Book Review – ‘Minding the Garden – Lilactree Farm’ by Brian Bixley

Dear Readers, this book has a number of my very favourite features. It’s divided into 125 sections mapping a composite gardening year, and I do love a book that serves up bite-sized pieces of daily life. Secondly, it is intensely personal, dealing as it does with the development of a garden in Ontario, Canada over many years. Thirdly it has introduced me to many plants that I had never considered for my own tiny garden – I found myself considering small-flowered clematis to twine through my hedge, and was intrigued by the illustrations of a lesser celandine cultivar that I’d never come across in the UK. But finally what I loved most was the connections that Brian Bixley makes between the arts and the creation of a garden. It made me consider all kinds of things that I hadn’t thought about before.

But first, to the gardening itself. When I first visited my husband’s aunts in Ontario, I remember thinking that it must be hard to grow plants in such a climate, with freezing conditions for a big chunk of the year, blazing sun for another chunk and hail, wind, ice storms, drought and flood all possible for the rest of the time. Bixley likes to live on the edge and to coax all manner of plants into surviving in what might be considered borderline conditions. This is a source of both joy and despair. Like gardeners the world over, Bixley listens to the weather forecast, often with a sense of impending doom:

What kind of weirdo gets out of bed, goes to the window, pulls up the blind to see the first rays of sunlight slicing through the morning mists as they rise from the green valley below and says, “Darn it, it’s going to be relentlessly sunny today”? Or as he watched the serene Jane gazing into the teleprompter and reading, “No precipitation to worry about,” shrieks in despair?

I love that Bixley has a list of tasks that ‘absolutely must be done today’, even if they aren’t always accomplished. I enjoyed the story of him pruning the hedge, which involves all manner of tools, ladders and other accoutrements, standing back in satisfaction, putting everything away for another year and then remembering that he has some more plants to prune. That sense of the constant labour of a garden, especially an extensive one like Lilactree Farm, is I’m sure familiar to those of us with much smaller plots as we steel ourselves for another bout of hard physical work, especially as we get older. But the rewards! He grows some foxgloves from seed, as I am doing this year.

“I‘m not sure if we have grown anything quite as beautiful for a long time. They are what they essentially should be: tall, majestic, flowers opening creamily, gradually becoming a pure white. I have cut away branches from some of the surrounding shrubs so that it is possible to see the foxgloves from a distance, pale fire in the heart of darkness“.

I love that sense that a plant is ‘essentially what it should be’ – that seems to me to sum up the quintessence of gardening. When a plant is thriving happily in the perfect spot and has reached that moment when it is in full flower, before it starts to fade, I always feel my heart lift, all the more so if there is a drowsy drone of bees popping by for some nectar. The happiness is worth all the back ache and broken fingernails, and it makes up for the failed experiments, for the plants that we loved and yet lost.

Throughout the book, though, there is an underlying question. In what ways is gardening an ‘art’, like writing or painting or composing a symphony? There are many answers, of course. As Bixley points out, if you have the resources, designing (or getting someone else to design) a handsome garden is not hard. What is hard is the maintenance, the constantly changing conditions, the adjustments as some plants ‘work’ and others don’t. A book is published, a painting is hung in a gallery, but a garden is and always will be a work in progress. While we might reinterpret a novel or a play, the words don’t normally change, but the plants in a garden will flourish and die and be replaced.

On the other hand, whether we like it or not, ‘making’ a garden is just as much a creative act as any of the other arts (and you could argue that it’s much more complex). Bixley compares it to poetry – in a garden created by the gardener, we can get a clear sense of the unmediated ‘voice’ of the person who designed it, unlike with a novelist or playwright who is speaking through the voices of his characters. I think this is true, but I also know that, as in many other arts, the vision in our heads may not be what actually happens, especially in a garden, where nature has thoughts and desires of her own. I sometimes think that  all I can do it try to find what works best in my own conditions of soil and shade, and point the garden in that general direction. Every so often there is what i will forever think of now as one of Bixley’s ‘foxglove moments’ to make up for the failures.

