Designer Andy Sturgeon reveals the garden books he treasures the most
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.
PLANT NAMES SIMPLIFIED: THEIR PRONUNCIATION DERIVATION AND MEANING by AT Johnson and HA Smith (Landsmans Bookshop, 1972)
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
Designing with Plants.
Field Guide to Common Trees and Shrubs of East Africa.