Review of “Essay on Gardening” by Henk Gerritsen


Hefting in at one and a half kilos , “Essay on Gardening” simply cannot be that.  (OED “A short piece of writing on a particular subject”).  I suspect a Gerritsen tease.  For the gardener who wants to be enlightened and provoked in equal measures, treat this book as your bible.  I have read it twice.   Once to get a handle on plant lists, botanising expeditions and fairly unusual guidelines  to garden maintenance.  Second time round to  savour the philosophy, the relationships with people and the deep awe of nature. 

The forward is by Piet Oudolf,  friend of Gerritsen’s and co-author of other books.  Of their endless debate on horticulture: “we talked about spontaneity, which plant would fit into your image of an ideal garden: plants that visitors would think had simply walked out of nature which also knew how to behave”.  There you have the philosophy of the ‘New Wave Dutch’ planting rolled out by Gerritson, Oudolf,  Leopold and others.  There is beauty in the acceptance of death and decay in the garden followed by reincarnation each spring.

Born in 1948 and trained as a biology teacher and artist, Gerritsen and  his partner Anton Schlepers,  came to live at Anton’s parents farm in Schuinesloot  in the 1980s.  The gardens of Priona are buried in a patch of reconstructed land which in the 1950s had seen lengths of canals infilled, high ground cut into to result in a drear landscape, scrubbed clean of its indigenous flora and fauna.  Priona held onto some of its oaks – a prize in the ‘dystopian’ suburban landscape of small-holding farms.   The partners started to develop the gardens in 1986.  Inspiration came from a handful of designers – Mein Ruys gardens are a short distance away and provided impetus. 

Above human influences, nature is Henk’s muse and superior partner that he must dance with, observe, copy, respond and react to with respect.  He knows this first hand from a growing up of hitching to and otherwise visiting plant communities beyond the reach of industrial agriculture.  The Balkans, Afghanistan and later South Africa.  His enthusiasm for learning plants is like that of a stamp collector.  There are considerable plants lists in “Essay” and I am guessing that the average reader will be a less knowledgeable plantsman, happy to look them up and learn.  The book is embellished with draw dropping  photographs.  More of that later.

Priona Gardens are at the heart of the book and in them Gerritsen carries out his  experiments  – not all successful – with  plantings,  from meadow sowings to  reseeding breaking out in the  vegetable garden.  It is  refreshing that things are not perfect: plants walk or seed  to become prolific weeds.  As in nature, change will see the  garden marching towards dull climax vegetation,  unless human intervention takes a hand.

Garden ecology gets a good deal of emphasis and I got a little confused in these chapters. However I grasped the concept of “ecological amplitude” as what  suits a certain plant and took on board the firm rule not to add to the fertility to the soil. Nitrogen rich promotes sappy growth and favours nettles, brambles and ground elder. 

“Essay on Gardening”  came out in 2008,  and it must have shocked  with unorthodoxy in both plant palette and maintenance suggestions.   I love the way he writes it and see a smeary mirror held up to my own behaviour.  The  typical gardener is outed:

“Like an addict, he clings to a dream world and refuses to face reality.  In winter he swoons over the photos he took the previous summer, forgetting that this very same summer was one long successions of storms and rain, collapsed border and a constant slipping and sliding over seas of slugs.  These things he neglected to capture in photographs.”

If we can alter this mindset, the mantras are there for a realistic  regime.  Never use chemicals or fertilise the soil and use water sparingly.  Disturb the soil as little as possible by grazing  like a cow, gardening  like an elephant.  The ‘grazing’ allows cut back of perennial weeds without pulling – and the elephant prunes overgrown shrubs judiciously in the winter months.  He has quite a lot to say about weeds: our perception of them and how to live with them in a glyphosate free way.  Take ground elder:  tall perennials will  cohabit stretching way up high and shading out the elder’s vigour. 

Apart from Priona, Waltham Place is the only other garden to have a serious place in this book.  Gerritsen writes about his trials with rabbits and muntjac and provides a list of plants so disgusting that they will remain untouched.  Again the co-habitation of ground elder, kept in check behind box hedges.  His patron for that garden, and indeed this book, Strilli Oppenheimer was adamant that bindweed with its ethereal look, should remain in the garden.  And so we see experiments underway  which give fuel to our own gardening activities. 

Through the book,  plant names and images come fast and furious.  The photographs, mainly  by Henk are awe inspiring.  An incredible world of botany beckons, seen in intimate detail.  The labelling is a tad confusing but never mind  – how often do you get to pretend to be a pollinating insect? 

The last chapter is the piece de resistance, giving the main choice for the plants at Priona and raison d’être:    “shifting from the rare and spectacular to the trivial, and on first appearance, unsightly”    umbellifers, the daisy family, the thistle family amongst them   Nature is brought into the garden – in this, Henk was a huge influence on Piet Oudolf’s developing plant palette as he shared his philosophy of what was garden worthy, resilient and good in form.

Strange and sad that so many in the cast are  longer alive:  Henk, aged 60 died a few months before this book was published.  Rob Leopold,  seed nurseryman and  philosopher in 2005 and Anton Schlepers in1993 but a lively strain  courses through the chapters as Henk works with Anton’s diametrically opposite  attitude to plants, planting and the garden.  Anton is a  tangible presence as Henk grapples with the disintegrating scarecrow, pays homage to bedding  planting and looks for inspiration to replace his  quirky impermanent  designs.  He writes of Leopold’s funeral: “ We gathered to witness Rob’s transition to another gradient, more than to take final leave of him: indeed, he will continue to inspire us”.    And this too could be Gerritsen’s own epitaph.  From this book, he speaks as direct as someone in the room, sometimes admonishing, on occasion hand-wringing but in the main inspiring and teasing. 

This review first appeared on ThinkinGardens