Why We Garden by Claire Masset – Review

'Why We Garden' by Claire Masset book review logo

By Barney Bardsley

This well-researched and peaceful book introduces us not just to the many benefits that gardening can bring us, but also to the countless famous – and sometimes unlikely – people who espouse its joys. Some of these people, like Monet, whose iconic garden at Giverny was painted by him throughout his life, for the garden was his veritable muse, are well-known for their love of nature. Others, such as George Orwell, better known for his political novels and hard headed social investigations, come as more of a surprise. Yet Orwell loved to garden very much, and moved to the isle of Jura in the Hebrides in 1946, where gardening became a big part of his life. His retreat was partly to rehabilitate his health, as a long term sufferer of tuberculosis, and partly in response to grief – his wife had died the year before. He began to dig, almost to save his soul. And he loved it, recording in great detail his sowing and planting, and avowing that, “Outside of work the thing I care most about is gardening.” Then there is French writer Voltaire, who said, “I have only done one sensible thing in my life – to cultivate the ground.” And Virginia Woolf, who found solace from her deep depressions, in the simple act of sifting the earth, is touching in confessions such as this: “Weeding all day to finish the beds, in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness.” Masset’s book is chock full of quotes and facts like these, which make it a very enjoyable read indeed.

The author divides her book into chapters with enticing one word labels, such as ‘Beauty’, ‘Sanctuary’, ‘Therapy’, even ‘Love’, to explore how deeply beneficial it can be to make a garden grow. The reasons to plant things are rich and diverse. But the constant underlying refrain here is one of healing and contentment. Although an intensely physical activity, gardening is quite as much a release for the mind as for the body. Masset writes about the artist and film maker Derek Jarman, who famously chose the bleak shingle of Dungeness on the south coast of England to retreat to, when he became ill with AIDS, and made there a garden of extraordinary colour and vibrancy. (He went on to write about it too, in a book of great beauty, called Modern Nature.) Jarman knew that he would not recover: yet his garden helped his tormented mind heal, even in the middle of his dying. Masset says, “As much as it can be beautiful or productive, a garden is also a passage to somewhere else. As Jarman realised, it opens the door to peace and stillness of mind.”

“Gateway to contemplation”

'Why We Garden' by Claire Masset book review coverThe garden, as explored so skilfully in this soothing and eloquent book, is, above all, a gateway to contemplation. It is no wonder that great religions have gardens at the centre of their faith: the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament; the Christian monastery gardens of the Middle Ages; the Islamic paradise gardens – places of prayer and reflection; and the spare, asutere beauty of the Zen gardens of gravel and rock.

We make gardens for many different reasons, but at the heart of it, what are we really doing? Planting ourselves deeper into the territory around us, into the earth itself, in order to feel more intimately connected to creation: seed to flower, acorn to oak. There is little more pleasing or productive than a well-tended plot. Claire Masset has an intrinsic understanding of this, which makes her book a labour of love, as alluring to look at, with colourful illustrations packing the pages, as it is to read. Why We Garden would make the perfect gift for anyone you know who is always to be found, bottom up, trowel in hand, busy making their own little piece of paradise in this noisy, naughty world!

‘Why We Garden’ by Claire Masset is published by Batsford, £14.99 hardback


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