And having made a garden, Bixley considers the role of the garden critic. In the UK there are ‘Open Garden’ schemes, whereby for a few pounds (often donated to charity) you can have a look at what other people are up to in their back gardens. Cake is often involved too, which is a great incentive. And of course the National Trust has open gardens, which are considerably more expensive. I have never visited a garden that didn’t give me some inspiration, though I have a preference for those that are filled with plants and heavy with scent rather than some of the more formal hedge and fountain designs that are sometimes favoured. It seems rather churlish to criticise someone’s garden when it’s essentially private for most of the year: the owner has been kind enough to let you in for a look, so it seems to me the height of rudeness to then castigate it. I can see a little more reason for a review if you’ve paid hard-earned dosh to look around a public garden and discover that it’s half-dead or filled with litter, but not just because it doesn’t meet with your taste. Alas, I think this attitude would put critics of all of the arts out of business within a few weeks. Bixley’s view is that there is nothing wrong with a reasoned commentary on a garden, but that (I am paraphrasing) so often the review is about the commentator and their need to attract attention to themselves rather than the garden itself. He quotes from one particular review (of Sir Roy Strong’s garden The Laskett) where the critic, Anne Wareham, complains that

“Wherever you turn, there is a new space delineated by hedges; there is no space to breathe and no escape. There is no clear sense of where to go next, creating a build-up of tension and disorientation until panic begins to seep in”.

Wareham then goes on to describe the group of people that she took to the garden as ‘angry’ and ‘savage’. Like Bixley, I find it hard to believe that a group of folk out for a nice look around a garden would be more than slightly irritated or mildly disappointed. It seems clear that the review is all about the critic and their desire to be dramatic, rather than the garden itself.

There is so much to savour in this book: thanks to Bixley I am thinking of planting some autumn-flowering crocuses under my geraniums this year. I have acquired an interest in garden history, something which had never previously crossed my mind. I am even more in awe of people who try to create magic in the gardens of Ontario than I was before. The photographs, by Des Townshend, are a delight. And I am aware that there is much in this book that I will need to read again in order to consider it properly. Fortunately, re-reading ‘Minding the Garden- Lilactree Farm’ will be an absolute pleasure.

You can buy the book, published by Friesen Press, here.

4 thoughts on “Book Review – ‘Minding the Garden – Lilactree Farm’ by Brian Bixley

  1. Anne

    I am in awe of people who can both create and maintain beautiful gardens. I sow seeds and toss away the colourful packets they come in as what comes up usually bears little relation to the abundance shown in the illustration. I enjoy whatever the birds bring into the garden, having received some pleasant surprises over the years. I mourn the barrenness of the drought while knowing there will be a recovery after good rain. This book sounds like an excellent read. I plan to look out for it!

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  2. K.E.S.

    I haven’t read the book, but it seems Bixley is too quick condemn Anne Wareham, who has interesting things to say. Her point is that that gardens — and by this she means gardens with a ‘public’ life— should be taken more seriously, as living art forms. With that Bixley would surely agree. Her further point is that public gardens, like art, should be subject to criticism; and, furthermore, should *invite* criticism. That way, art transforms itself, and possibly for the better.

    As for her comments about Roy Strong’s garden, she was hardly punching down — Strong is not exactly shy about broadcasting his own strongly held opinions about the arts. It’s a shame he didn’t respond: it would have made for a good debate.

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    1. Brian Bixley

      I don’t disagree with anything that K.E.S. says because I make exactly those comments in the book. I agree with A.W.’s goals; it’s her language I object to, because it seems to disqualify her as the perceptive critic she is calling for. I even refer to “the self-congratulatory persona of Sir Roy Strong.”! Brian B.

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    2. Bug Woman Post author

      I think that Bixley was responding to the language, not to the idea of criticism itself – he would I’m sure agree that commentary and an outside perspective were helpful. And you’re right that Roy Strong was not backward in coming forward :-). A debate would have been really interesting!

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