Well look at this - a book review. Not done one of these since school!

Ten days or so ago a parcel arrived.  I like parcels but they are not usually for me.  It is far more likely that a parcel will be for Ian as a result of his ebay habit (yes I know darling, it is all very useful stuff).  In it was a review copy of Toby Buckland's new book "Gardeners' World Practical Gardening Handbook".  The wonderful Esther at Esther's Boring Gardening Blog (the most interesting and unusual and as far from boring as it is possible to be gardening blog you will ever read) had been asked to review it.  I commented sadly that no one had ever asked me to review anything and lo! an email from the publisher and a copy to review for myself.  Since my collection of gardening books has gradually grown from occupying just one side of our bedroom out towards the middle of the floor, like a beautiful but invasive plant, this seems fair enough.  I might not have a fabulous garden but I do have a fabulous collection of gardening books.  Quickly establishing that I didn't have to say I liked it if I didn't, I jumped at the chance to add to the piles.

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.
And what am I less keen on?
  • 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.
I suspect that is an unfair criticism.  This book doesn't set out to inspire and excite.  It is a "how to" book and, if you want to know how to make and grow things, this handbook is as good as any, particularly for a newish gardener.   I think if I were buying it for someone I loved who was just getting into gardening, and I might, I would accompany it with something by Dan Pearson or Anna Pavord, or maybe Mirabel Osler's "A Gentle Plea for Chaos".  That should just about do it.


  1. well done! and i want someone to teach me how to lay a stone wall. no, wait, i want someone to come to my yard and do it for me.

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  3. Great review! I know the Gardener's World debate rages on, but I really like Toby Buckland on the programme. I read a couple of his books several years ago, and they too were of a practical nature. I think he gives a real air of encouragement, and experimentation (and not just with the DIY and hard landscaping stuff).
    Think you can't build a dry stone wall..? Course you can!!
    And that's what I like about him.
    Thanks for a detailed and impartial view. Funnily enough, this is the second time I have seen A Gentle Plea for Chaos mentioned recently - I'll have to see if I can find a copy.
    Best wishes

  4. I like your idea of combining it with something more inspiring . That way , when I get carried away by the idea of drifts of colour , I'll know my chances of success .
    I might skip the stone wall chapter though , I already have a fairly good idea how that would end !

  5. I love gardens, I love gardening books, but sadly seem unable to cultivate the passion for gardening that leaps from the pages of your blog.

  6. Ah ha I might have known you'd be a Mirabel Osler fan ;-) This one sounds a bit earnest to me, but I think you've done a fab job of reviewing it :-)

  7. I really like your cottage.

    you have done an interesting post.

  8. Now you'll be deluged with review copies of gardening books! Well done.

  9. That's a pretty fair review and I think you might be quite right when you suggest TB is sound but isn't going to set the world on fire. What is his USP then?

    I hope he will sell stacks of books - which obviously offer very sound advice and give his readers a solid grounding in horticultural practice. But gardening, for me at least, is about the magic and the poetry of working with the seasons, with colour and growth, painting with plants - the bits that get under one's skin and into the senses. This reader is looking for more than practical advice so probably this book isn't for me. good idea to look at it alongside something more inspirational.

  10. Firstly: you DO have a lovely garden - I have seen it with my own eyes, it's true, everyone, it's lovely.

    Secondly: Fair and frank review - I imagine I would feel the same about the book. I am a fan of Gardens Illustrated and not Gardener's World magazine for the same reasons, you need to dream about plants while you're planning your greenhouse. However, I can build a stone wall (without instructions, so there) and have one still standing after three years to prove it!

    Thirdly: Dan P, swoon; Anna P, excellent reading; Mirabel Ostler? A new one on me, off to Google.

    Fourthly: nobody ever asks me to review books of any sort, and I do love books - hint hint to anyone who is in a position to ask me to do so.

  11. Laurie - precisely. I also quite like knowing how to do it without necessarily ever doing it.
    Dan - thank you. I think Toby does a good job of making people feel they can get involved. I think I might be able to build a dry stone wall but I know a man who definitely can so I will stick to mulching and pruning and writing and making socks
    S&S - good to have both inspiration and practicality, although if I had to chose just one I would go for inspiration and try to work the other one out!
    eleanor's byre - well if you love gardens and gardening books you must be well along the way. And I am not always passionate. I am a sadly fair weather gardener and disappear indoors to eat nice things when it goes cold.
    Sue - it is not earnest, actually quite jolly in tone (there is a nice throw away lawn about thinking of a seriously cared for lawn as a sort of pet) just very task focussed!
    La Petite Gallery - thank you. The cottage is lovely though I say so myself!
    Chris - deluge? gardening books? bring it on!
    Mountainear - yes I am with you on the magic and poetry although it didn't look too magical out in our leaf pile today!
    Kitty - you are very kind. I suspect it might be the place which is lovely rather than the garden. Yes, spot on as ever - I am a Gardens Illustrated rather than a Gardeners World person too.

