Rough Trade Books’ latest series of pamphlets, published in partnership with the Garden Museum, explore gardens as a locus of desire, aspiration, colonisation, care, effort, property, land and ownership, loss and literature. Jill Hopper looks them over.
For city gardeners, it’s not just land for growing that can be hard to come by; even sunlight can be stolen. In Hackney, east London, there’s a tiny backyard shop selling plants that thrive in shade. Its very existence is an act of defiance – the yard is gradually being overshadowed by the construction of a block of luxury flats.
This story is recounted by Susanna Grant in From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, one of four new pamphlets examining radical ideas about horticulture, published by Rough Trade Books in partnership with the Garden Museum. Grant celebrates rebellious gardening – in tree pits, beside canals, on roundabouts – urging us to uproot our ‘plant blindness’ and learn to value the tenacious specimens that persist in the overlooked spaces at the periphery of our vision. The pamphlet is interleaved with gorgeous colour-saturated botanical photographs by Rowan Spray to help us identify such beauties as lady’s bedstraw and ribwort plantain. There’s a blend of activism, plant lore and practical tips here – Grant suggests using bigger, deeper pots and windowboxes as miniature gardens, allowing them to flare and fade with the seasons rather than packing them full of showy annuals.
The other three titles in the series are equally thought-provoking. Enjoying Wild Herbs, written by permaculturist and herbalist Nat Mady, with sinuous illustrations by artist Catmouse, is a seasonal guide to native British herbs, from dandelion and nettle to meadowsweet and yarrow. Mady is eager to restore our connection with these plants, which has been all but severed by mechanised agriculture and urban living. She includes simple recipes for tonics, teas, face oils and balms, all of which would have been familiar to our forebears. I love the idea of infusing a handful of herbs in a waterbottle or tossing a handful into bathwater to soothe tired muscles.
Horticultural Appropriation treads a more polemical path. It’s a transcript of a conversation between organic food grower Claire Ratinon and artist, educator and musician Sam Ayre, both of whom were invited to take up a 2020/21 Garden Residency at West Dean College, near Chichester in West Sussex. The duo were tasked with exploring routes for decolonising the college’s archive and collection of artefacts; the message that emerges powerfully from their exchange is that, although many might prefer to see horticulture as a purely aesthetic act, there are always power structures at play: who owns the land, who blocks the light, who deems a plant desirable or unwanted? Perhaps it’s only when horticulture is honest about its often murky roots that it will become truly welcoming to everyone.
The fourth and final title is Testimonies on the History of Jamaica Vol. 1, a lament about colonialism, slavery and the monoculture that obliterated the island’s rich variety of flora and fauna in favour of sugarcane. Writer and historian Zakiya McKenzie channels unheard voices to unearth the past of this contested territory, whose original name, Xaymaca, meant ‘land of wood and water’. We hear from Izolo the demigod and mystic; Wande Sheba, a 17th century maroon of Spanish Jamaica, and Tansy, a slave who suffered and died under the rule of the British. Tansy tells us: ‘Me walk up the hill with Miss Catherine Moore in 1760 for them to call her the first woman to top the peak. As if me is not woman. As if Black woman don’t count.”
These four unassuming pamphlets, with their matt, earth-toned jackets, are varied in content but united by their pleas for greater awareness and nuance in our planting and our picking. They don’t just want to sow ideas in our heads – they want to sow plants in our gardens too (each one has a card tucked inside, impregnated with herb and wildflower seeds). I loved them, and am sure they will enrich any gardener’s bookshelf.
The four titles are available to order from roughtradebooks.com, priced £7.99 each. We’ve also got a set to give away to one lucky winner on this Friday’s newsletter; make sure you’re signed up to our mailing list for details of how to enter! You can subscribe via the sidebar on the right hand side of this page, if you aren’t already.
Jill Hopper’s memoir ‘The Mahogany Pod’ is out now, published by Saraband.