditions, or South American modernists in Chile, Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia.

    That said, the one year I got to see the Chelsea Show in 2000 I was most favorably impressed, and I absolutely loved spending multiple days at Kew discovering plants I’ve never seen here in the states, especially from India, Malaysia and Africa. No question there is a superb level of horticulture and selection of plant choices that is impressive, perhaps due to colonial empires. So I’m a bit conflicted, in ways that Mediterranean climate designers don’t have a similar effect upon me. To be fair, I’ve yet to look at the book, will have to do so, thanks for the review.

    1. Thanks for your considered opinions, David. I long for something resembling the deep cultural affinity for garden-making and horticulture the UK is so well known for, though not to belittle the accomplishments of the US gardening world. I don’t know the plants in which you have such expertise, but I do know many parts of the UK have climates that allow many of them to be grown successfully. I wish you could have seen William Martin’s Wigandia in Australia before he closed it. He used plants from all over the southern hemisphere, and quite a few from the northern hemisphere too.

  9. Hi James
    I like your review so much, and agree in most. Thanks James.
    The book is well-written, well-photographed, and well-designed and -published. Much to learn. I enjoy reading it.
    But I also think it´s funny to notice, that several of the gardens are old places, designed several years ago and only refurnished with new perennials. The garden architecture of several of these gardens are old ones, and the way the English designers use the plants are a modern reconstructions of old English flowerborders like Gertrude Jekyll´. Only a few of the examples are new designed gardens. There is a big difference between Jekyll /Oudolf, to Nôtre/ Jellicoe, – a different between the ornamental chortcut-flowerdecorated border to the timeconsuming landscapearcitecture made of plants for the long distance.

    But I love the book anyway and your rewiev. Thanks Again.

    have a nice day


    1. Thanks, Kjeld, for the comments. I agree I’d have liked to see a greater number and variety of gardens. But this book was published several years ago. That may account to some extent for the selection used.

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