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Notes from a Head Gardener ~ A book Review of Dan Pearson’s Natural Selection: A Year in the Garden

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Factual gardening books are not my usual choice for bedtime reading. Bedtime is normally reserved for escapism, intrigue and a leap into a different life for half an hour or so before (hopefully) a gentle drift towards my sweetest dreams. Yet the moment I picked up Dan Pearson’s Natural Selection: A Year in the Garden I knew that this would be as escapist as other non-fiction favourites of mine like Peter Mayle, Bill Bryson, Anthony Woodward and Rupert Everett.

Not that I would make notes in the margins of the books of the aforementioned authors as I plan to when I read Natural Selection again. The descriptions of plants are so delicious that I must reread and endeavour to look up and hunt down many of Pearson’s favourites.

The articles in Natural Selection are taken from Pearson’s decade as gardening columnist for The Observer and are set out against the calendar year. Each month contains several articles variously based at Hillside, his rural Somerset property, in Peckham where he resided for many years before decamping to Hillside or on his travels as a highly sought-after garden designer. Wherever the article is located Pearson makes the reader welcome. His gentle manner and inclusive writing style bring a clear understanding of the landscape that he is describing.

Once Pearson has us settled into the landscape he will often focus on one particular plant per article and then skilfully impart expert knowledge so the reader is left in no doubt as to how that plant can be successfully grown. One particular January article The Lion in Winter describes the genus Hamamelis in sumptuous detail. When in flower, Hamamelis or Witch Hazel, makes my heart soar and I am always on the look out for the perfect orange or the perfect yellow flowering variety. My preferences change from winter to winter and Pearson has proffered several new names for me to add to my ever lengthening list. It is sure to be a joyful quest.

A childhood wonder of plants has developed into a rewarding career for Dan Pearson precisely because he has manged to carry that wonderment with him and is able to express it so well. It is this that I relish most about Natural Selection. This gentle book, brimming with thoughtful words and expert knowledge, persuades us to keep looking, keep observing, never stop learning. For an attentive horticulturalist will always be looking closely at the garden they tend whether they are at the top of their game with world renown like Dan Pearson or an unsung gardener with a smaller plot to cultivate.

And so, off to bed, safe in the happy notion that none of Pearson’s articles are more than three or four pages long, meaning that, if it has been a particularly long day in the garden, the gentle drift towards the sweetest slumber is not so very far away.