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A garden as vast as your imagination

PICTURED: Magnolias were among the first plants to appear on earth, writes Dan Pearson.

PICTURED: Magnolias were among the first plants to appear on earth, writes Dan Pearson.


Dan Pearson gardens in vast spaces and in different countries – his own in England and those of several clients in Japan and the US.

His friend compared his move from a fenced-in garden to a eight-hectare one to being released from a pot-bound existence. “I needed to feel smaller and less in control of my environment,” says Pearson.

PICTURED: Natural Selection: A Year in the Garden by Dan Pearson, Faber & Faber, $42.95

PICTURED: Natural Selection: A Year in the Garden by Dan Pearson, Faber & Faber, $42.95

I garden in a regular suburban plot in Canada. And our years in the garden follow different trajectories.

Though he describes January as the darkest month of the year, he also waxes lyrical about the “benign climate” and the perfume of witch hazel. There’s nothing remotely benign in January in our neck of the woods. He does redeem himself with February, though. Despite its actual length, February can feel like the longest month of the winter, caught between the openness of January and the surge that becomes evident in March. 

In March, forsythia bursts into bloom in his garden. We have to wait until  late April if we are lucky, sometimes May. April is spring at its best, with the intensity of green being notched up daily until it is as vibrant as it will ever be.

But by May, we seem to be on the same page as lungworts and lilacs begin to bloom. If you could hear it, there would be a tangible hum, made from a million buds breaking and stems flexing. The tide of green sweeps up and over bare earth, cloaking it as fast as the leaves fill out above us.

His descriptions are vivid and unique. Magnolia buds are “like a paw with a downy covering”. And full of fascinating facts. I learn that magnolias were one of the first flowering plants to appear, more than eighty million years ago.

When Pearson shares his experience with hybrid tulip bulbs, “Many of the hybrids are just too far removed from their parents to be reliable garden plants”, I recall my sharp sense of disappointment when the gorgeous blooms of one spring were replaced with smaller, scraggly ones the next year that vanished altogether by the time another spring rolled around.

He writes that planting should never be thought of as a chore. “An hour spent preparing a hole is nothing in the life of that tree and the duration of time you will have together.”

He persuades us not to begrudge shrubs that bloom for shorter periods and I plan on following his advice to plant a clematis under a lilac. That will extend the colour after the fragrant panicles have finished putting on their show.

Despite the dissimilarities in the scope and nature of our gardens, I sense a kinship with Pearson when he writes about his old friend Geraldine, who was “One of those people who enters your life to open a door”.

I read about her naturalist and idiosyncratic gardening and think, Geraldine and Dorothy could have been twins. Dorothy being my dear friend and neighbour who introduced me to the joys of gardening in Canada.

For this book, Pearson draws on ten years of his Observer columns to explore the rhythms and pleasures of a year in the garden. I enjoy the seasons unfold in his garden after I get past my envy over the fact that my gardening cycle lags a few months behind his.


PICTURED: Field Notes From The Edge, by Paul Evans, Penguin, 18.99

PICTURED: Field Notes From The Edge, by Paul Evans, Penguin, 18.99


Field Notes From the Edge is another book that describes what grows in Britain – except that these are “journeys through Britain’s secret wilderness”.

Described as “the best of the best writers on nature”, Paul Evans takes readers with him as he explores hidden ice-age caves, marshes and ridge-ways. And he resets our definition of wild.

A lifelong fascination with natural history convinces me that wildlife, wherever it is found, is every bit as wild as in those places we think of as wilderness. Wild is a quality of Nature, a mode of existence and its life is not captured by the managerial language of biodiversity, neither is the wild a destination... the creativity of Nature lies in the old chaos, it surges from earth’s fault lines. Life leaks from the cracks and not from the wishful thinking of balance that people have struggled to engineer.

I am reminded of the deodhar that seemingly sprang from a crack in a boulder in the Himachal landscape and reached towering proportions.

What forces of nature did it battle? What nurtured it? No one ever seeking to tame a landscape would have thought to plant a tree there, and yet there it was, standing sentinel over the highway. The wild finds us, as Evans notes. 

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