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.