Shelf ob­ses­sions

De­signer Andy Stur­geon re­veals the gar­den books he trea­sures the most

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - PHO­TO­GRAPHS AN­DREW MONT­GOMERY

De­signer Andy Stur­geon puts much of his suc­cess as a de­signer and gar­dener down to what he has learned from read­ing. He shares those gar­den­ing books that have been key

“Own­ing a lot of books and hav­ing dipped into most of them I can say that I owe much of my suc­cess and most of my knowl­edge to them”

W hile at hor­ti­cul­tural col­lege I stud­ied in­te­rior land­scap­ing, which es­sen­tially means grow­ing trop­i­cal and sub-trop­i­cal plants in­side, some­thing that im­me­di­ately went out of fash­ion and my course was promptly axed. I’ve since been a gar­dener, a gar­den writer and a gar­den de­signer. I am trained in none of these ar­eas but own­ing a lot of books and hav­ing dipped into most of them I can say that I owe much of my suc­cess and most of my knowl­edge to them. I find be­ing around books and the in­for­ma­tion they con­tain in­cred­i­bly re­as­sur­ing and an­chor­ing.

I paid too much for my house in Brighton be­cause it has its own li­brary and then promptly built an­other one in my stu­dio at work. Look­ing around I now won­der if I’m classed as a hoarder? It was tempt­ing to pluck out a bunch of high-brow ti­tles for this fea­ture to por­tray my­self as stag­ger­ingly pro­found and ex­cep­tion­ally well read. But when I scanned my shelves look­ing for the books that mean the most to me, I re­alised that that ap­proach was go­ing to be dif­fi­cult.

My shelves groan with ref­er­ence books into which I have re­peat­edly dived head first. Whether it’s Beth Chatto’s Gravel Gar­den, half a dozen books on Is­lamic pat­terns and gar­dens or some­thing ob­scure about plant folk­lore they are all there look­ing down at me. I also have yards and yards of cof­fee ta­ble gar­den­ing porn to flick through in snatched min­utes rather than pon­der­ous hours. What I am not in­clined to do is to sit by the fire and di­gest 500 pages of dense text. For me gar­den­ing is about ‘do­ing’ so I’m not in­ter­ested aca­demic tomes and turgid his­tory, I just want the in­for­ma­tion and I usu­ally want it quickly.

FLORA BRI­TAN­NICA: THE CON­CISE EDI­TION by Richard Mabey (Chatto & Win­dus, 1998)

I felt as if this book had been writ­ten for me. I’d grown up with Culpeper’s Colour Herbal and Richard’s ear­lier book Food For Free so this was the per­fect next step. And it’s a page-turner. He seam­lessly weaves to­gether the cul­tural and so­cial his­tory of wild plants, mu­si­cally link­ing old wives’ tales with hard facts via charm­ing anec­dotes to po­etry and medic­i­nal use. Ivy-leaved toad­flax is a men­ace in my gar­den yet I em­brace it be­cause of the en­try here and we now also call it ‘I be­lieve in toad­flax’. Un­doubt­edly the most fas­ci­nat­ing book I own.

DE­SIGN­ING WITH PLANTS by Piet Ou­dolf with Noel Kings­bury (Con­ran, 1999)

Piet has writ­ten many books and I seem to have al­most all of them. I didn’t re­alise. He is so in­cred­i­bly gen­er­ous with his knowl­edge, par­tic­u­larly in print; hap­pily pub­lish­ing plant lists, analysing pho­to­graphs and in­di­vid­ual schemes and ex­plain­ing pre­cisely how and why some­thing is done. This book could not be more clearly laid out, de­scrib­ing year­round plant­ing as ‘birth, life and death’, with the pho­to­graphs de­liv­er­ing ex­cel­lent ‘flick­a­bil­ity’. I find my­self re­fer­ring to these pages when I’m stuck on some­thing and at nearly 20 years old it still seems as fresh as the day it was pub­lished.

PLANT­ING DE­SIGN FOR DRY GAR­DENS by Olivier Filippi (Fil­bert Press, 2016)

This is a rel­a­tively new ad­di­tion to my li­brary. Hav­ing vis­ited his nurs­ery and gar­den in 2015 I be­came an Olivier Filippi con­vert us­ing many of his plants at Chelsea the fol­low­ing year. And with projects un­der­way around the Mediter­ranean and in the Mid­dle East I have rea­son to dip into this good-look­ing book time and again. The in­flu­ence of the nat­u­ral land­scape and his em­brac­ing of xe­ro­phytic plant­ing is in­tox­i­cat­ing and re­ally ham­mers home what a sus­tain­able or re­silient gar­den should be. A few min­utes with this book and you’ll never want to plant a con­ven­tional wa­ter-thirsty lawn ever again.

A few min­utes with this book and you’ll never want to plant a con­ven­tional wa­ter-thirsty lawn ever again

FIELD GUIDE TO COM­MON TREES AND SHRUBS OF EAST AFRICA by Na­jma Dha­rani (Struik Pub­lish­ers, 2002)

I once spent an en­tire year in Africa trav­el­ling by land and sea of­ten just to lay eyes on some pe­cu­liar tree or flower that I had read about. I’ve also col­lected seed with Maa­sai herds­men for the Mil­len­nium Seed Bank, de­signed a geno­cide me­mo­rial gar­den in Rwanda and land­scaped a small cor­ner of Nairobi. Africa is un­der my skin but mostly I travel with­out an ex­pert and there is noth­ing more frus­trat­ing than botanis­ing in front of some fas­ci­nat­ing plant while not hav­ing a clue what it is. So I never go any­where with­out a field guide. I have many, but this one is ex­cel­lent for or­na­men­tals and isn’t too heavy.


By God this book re­ally does what it says on the cover and was some­thing of a Rosetta Stone for me. It un­locked the mys­ter­ies of the Lin­naean dual name sys­tem and cat­a­pulted me into a world of botan­i­cal un­der­stand­ing. It is one of the first ‘gar­den­ing’ books I owned and there was a time when I re­ferred to it daily to look up ev­ery sin­gle new plant name I came across. With­out hav­ing this slim, in­ex­pen­sive book so early on in my ca­reer I think it’s highly un­likely I would have ei­ther learned or cared so much about plants.

REAL GAR­DEN­ING by Stephen Lacey (Michael Joseph, 2002)

For­tu­nately Stephen has never shied from an opin­ion and his writ­ing al­ways makes me chuckle, a skill that more gar­den­ing writ­ers could em­brace. I re­viewed this book when it was pub­lished in 2002 and my re­sponse was that I wish I had writ­ten it my­self – and I re­ally meant it. In ev­ery para­graph he man­ages to con­jure up a scene so vividly and then dis­sects it while lib­er­ally dis­tribut­ing sound ad­vice. He has al­lowed me to look at plant­ing in a dif­fer­ent way. It is a mag­i­cal read and oc­cu­pies that elu­sive ter­ri­tory where en­ter­tain­ment and in­for­ma­tion are fused to­gether and per­fectly bal­anced. And it’s funny.

It oc­cu­pies that elu­sive ter­ri­tory where en­ter­tain­ment and in­for­ma­tion are per­fectly bal­anced


Flora Bri­tan­nica.

De­sign­ing with Plants.

Field Guide to Com­mon Trees and Shrubs of East Africa.

Real Gar­den­ing.

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