Beautiful New book by Claire Austin
I recently had the pleasure of judging Reference Book of the Year for The Garden Media Guild Awards 2015. This is a tough category for the entrants; there are always some fantastic entries ranging from the highly specialised, to very general gardening compilations. However, there are specific parameters to guide judges. To qualify for short list selection books have to be very user-friendly, clearly presented, and basically useful to all gardeners at all levels of expertise. This year’s winner: Claire Austin’s Book of Perennials was a clear favourite from the outset. I found myself gravitating towards its beautiful photographs and inspiring layout; I know it’s a book I shall refer to constantly.
From my own experience in writing and producing books I know that the cover is always a tough decision. Not many authors would ever have chosen the cover that eventually appears on the book they’ve written. Publishers have specific ideas of what will sell, and it rarely matches the vision of the author. Claire’s book is different. A glorious image of Sanguisorba ‘Pink Tanna’, photographed by Claire in gentle sunshine immediately lures you into the book to read more. Such is the advantage of being author, photographer and publisher. Claire’s eye has clearly influenced every detail.
Claire grew perennials at David Austin Roses, her father’s nursery, for twenty years before she started Claire Austin Hardy Plants, just over the border into Wales. Claire grows more than 1000 varieties of perennial and her knowledge is second to none. As a fellow exhibitor at RHS Chelsea Flower Show she has put me right on labelling on more than one occasion, for which I am eternally grateful.
So why is this book so good? It gives practical advice on growing perennials and planting combinations. It has brilliant, concise lists recommending perennials for specific situations. Best of all it is a catalogue of reliable hardy varieties with a fantastic wealth of superb photographs. For me that means I can use it for identification of plants. Also, more importantly for selection of the right varieties for a planting scheme. When it comes to books about plants, if I’ve read it, I want to see it. In this book I can.
Like any gardener Claire has her favourites. I associate her with bearded irises and peonies. However her selection of plants in the book is very balanced and contains an excellent representation of all popular genera. Lovers of bearded irises will not be disappointed. However other plants which have a mass of commercial varieties, such as hemerocallis are also really well represented.
I like the fact that the selection is a great mix of old favourites and new introductions. I think that’s hard to do, as there are so many new varieties coming to market all the time. However some quickly establish themselves as “must have plants”. Look at the success of Geranium ‘Rozanne’. Few gardens today are without it, and few gardeners aren’t aware of it. The lovely West Country Lupin ‘Persian Slipper’ looks like it will be a favourite for the future. Those stout dusky blue spikes have the benefit of a heavy, spicy fragrance.
Old favourites include Achillea ‘Gold Plate’; yes its yellow, a colour shunned by so many in recent years. However if you are on chalky soil few perennials give such a lasting display as those flattened golden heads float across the border. Unlike many other achilleas they stand as beautiful remains into winter; you can dry them too.
Achilleas are very wildlife friendly, both for bees and butterflies in summer and birds take the seeds in winter. This attribute is high on the agenda of many gardeners today, hence the popularity of subjects such as the prairie native, agastache. I seem to come across the cultivar ‘Blue Fortune everywhere. As the boundaries between seasonal bedding and herbaceous perennials become more blurred as increasing volumes of seed-raised perennials come onto the market it is good to be reminded of the broader palette of these wonderful garden plants.
As a “shrubby” I’m usually more into books on woody plants, although I do have a garden full of perennials. This book has inspired me to put more effort into their selection and given me some great advice on how to get the best out of them. I should point out that these pictures are mine and not Claire’s – hers are thoroughly wonderful: buy the book and you will see what I mean.
Publisher: White Hopton Publications
Design, text and photography: Claire Austin