Sarah Raven, A Year Full of Flowers

Posted by Glennis Byron on June 22, 2022

Review: Sarah Raven, A Year Full of Flowers: Gardening for all seasons, Jonathan Buckley photographer, Bloomsbury, 2021.

When it comes to Sarah Raven, I’m something of a fangirl, and so it was almost inevitable I would love this book. I know I will never have a garden like the 90-acre Perch Hill, with its herd of Sussex cattle and flock of Romney-cross sheep. I can only dream of having access to the gorgeous pots, the paved courtyard, and the endless supplies of coppiced hazel or willow to make rustic plant supports. I will never have a wildflower meadow.

But that doesn’t matter. She speaks my kind of gardening language, and I find her whole approach to gardening congenial. I know Sarah Raven won’t urge me to make my own dye or perfume out of flowers, to create artful table arrangements out of clusters of cherry tomatoes, or to test whether the ground is ready for planting by placing my bare backside on the soil. Her advice is always down to earth and detailed, and she is full of great ideas that I can put into practice on a smaller scale.

She likes flowers and doesn’t bore me with too many shrubs or trees. Rhododendron and azalea are not words that appear in her index. She likes colour and scent and ‘plants jam-packed, as you might get in nature’. She uses annuals and biennials and tender perennials, and she grows a lot from seed, so she expects a gardener will be willing to put in quite a bit of time and effort. This is not a book for those looking for advice on how to create a low maintenance garden. Nor is it a book for those who want a tidy, regimented garden. Raven has an interesting approach to slug and snail prevention which involves allowing some special grasses to self-sow. The dropped seeds attract birds and the bird population explodes but the molluscs are rarely seen anymore. But would you be happy to let these self-sown grasses romp away in your dahlia patch? I can't say this is an idea I plan to try.

Particularly valuable are the sections in which she describes the best varieties of plants based on extensive trials that she has done at Perch Hill. Just to test how useful this would be to me, I checked out how many of the tulips, alliums, and dahlias she recommends I would be able to buy here in Canada, and it turned out to be a good proportion. I was particularly pleased to read that my all-time favourite tulip, the orange lily-flowered ‘Ballerina’, was also hers - and now I may just be brave enough to plant it with purple alliums. Salvias were a different matter. I would love to follow her advice about underplanting roses with herbaceous salvias, but I haven’t found a good selection here yet. Lots of ‘Hot Lips' and now ‘Amethyst Lips’ available, but both a little too demanding of attention to put with roses.

The practical sections are full of useful tips and projects. Some of these, like the bulb lasagne, are classic Sarah Raven, but I found a lot I didn’t know here too. Chive tea? I’ll be making some of that for mildew prevention. And while I may not have endless supplies of coppiced willow, perhaps I can get some dogwood for making those frames hanging in the trees at Perch Hill that hold fat and seed cylinders for the birds. This is the best kind of gardening book: the kind you really wouldn't want to read without a pencil and notebook in hand.

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