The greatest challenge in writing my latest book, RHS Lessons from Great Gardeners, was to whittle the selection down to just 40 without too many obvious ones, while spotlighting those who should be more widely known. It was not an easy task at all.
Wherever possible the chosen gardeners are linked to the RHS, some worked in the Society's gardens, others were recognised with awards, notably the Veitch Memorial Medal, ‘awarded annually to persons of any nationality who have made an outstanding contribution to the art, science and practice of horticulture’ allowing the selection to be both historic and international.
The book summarises their lives, the gardens they created and discovers what can be learned from their experiences. I also wanted to reveal their personalities using anecdotes about them and their lives.
I dug through obituaries, delved into the Dictionary of National Biography, thumbed articles, scoured newspapers and spoke to the gardeners themselves or people who knew them. Ingenuity also played a role: quotes and stories from the late Christopher Lloyd, Geoffrey Smith and Penelope Hobhouse were gleaned from episodes of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, a telephone interview with Nick Hamilton at Barnsdale Gardens revealed details about his father, Geoff, including the fact that he worked so hard restoring his garden centre that he erased his finger prints.
Many of my great gardeners had the wealth to realise their dreams, others made mad personal sacrifices for the sake of their garden (‘my partner delivered an ultimatum, it’s either me or the garden; and she went’); all were inspired and inspiring.
Several were artists who created living paintings, Claude Monet, who claimed he was 'good for nothing except painting and gardening', worked in the garden with his children, exchanged plants with friends, dug potatoes with Renoir and remarked ‘All my money goes into gardening and I am in raptures’.
All are as rich in character as they are skilled gardeners and the pages are illuminated with botanical illustrations of their favourite plants. These wonderful characters, their lessons and their gardens, are an inspiration to all.