Heat, the strength of the sun and the tenderness of my baby daughter's complexion have colluded in confining me to the house. The effect is strangely reminiscent of being in England in the depths of winter. The result is that I feel isolated and want to nest, and by the time I bother to look outside the day is almost finished and the patches of landscape I do see - leaves caked in dust and hedges clogged with sand - only reinforce my desire to stay indoors. It felt too early to start thinking about the coming growing season and so, with this column and your entertainment in mind, I found myself reviewing my reading for the past year.
Anne Wareham has been described as one of the most provocative, controversial and interesting people in the gardening world today. Whether you agree with that assessment will largely depend on your view of gardening, but if British institutions such as the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and the long-running BBC television series Gardeners' World define this, then Wareham's pronouncements may well land like a horticultural hand grenade.
Wareham has become notorious for raising the hackles of the UK gardening establishment, not least for defining gardening as "talked-up housework you have to do outside" while dismissing many contemporary gardens as "plant zoos" (from which she feels alienated) that are the product of "plantaholics", with whom she has little or nothing in common.
Until the publication of The Bad Tempered Gardener (Frances Lincoln; Dh103), Wareham's approach was defined as much by a string of controversial interviews, articles and internet postings as it is by her editorship of the website thinkinGardens.co.uk. One of horticulture's most delicious reads, it manages to deliver serious intent with some of the wittiest and most refreshing garden writing available in print or online. Its aim is nothing less than "to reinstate gardens as a stimulus to pleasurable and productive debate and to foster gardens that offer deeper artistic expression". And although I'm not sure that it always does this, it's the one horticultural society I've found that I'd be intellectually and socially happy to belong to.
Despite all this, Wareham's proclamations would all be rather hollow if it wasn't for Veddw, the garden she built in Monmouthshire with her husband, the plant photographer Charles Hawes, between 1987 and 1995. Described as "a garden based on ideas rather than on conventional horticultural formulas", it is also, as the writer and garden historian Tim Richardson has noted, part of a special group of internationally important gardens created by non-professionals who have all come to landscape relatively late in life. Other gardens on this list include Derek Jarman's flotsam and shingle garden at Dungeness on the south-east coast of England, the architectural historian Charles Jencks's Garden of Cosmic Speculation, and Little Sparta, the politically engaged, polemical landscape created over 45 years by the artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay at his home in the Pentland Hills southeast of Edinburgh, Scotland.
Little Sparta is the focus of John Dixon Hunt's academic monograph Nature Over Again: The Garden Art of Ian Hamilton Finlay (Reaktion Press; Dh180), and in both the book and its subject, a level of art and criticism not normally associated with contemporary garden practice are achieved. After a long and varied career, Finlay is now recognised as one of the most important British artists of the 20th century, while John Dixon Hunt is professor of the history and theory of landscape at the University of Pennsylvania. The book is beautifully illustrated and, although there may be a gulf between the garden writing of thinkinGardens and the criticism produced by Dixon Hunt, the ambition of both - to elevate the understanding and the practice of making gardens - is a common theme, as are the prejudices faced in doing so.
As Dixon Hunt admits: "There is even, it must be confessed, a reluctance by some commentators to discuss the garden 'poetry' for its own sake - a reluctance that comes in great part, I suspect … from the unease with which critics of the established arts confront gardens in the first place." One only has to look at the pages of Nature Over Again to see that Finlay, like Wareham and her circle, identifies the 18th century as a time when gardens played a major part in the arts and were a significant arena for discussions of taste, the nature of creativity, philosophy and politics.
As Stephen Orr shows in Tomorrow's Garden: Design and Inspiration for a New Age of Sustainable Gardening (Rodale Press; £17.99 [Dh109]), the realisation among a growing number of gardeners that they need to face up to wider environmental issues is already moving the garden back to centre stage in contemporary culture, whether the establishment likes it or not.
Orr, a long-term supporter of organic gardening, writes gracefully about the mellowing of his own design sensibilities while travelling around the US in search of gardens that manage to wed environmental sensitivity and the "bigger picture" with simpler, smaller-scale aesthetic pleasures. Gardeners, he argues, must start considering "sustainability in water usage, plant choices, local ecology and preservation of resources". But Orr resists a didactic tone, concentrating instead on describing small plots whose modest beauties speak volumes.
Orr's excellent book is also a hymn to resourcefulness: a beekeeper in Chicago tends dozens of hives in an abandoned car park; a young woman plants sunflowers along the curbs in the neighbourhood surrounding Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal and strangers leave her thank-you notes. Other green pioneers take over acres of lawn in Chicago's parkland to plant community vegetable gardens, while yard-sharing, one of the best ideas to come along in years, is described by Orr during an enthusiastic visit to Portland, Oregon.
Once again, a sustainable approach to gardening proves that it is possible to cross boundaries of taste, politics, class and aesthetics while gently interrogating our suppositions and prejudices about each of these issues. This can - and must - lead to more environmentally responsible and aesthetically stimulating gardening, something that even the "plantaholics" and "aesthetes" among you can surely agree on.
Ÿ For more details, visit www.thinkingardens.co.uk; Veddw House Gardens, Monmouthshire, www.veddw.com, Little Sparta, www.littlesparta.co.uk
My bougainvillea flowered once but has now stopped. My neighbour's seems to flower continually. What can I do to achieve repeated flowering?
Strictly speaking, the "flowers" are actually bracts that appear on new growth, so for a plant to flower it needs to be happy and growing well. Outside of high summer, you should water the plant regularly and feed with a balanced NPK or high nitrogen (N) fertiliser every two weeks, switching occasionally to a feed that is higher in potassium (K) and phosphorous (P), such as tomato plant fertiliser. When the bracts appear, stop feeding and, if possible, reduce the amount of irrigation the plant receives. When the bracts fade, prune the plant, then repeat the process all over again.
Garden buy: Gardening in the Middle East
This is not the first time Eric Moore's Gardening in the Middle East has been mentioned in these pages, but this week's column provides an opportunity to make another firm recommendation. A leading US dry-zone horticulturalist with first-hand experience of the challenges that the environment here poses, Moore's fully illustrated book, published in 2007, is regarded as the standard on the topic. It includes a plant encyclopaedia, chapters on different types of garden, how to choose the right plant and ensuring plant survival and growth, and is an essential reference for UAE gardeners of all experience. Dh150, www.amazon.com or available to order through Magrudy's.