Book review: ‘The Sceptical Gardener’ by Ken Thompson


My sister, bless her dear soul, is a Telegraph reader (those italics are for editorial correctness, not incredulity); moreover, she reads the analogue version, one section of the Saturday edition every weekday morning over her tea and toast, and when she’s done with the Gardening section she gives it to me. When it’s my turn, I like reading the adverts, and the monthly jobs, and cutting out bits with scissors, which I then glue into my gardening file. I was surprised, therefore, to discover that there’s a Telegraph gardening columnist called Ken Thompson whom I hadn’t heard of. Why hadn’t I discovered him before? Thompson is just about the ultimate man: a scientist, and a gardener, who writes interestingly, and has a kindly, bearded face, and above all, in this age of irrational personalities and defiance of expertise, talks calm, bridled, common sense backed up by scientific evidence.

Ah, evidence. Working in the medical and pharmaceutical fields, my daily life revolves around it. If a hospital colleague says something you disagree with, you can simply respond loftily, ‘Yes, but is that evidence-based?’ Every statement or action in healthcare has to be backed up by rigorous study, or face a scornful dressing down. Not so in gardening, where myth, folklore, old-wives’ tales, and plain nonsense abound. Well, that’s fine: after all, the stakes are somewhat lower in gardening than in healthcare. If your Camellia japonica dies, you can just buy a new one. But if you want to cut to the chase and get things right first time, then there’s lots of scientific study out there that will help you be a better gardener, if only you knew where to find it and how to interpret it. That’s where Thompson and his articulate collection of columns comes in.

But this isn’t dry science. Thompson picks topics that you didn’t even know were topics: a prisoners’ dilemma for trees; pouring sugar onto meadows; the frequency with which gardeners appear on Desert Island Discs. He swiftly, but kindly, dismantles myths (permaculture and planting by moon cycles are not worth the trouble, apparently), and expresses dismay at neonicotinoids, New Zealand flatworms, the tendency of Gardeners’ Question Time panelists to make stuff up when they don’t know an answer, and the number of people injured each year by flower pots (5000). A sceptic Thompson might be but he is not a grump, finding much to be cheerful about in the quality of allotment soil, a group of students growing their own food, and the unlooked-for advantages of a drought.

What I liked

I like Thompson’s choice of topics, his succinct, understated style, his lack of hyperbole, and his principles. I am a rather lazy gardener, and so I read with particular relish the chapter named, ‘Not Worth Doing’, describing various garden activities that can be scientifically dismissed as pointless.

What I didn’t like

Being someone who likes to read a book straight through rather than dipping in and out (as I suspect this book was designed for), I would have preferred the columns to have been printed chronologically rather than organised by topic, since they became rather repetitive and unvarying grouped as they are. But I doubt ‘dippers’ would find this layout disagreeable.

Who should buy this book

Gardeners who would like their questions answered in a scientific way, or want to find out a little more about scientific research into horticulture. Those who enjoy ‘bathroom books’ and like entertaining, useful, and interesting facts and snippets.

Thompson, K; (2015) The Sceptical Gardener: the thinking person’s guide to good gardening. 1st edition (London): Icon.


19 thoughts on “Book review: ‘The Sceptical Gardener’ by Ken Thompson

    1. I have just had another flick through to see if it would be too UK specific, and I’m not sure that it would be. There would still be plenty to interest gardeners from other parts of the world, though I probably wouldn’t find it so relevant if I lived in a vastly different climate, as the plants he most often talks about are those that would likely be grown here in the UK. Some of the studies he cites were conducted in the USA (and in other countries). So I think the majority would be of interest to people in temperate zones of the States.

  1. That sounds like one for my Christmas list, though it might have to be the kindle edition if such a thing exists. (We are trying to declutter the house). I loved your humorous description of the book too. I haven’t heard of this guy, but I do know that when I have searched for gardening things online, it is often The Telegraph that has the most comprehensive articles on the subject. I have been very impressed and often used their recommendations.

    1. Update: There is a kindle edition for £6.59. I also have to apologise for thinking that you would place two cups of hot chocolate(?) on a new treasured book! Better get to Specsavers!!!

  2. Ooh, thanks for this excellent review – I shall order one for winter reading. I heard him talk at a local garden club then read his book Where Do Camels Belong. As you say, refreshing to read garden related matters written from such a scientific, no-nonsense perspective. (Think he deserved his RHS Veitch medal this year!)

      1. His talk was excellent, debunked lots of gardening myths/scaremongering – based on the camels book about the ‘invasive’ nature of species. A tad disappointing for those who’d like to eradicate each and every weed/woodlouse ….😉

  3. I’ve got it ordered! I have two scrapbooks mainly filled with cuttings from the Telegraph garden section that I put together before I had my garden. Only problem now is I have totally changed my notion on gardening once it became “hands on”. Amelia

  4. It sounds a book worth seeking out. The Telegraph is banned in this house, but friends tell me that the Saturday gardening section is good. I have never heard of Ken Thompson but his approach sounds refreshing. As you say so much gardening information is unscientific and based on the kind of stuff old men, leaning on their spades, on allotments tell you.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. I now refuse to read any newspaper, as they all talk as much nonsense as each other, and these days I get all my news via my husband’s obsession with PMQs. But I do enjoy my sister’s donation of the gardening section. Old men on allotments – yes!

  5. My parents read the Telegraph and save the Gardening section for me, which I read and then use to light the woodburner. I like the sound of this no-nonsense book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s