I have dipped in and out of this book in much the same way as I usually do. I have also read much of it wholesale but not all because some of the sections are so intensely DIY that I drifted inexorably back to my garden or my knitting or the kitchen or the glass of wine. But having carried the book about with me for ten days and consulted with various other gardening members of my family I think I can't put off coming to a conclusion for any longer. Nobody wants a review that says "Mmm, yes, it's fine, it's ok, it's quite nice really......"
So, this is an intensely practical book, just as the title says. It's not a glossy, aspirational book, all polished concrete and zinc planters and monochrome planting. It's not a dreamy, inspirational book, all swathes of colour and waterfalls of climbing roses and tables set for tea under the apple tree in the orchard. It's a book that tells you how to do it. It's practical. It's a handbook that you might consult to remind yourself how to take semi-ripe cuttings or prick out seedlings. It's a practical gardening handbook.
The pictures tend to be of Toby doing things, so this is not a book to have you drooling over hellebores and irises. In the 60s my grandad had a book in which a character called "Adam the Gardener" dug his way through the seasons buttoned up in his tweed jacket, flat cap firmly on his head. Toby strikes me as a good candidate for the tweed jacket, rather than his usual jeans and t shirt. He has that same steady, competent, tidy look. He could be the new Adam.
There are sections on starting a garden and on taking over an old one. There is advice on composting and using a greenhouse and on using recycled or found materials, this last one, rather oddly to my eyes, called "Outsourcing". Outsourcing when I was out there in the corporate world was a weasel word for laying off your own employees in Europe or the US because you had found somebody else in India or China who would do the work for you to just the same standard but at a fraction of the price. Despite the title, this is a great chapter full of ideas from the obvious but essential like storing rainwater to the would never have occurred to me, such as visiting microbreweries for spent hops or marine salvage yards for old chains and ropes. There is advice on laying a brick path and planting a tree. There is a section on laying a lawn and one on identifying and dealing with pests and diseases.
For me the best section by far is the central part of the book, "Growing your garden", which gets down to the detail of how to do it all. The advice on sowing seeds and planting out is as good and clear and encouraging as I have seen anywhere. All the section on growing edible crops is breezily commonsensical and doesn't blind you with science. Lots of gardening books don't tell you how to use a greenhouse and yet, if you get really keen, you will certainly want to have one and Toby tells you the lot: how to choose it, where to site it, how to erect it, how to look after it and what to grow in it. I would admit that the picture of his recycled greenhouse is not really my cup of tea, but each to his own.
The other thing which I like a lot in this book is the tips which appear in the margins, from how to harvest a cabbage to the need to shake grass seed frequently when sowing it to ensure that the smaller seed is well distibuted amongst the larger stuff - who knew?
So what do I like about the Practical Handbook?
- There is an immense amount of information in it. If I were a new gardener I can imagine returning to it again and again for easy, straightforward "how to" answers.
- It's a very accessible book, easy to find your away around, easy to read, encouraging.
- Toby is very keen for you to have a go, to just do it, to learn yourself by just getting in there and getting your hands dirty. As a result there is a strong sense that everything is ok and that everything is possible.
- It is a very blokey, "DIY is great" sort of a book. Do I want to be told how to lay a stone wall? Probably not, but then I have Ian, who already knows.
- Some of the encouragement to just get out there and do things makes the book a touch gung ho from time to time. My own not so blokey husband, who is nevertheless a lover of making and building things, wondered every now and then if there was quite enough guidance before you got to work on installing your greenhouse electricity or putting up your polytunnel. It would be a pity if the can do attitude the book seeks to inspire were to be followed by disaster.
- But for me the real reservation is that there is not enough about plants which I know sounds odd in a book about how to grow things. There is nothing in this book about the effect of plants on mind and mood which is the magic and mystery of gardening. There is nothing that makes me set the book down and stare into the middle distance, dreaming and scheming about how to create a look or a feeling. There is nothing about how particular combinations of colour or shape can catch at the heart. It is all just a bit pedestrian.