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5 Minute Masterclass: Robin Lane Fox

New College’s Garden Master and Fellow in Ancient History, Robin Lane Fox, discusses the art of the garden and writing the Financial Times’ gardening column
Robin Lane Fox on Wednesday 23rd November 2011
Photograph: Curtis Brown

You have had a gardening column in the Financial Times since 1970. How does the writing process behind these articles play out?

My garden writing always arises out of what I’m doing or reading. New College Garden and the nine outlying gardens are run with no retained full-time gardener. Instead we use valiant teams of contractors, and I buy and place everything they plant and am in regular contact about what to do. On top of that I have a garden of 2 acres myself which is in varying states of glory and decay. There is plenty going on to write about.

I try to vary the range of what I write about but it’s changed so much. When I began writing a Wednesday column for the Financial Times it sold about 130,000 copies, mainly in Britain. I was told to think of Virginia Water when I wrote in the 70s, which I’d been to once and hated. Now my Saturday column in the Financial Times has a circulation of 480,000, of which 350,000 are abroad.

I like to give the feeling that the reader will never be quite sure what angle of gardening they will confront. So I vary between ‘how to’ columns – particularly flower gardening and what to choose. I am inspired by things I’ve seen, sometimes paintings, which are very popular. Sometimes gardens I’ve been to when travelling for ancient history abroad can form the basis for an article. Persistent complaints about the doublethink of eco-gardeners fill my columns. I am an inorganic gardener and I do not believe that rabbits, badgers and deer are a privilege with which I am lucky to share my garden. I think at all costs they are to be removed!

 

Are you influenced by literature and art when you encounter a garden?

If I travel to a historic garden of a particular period, I try to think sideways to the novels and poetry of that era, if I know them. And quite often there is a mismatch. Many authors, then as now, are horticulturally blind. I used to advise Iris Murdoch on her rose garden but I wouldn’t expect Martin Amis to have the slightest idea about the subtle depths of any garden he mentions.

And equally there are scenes from painting that live in my mind and either nudge my taste in a particular direction or cause me to look on what I’ve planted in a particular way. I was in the Met in June and fastened on a painting by Degas called September. There was a large bowl of flowers – Michaelmas daisies and so forth. It caught my eye and mind. And it’s an effect that I try to work to in autumn in the New College borders.

But it is important to respect garden-doing rather than garden-watching. I admire anyone who can grow things and there are far too many designers who can’t. I think we are seeing a resurgence of gardening. I look to this generation as the great hope to repair the clueless vacuity of those I taught from 1973 to 2003, not one of whom knew what a primrose looked like. Unless the coalition decides to tarmac two thirds of the surrounding countryside, perhaps we might actually learn to participate in one of the supreme strengths of British culture.

 

What makes your personal gardening ‘style’?

Sustainability is sloppy thinking. I admire the classical Japanese who admired a flower even more if its beauty was transitory. Gardens with a natural look or trying to use natural methods are just as much of a pretence and an illusion as my borders full of Delphiniums on beautifully staked bamboo canes. I don’t want a garden that looks like the banks of a motorway.

As for gardening within the effects of climate change, I feel about the global greenhouse what Mao felt about the French Revolution – it’s too early to say. At the moment the warmer summers and dry years are very patchy in parts of the world, but they were in the 18th century too. We haven’t yet, I think, crossed a barrier where a completely new range of plants is now possible outdoors in Britain. The effects, if any so far, have not changed the art of gardening.

I am not saving the planet nor creating a haven for wildlife. I am creating a garden of really beautiful flowers which is an illusion. We do not all need to have a garden full of rabbits. Despite the remorseless logic of Derek Parfitt and his book Reasons and Persons, I cannot live my life as if every tiny decision should be multiplied by a million and assessed for its overall difference to the world. Eco-freaks in camouflage trousers and pigtails soften when they see the beauty of my garden in June or September. That’s my style and I admire it.

 

Robin Lane Fox's latest book is Thoughtful Gardening, published by Penguin

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