I've always been interested in English history, needlework and culture. Nowhere do they intersect more perfectly — at least to my mind — than in gardening. Gardening is a long and storied part of the larger cultural landscape in the United Kingdom. That's why I love Gardens Illustrated (GI) magazine: it covers the very old and the very new in the world of gardening. There are profiles of plants people and articles looking deeply at one plant in all its permutations. The magazine looks at every type and size of garden in every corner of the world. GI also covers low budget gardens and eccentric gardeners, the kind of topics that got short shrift in most American garden magazines at the time I began gardening.
I subscribed to Horticulture and Garden Design magazines for years. But these days GI is the only one I'm still following. When it began publishing in the spring of 1993 it was a magazine like nothing I'd ever seen: large format, luscious photos and layout, intelligent and opinionated text. I've still got stacks of back issues including the first 30 issues. Originally GI was published every other month and they didn't start numbering them until No. 6.
Maybe because I am so familiar with GI and its foibles I didn't get excited when Garden in a City blog took exception to the cover story of issue No.231: "Tom Stuart-Smith's 100 Plants Every Gardener Should Grow." I, on the other hand, went searching for that very issue as soon as I knew about it. A number of years ago Anna Pavord, another well-known English gardener/author, offered her list of 100 plants that she would never want to be without. When those of us who garden in the Midwest are getting ready to plant, these kind of lists seem like a topic worth considering rather than consigning to the compost pile.
"How do you judge an iris against an oak tree?" Pavord asked, noting that compiling a list like this makes you "ask yourself why you respond to some plants much more warmly than others." As Pavord said, it's an exercise that really makes you think. It got me wondering what would be on my list — so I composed one. As in Pavord's case, it consisted only of things I'd grown. Unlike Pavord, I limited my list to a baker's dozen. Somehow 100 plants suggested nothing was left off her list — either that or she had a very large garden. When I read over my list again all these years later, I saw that every thing on it was still growing in my garden and was a plant I would put on my list again.
In case you are not familiar with him, Tom Stuart-Smith has won multiple medals at the Chelsea Flower show. He's also the first living gardener with an exhibition of work at the Garden Museum in London in 2011. As for his list of 100 plants? He's a terrific designer and I wanted to see what plants he likes enough to recommend — especially since my favorite gardens by him are mainly green (see below). I was also curious to see what he specifically said about his plant choices. Since Gardens Illustrated is a UK publication, I knew from the start the list would have things I can't grow in my Zone 4 American garden. Worse, there would be many wonderful plants that I could grow if only someone was selling them over here. Since Jason at Garden in a City added up the plants on Tom's list where he's growing the exact same plant as well as those where he's growing a different variety in the same family, I decided to do the same. To my surprise I am growing ten of the same things but I am growing another 26 plants that are the same genus. Yet my garden could hardly look more different than Tom's own garden or his creations.
I know from following Jason's blog that he was having a bit of fun here. But I think there is also a serious point to be made. I don't believe even a novice gardener is going to go out and try to buy all 100 of Stuart-Smith's recommended plants, as some of Jason's commenters feared. But I do know that beginning gardeners will kill a lot of plants before they figure it all out, because we've all done it. Learning from our mistakes is the best way to learn. Listening to those in the know like Stuart-Smith is another way to learn. I spent last Saturday — along with more than a hundred other gardeners — at a daylong garden symposium put on by the Allen Centennial Garden on the UW-Madison campus. Every speaker enthused about plants we should grow. And they all have written books which will let us learn about their philosophy and their favorite plants in more detail.
A Tom Stuart-Smith garden in London.
I expected Saturday's event to send me home overloaded with new ideas — and it did. But garden information and inspiration can also come when you least expect it and where you least expect to find it, even in the pages of English magazines. I've come to the conclusion that specific plants — whether they're from Stuart-Smith's list, are common cultivars or cool ones from a specialty nursery — matter much less to my level of enjoyment in the garden than I like to think. The most important thing I've learned over the years is that gardening is about the doing: the digging and weeding and watering. I may plan and plot and dream but when it comes right down to it, I garden to garden.
A Tom Stuart-Smith garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.