  12. That is a very fair review, and I think if my (grown up) children ever decide to do something with their garden it is the book I would buy for them.

    You mentioning Adam the Gardner brought back all sorts of memories for me too! Such fun.

    I do SO know what you mean about about staring off into the middle distance "dreaming and scheming"

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  14. Excellent review elizabeth!It certainly gives me a good idea of who would and who wouldn't get something out this type of gardening book (third son just bought house and mad keen on creating a garden - shed, wall and all)but also the suggestions for an accompanying inspirational book is very useful. Thank you (think I have the birthday present sorted!).

  15. Great review Elizabeth - wish the ones in the gardening press were as enlightening.

  16. I think this may be the start of some great reviews coming from your way Elizabeth! A detailed and impartial view, however I don't think I will be rushing to buy this one (but I do hope TB makes a success of it). I like to dream about plants and be inspired - the aspirational Gardens Illustrated fits the bill. Swoon! I'm a great fan of Monty Don for any practical aspect of gardening and Anna Pavord for the beauty. I go to sleep each night with Bulb by my bedside!


  17. a lovely book review, very even handed and gave a great idea of what was in all the book, - a brilliant first go, - I also think you will be inundated with gardening books now, - hopefully the dreamy type

  18. Perhaps you could keep this book just as a reference for the building/how-to aspect of gardening, and get some of those fantastic flower and herb books for true inspiration. A healthy combination of both is useful in creating a truly great garden, no?

    Also, since you already see the drawbacks of the how-to book, you can avoid them and only use the info that you really need from it. No DIY electrical work - I agree!

  19. What fun, to be invited to review a book. I wish that there were more DIY books for the Canadian market - I'd buy them all. As it is, the DIY books are all British or American. Something particular to the Pacific Northwest would be good!

  20. What a well balanced and fair review. Having watched TB on the programme I would imagine that the book reflects his personality, not wildly charismatic. I'm sure it is a practical book.
    But for me, I want to be inspired in the same way that I am when I find a beautiful patchwork book....colour, shapes, almost the feeling that you can reach in and touch the plants.

  21. As I can only dream of having a garden, I really did enjoy reading your review. That you felt an absence of the inspirational in the book would be very helpful to someone with a real garden.

    As others have already written, I bet that you'll soon be sent many more books to review. Well done!

  22. Good to compare notes with you :)

    I think we have similar thoughts overall about the book.

    And isn't it lovely to get a review copy? Makes one feel rather special.

    I can confirm there's still comment problems - came in via a direct link to your post and couldn't comment, but coming back in via your Home page was fine.

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  24. Oops - it was fine until Blogger decided to post the same comment twice!

  25. Karen - I have been wondering around dreaming and scheming today too.
    paula - I do think you need both or gardening becomes just a form of outside housekeeping.

  26. Great review. Positive and practical - like the book really. But I am wondering why you need all those books when your gardening could knock most of our efforts (well my efforts) into a cocked hat.

  27. What they all said. Can I borrow Ian, by the way?

  28. A most informative and in depth review Elizabeth - I think that the joined forces of you and VP have persuaded me to not to buy this book but I have may have done so a few years back.

  29. I am feeling a bit bad about the idea that my review has deterred anyone from buying the book - it is very good in many ways, just perhaps not for me right now at the stage I am at in my gardening life. That sounds a bit grand. You know what I mean I hope.

  30. Having completed my rambly review I'm now wandering round to see what others have said about this book. It's interesting to see where we think the same and where we don't.

    You mention the grass seed - I too found I came away from the book with tips I value - like attracting the roots of seedlings to a little bamboo stick so they don't get caught on the side of the hole you are pricking out into.

    And the funnest thing was his suggestion to take some bulbs and throw them in the air and plant them where they land. I'd be worried about damaging them but as a way to be random . . .


    P.S. Thanks for the wonderful compliments about my blog at the beginning of your post, Elizabeth.


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