Lives of the Great Gardeners by Stephen Anderton

What do Claude Monet, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Roy Strong have in common? According to Stephen Anderton they all belong in the pantheon of great gardeners, standing shoulder to shoulder with Capability Brown and William Kent, Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West. Monet and Strong come to be on the list as owner-makers, the former for Giverny and the latter for the elaborate Laskett in Herefordshire, supposedly the largest formal garden to be made in England since 1945.

Lutyens — a wonderful architect, certainly, but not a name that springs to mind when it comes to gardening — is there on the strength of his collaborations with Jekyll at houses such as Hestercombe in Somerset, where he provided the architectural framework and “Aunt Bumps”, as he called her, brought the plantsmanship.

Far be it from me to downplay the achievements of Monet, Strong and Lutyens, or to lament some names missing from Anderton’s pantheon — giants such as Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, Norah Lindsay and Edith, Lady Londonderry, whose glorious gardens at Mount Stewart in Co Down surely earn her a place at the table. But the diverse collection of artists and craftsmen that Anderton has decided to include in his entertaining book does make one ask, exactly what makes a great gardener?

His answer is pretty all-encompassing. It is the ability “to create a ‘place’ with a flavour of its own, through a particular alchemy of mass and void, of architecture and planting, of earth and water, of light and shadow and reflection, of things static and things motile, of loud and cool colours and perhaps perfume — a coming together of elements that declares this is a very special place”. It is hard to disagree with that, though I’m not sure it gets us very far.

Humphry Repton began to dabble in gardening to ‘render my leisure profitable’

So we study the work. And this is where Lives of the Great Gardeners comes into its own. Anderton’s approach is enjoyably straightforward. After a short introduction, we’re launched into brief and beautifully illustrated accounts of the careers of 40 garden-makers from all over the world, grouped rather arbitrarily under four headings: gardens of ideas, gardens of straight lines, gardens of curves and gardens of plantsmanship. The gardeners themselves range from the 15th-century courtier Wen Zhengming, a leading Ming dynasty painter and calligrapher, to the Spanish minimalist Fernando Caruncho and the Canadian champion of conceptual gardens Alexander Reford, both alive and kicking and now in their fifties.

Anderton writes with passion and, as the names I’ve mentioned suggest, he has catholic tastes. He also has an eye for the curious. I didn’t know, for example, that Humphry Repton (1752-1818) learnt to play the flute in Rotterdam before failing as a textile merchant and retiring to a roadside cottage in Essex; only then did he begin to dabble in landscape gardening as a way to “render my leisure profitable”.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent by Vita Sackville-WestFRANZ-MARC FREI/GETTY IMAGES

Having created Manhattan’s magnificent Central Park in 1858, Frederick Law Olmsted went on to set up Yosemite as America’s first publicly owned national park. If that weren’t enough, he saved Niagara Falls from industrial development, helped to lay out campuses at Stanford and Berkeley — and then suffered a nervous breakdown, spending the last five years of his life in a mental institution.

The concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006), whose strange and slogan-filled garden at Stonypath in the Pentland Hills was once voted the most important work of Scottish art, ahead of Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art and Henry Raeburn’s The Skating Minister, spent his early childhood helping to smuggle bootleg liquor from the Bahamas into America using his father’s schooner. He was then packed off to school in Scotland (where his teachers included WH Auden).

Anderton, a gardening columnist for The Times, relishes the sheer variety of gardens and gardeners. He discusses owner-makers whose horticultural reputation rests on the creation of a single garden, such as Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter, East Sussex, and Henry Hoare at Stourhead, Wiltshire; giants of gardening literature such as William Robinson, whose 1883 classic The English Flower Garden is still in print today; and professional designers who hover between the worlds of horticulture and landscape architecture, men such as Brazil’s Roberto Burle Marx and our own John Brookes. There are modernists and traditional nurserymen. There are experimental gardens and desert gardens filled with cacti, even a public park or two.

Ian Hamilton Finlay spent his early childhood smuggling bootleg liquor on his father’s schooner

My only complaint is that I’d like more about how each gardener approached the act of horticultural creation. For some reason Anderton, or his publisher, has hit upon the idea of prefacing each biographical essay with two columns of random facts about what else happened in the year of a great gardener’s birth and in the year of his or her death. And I do mean random. It adds nothing to our understanding of Lawrence Johnston’s creative processes when he laid out his legendary garden at Hidcote in Gloucestershire to read that he died in the same year that the USSNautilus became the first vessel to travel under the North Pole and Pope Pius XII declared St Clare the patron saint of television (1958, since you ask).

Nor does it help me to appreciate Graham Stuart Thomas’s place in the history of gardening to read that in 1909, the year he was born, Geronimo died and Bakelite was patented. And for those great gardeners who are still alive, the second column is alarmingly blank, as though waiting to be filled in by the reader when death eventually comes knocking. Better to have had more by Anderton, and less from the Bumper Book of Dates.

That said, Lives of the Great Gardeners is an entertaining read, not least because of the way it mixes the contemporary with the historical, the esoteric and experimental and unfamiliar with old favourites. One minute we’re looking at a photograph of Aunt Bumps sitting on a wheelbarrow and wearing what looks like a tea cosy. The next, Charles Jencks is offering his Garden of Cosmic Speculation and Fernando Caruncho is producing a labyrinthine grid of pools and paving in Catalonia.

By the end, I’m not sure I am any closer to understanding what constitutes a great gardener. But Anderton has certainly introduced me to some great gardens.