Book Review: “American Gardens” by Monty Don & Derry Moore

(“American Gardens” – Amazon UK)

The bookshelves in our living room are jam-packed. Most novels I read, I tend to pass along or donate, so what fills the majority of the shelves are cookbooks and coffee table books – beautiful, heavy, hardcover volumes about everything from interior design to travel to cult eyewear. Jorge has at least one full to bursting row of garden books. Being American with a love of books and photography and with a garden designer husband, I was happy to welcome a gift copy of our latest addition: the shiny new volume “American Gardens”, a collaboration between famous British garden writer Monty Don and celebrated photographer Derry Moore.

The book, which is an elaboration on their BBC tv series, takes them on several journeys in search of an answer to the pretty much unanswerable question: “What is an American garden?” 

Photo credit: Derry Moore

Monty writes in the intro, “Some garden styles are recognisable and distinctive even if you only have a passing acquaintance with them. Japanese dry gardens, Italian Renaissance gardens, Dutch and French formality, English landscape and cottage gardens, Islamic Charbaghs – all are easily identified and attached to nationalities.” Everywhere he travelled, he asked people what makes a garden American. “There was a general consensus that the United States is too big and too diverse to possess one characteristic style of garden. What typifies the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico has no relevance in Vermont or Virginia, and the prairies of the Midwest are another horticultural country to Florida.”

Photo credit: Derry Moore

And that is true. The style of gardens that characterised the area of upstate New York where I grew up is completely different from gardens I’ve visited on the west coast or elsewhere in the country. But that is also true of many aspects of American life and culture, from food to fashion to accents to architecture, which all differ vastly across the 3,000 mile expanse of the country I once called home.

Monty and Derry’s book is not just about the gardens themselves, but about the origins and history of the gardens they visit and the role they have played in their owner’s and visitor’s lives throughout time. It is also about architecture. It is also a travel narrative relaying some of the “muddles, cock-ups and silly mistakes” invariably involved in adventures abroad. For instance, after visiting a garden in Charleston, they go out for dinner and Monty recalls an incident that happened while they were waiting for food: “Suddenly people started screaming, jumping up, knocking over tables and running for the door. I looked up and saw a wall of flame coming from the kitchens. We sat on, being British and not wanting to make a fuss, until we were the only people remaining and a waitress suggested that we were unlikely to receive our food and should probably leave within the next minute or two. As we left, fire engines arrived in force and our dinner, and the restaurant, went up in smoke.”

Photo credit: Derry Moore

They cover three main routes. 

The first takes them from Washington DC, with stops along the east coast down to Florida and over to Louisiana. Monty transports us to the streets of Charleston with descriptive observations: “Peeking through the railings and hedges of the street are tantalising glimpses of long, thin gardens with roses and great clumps of amaryllis, and others with salvias growing as great bushes beneath myrtles.” They check out the British Embassy gardens, visit stunning Spanish courtyards, spot a pergola draped with crab apples, photograph the oldest oak tree in South Carolina, come across a vibrant selfie spot in Florida, and show us swamps and sunflowers.

Photo credit: Derry Moore

Journey two takes them back up to the north east. They cover New York City, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, also branching over to Chicago and Missouri. I was hoping to see upstate New York in this section, but they didn’t quite make it up to Buffalo where I grew up. Of course NYC’s Central Park is included where the “trees line the park with a deep, shady seduction”. They head up to a trendy Brooklyn rooftop farm, there’s a wander through a prairie garden in Missouri that “has no function other than to inspire”, and admire Fallingwater, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most original buildings, in Pennsylvania.

The last journey was most interesting to me, because the west coast where they head next has a landscape and flora most unfamiliar to me with its cacti and palm trees, the stark beauty of its deserts. This last leg takes them from Arizona, up through California and into Washington. Their first visit is a desert botanical garden where there are a mind-blowing 25,000 types of plants. I love that the text isn’t dry or boring at all as a book dedicated to gardens has the potential to be to people who enjoy gardens but aren’t necessarily professionals or experts; it is injected with Monty’s amusing observations and comments like, “One final saguaro fact: there is a law in Arizona specifically prohibiting the shooting of saguaro cacti. You have been warned.” They visit swimming pool dotted gardens around houses with “cool, confident American lines” in and around Palm Springs. They arrive in Los Angeles, which Monty describes as “an incoherent city. It sprawls and leaches and amasses itself into quarters without ever really arriving or leaving anywhere.” They take us to the eclectic Dawnridge gardens. They drive through the imposing Redwoods and end their adventure in Washington state. 

A travel story at its heart, illustrated by Derry’s compelling, glowing images, “American Gardens” is as likely to be enjoyed by someone who spends time browsing the shelves of Daunt as someone who has often found themselves in the library of the RHS and has a deep interest in and knowledge of horticulture. 

Photo credit: Derry Moore

Monty and Derry traced routes (and roots) most familiar to most visitors to the States. As it often is in media publications, podcasts, broadcasts, etc, outside of the US, middle America was largely ignored. I really enjoyed reading “American Gardens” and Derry’s images alongside Monty’s enlightening words were inspiring. I’d love to visit some of these places one day, when this Covid malarkey has given way to travel once again. I’d also really love to see a second (third, etc) volume that dives into some of the less often highlighted states in the centre of the country, the tip of the northeast, Alaska and Hawaii which are very much unlike anywhere else, and selfishly, a shout to good old Western New York.

Thanks to Bei at Midas PR and publisher Prestel for my gift copy! As always, opinions are my own. 

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