Monday, 25 February 2013

What's the next best thing to gardening?

What's the next best thing to gardening? 

Reading about gardening!

For Christmas, my sister gave me The Therapeutic Garden, by Donald Norfolk.

This has been the ideal book to enjoy during these cold days of January and February when therapeutic reading is far more appealing than therapeutic gardening. 

It is not your average gardening tome; there are no photos, plans, instructions or lists of plants. And it doesn't provide a step-by-step guide to planting a therapeutic garden. Rather, it's a book of guiding principles, ideology, and more about the 'why' you should plant a holistic garden than the 'wherefores'. Gardening is put forward not as an end in itself but as a means of cultivating "happier, healthier human beings."

The vegetable garden, Beatrix Potter's house, 'Hill Top', Near Sawrey, Cumbria

There are numerous references to gardens in history and in literature, for example the gardens that were cultivated along the Black Sea coast pre 7000 BC, right through to the exploits of imperialist collectors in the last century.

My own garden is not huge but this book excludes nobody. Whether you are a garden owner or not, Norfolk suggests that we can all benefit from appreciating gardens, however small our space. And if you have no garden, then many of the benefits can be gained by 'adopting' a public space as your own, psychologically rather than physically.

Lytes Cary Manor, Somerset

What were the aspects of the book that particularly interested or resonated with me?
  • The notion that a therapeutic garden should include the elements, fire, water and stone in addition to earth. A water feature, a standing stone, pebbles, time for bonfires, candles, barbecues...
  • The informal therapeutic garden; contrived but not formal. It is in harmony with nature, contains no overly bright colours and no lines that are too straight.
  • I particularly enjoyed the parts of the book that reflected my own love of fresh air and walking (each has its own chapter); a garden provides the perfect antidote to "stuffy living" and should provide somewhere to walk. Although Norfolk talks about the grand landscape gardens and boulevards, he argues that even in the smallest of gardens, "if there is a will to take a garden walk, a way can always be found", using the slow meditative walks of monks in the cloisters as an example. I like the idea of a daily slow circumambulation of my own garden. At a normal pace I could zip round in a minute and a half, but why not more slowly, and why not in the winter as well as the summer? For non-garden owners, the suggestion is to treat a regular walking route in a local park as your own.
  • Use your garden to enjoy the stars and the seasons, solitude and communion with others. An evening stroll is an excellent "prelude to sleep", and "Those stars which light our evening sky are a constant reminder of the permanence of nature, however ephemeral our own lives might be."
  • A therapeutic garden should provide fun, pleasure and rest; it should be "a place for enjoyment, not just toil" and "we must always enjoy the fruits of our labours". To this end, labour-saving techniques are advocated such as no-dig methods and plenty of ground cover planting.
This book was an inspiring read, and made me look at my own small space in many new ways. There's no reason why it shouldn't be a place for nourishing the soul as well as a place where small boys can run about and kick a football around.


  1. Sounds like a book that I would really like, but my library doesn't have it. However, they have another one by the same author called, "The Soul Garden", that he wrote a year later. I'll see what that one is about.

    1. I couldn't be sure but I got the impression it may well be the same book published under a different title. Hope you enjoy it!

  2. That sounds like an interesting read, I have a garden of sorts now, so should take advantage of it!

  3. That sounds like an excellent book to read in the months before heading back out to the garden. I'll see if my library can get it or the one live and learn mentioned above. Thanks for the reading suggestion.

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