Book Review: Natural Selection by Dan Pearson

I’ll start, as I start any review of anything, by mentioning that I do not accept freebies or discounted products to review. This includes so-called “review copies” of books. I buy something, be it lawn mower or book, and eventually get round to writing up my thoughts on it. They are my thoughts. Sometimes I agree with others; sometimes I don’t. But I’m honest.

The initial impression of this book is that it is a work of art. Well bound; high quality, brilliant white paper; green ink. The linocut illustrations are wonderful in themselves. I would strongly recommend that you read this article about Claire Melinsky and the technique of linocutting.

But my enthusiasm starts to wane as I start turning the pages.

I like Dan Pearson’s work, whether that be his designs, his TV presentations, his newspaper/magazine columns and, more recently, his online “magazine” Dig Delve. This, though, is the first of his books to appear on my shelves and I bought it anticipating something like Dig Delve. OK! I made a mistake.

I tend to look at books as something to be read, starting at the beginning and ending at the end. The exceptions to this are books like encyclopaedias, dictionaries and the like. These latter incarnations tend to be arranged in some logical order, have an index that helps you to find a specific article and be clearly marketed as such. They are books into which you delve when searching for particular knowledge.

This book is of articles written for The Observer over about 10 years. It’s title strap-line is “A Year in the Garden”. I wouldn’t call it a “compilation”; it’s not an anthology; maybe simply a “collection.” But it is definitely not a year in THE garden – it meanders confusingly between two gardens that are separate in time, with several others cropping up now and then.

Many other writers have produced “through the year” type books drawn from their newspaper columns: Christopher Lloyd, Vita Sackville-West, Hugh Johnson and Tim Richardson to name but a few (OK, pedantic people, few+one). The articles follow one from another in a logical sequence, hinting, tipping, advising on what to do and not to do from month to month. The gardens from which the writers derive their inspiration are there but in the background. Any shift from year to year, both forth and back in time, is imperceptible. Where there is something of import in the difference between March of year one and March of year four, a footnote or other explanation is provided. This easy flow is missing from Dan’s book.

The two main gardens are a typical walled-in city garden in Peckham, London, and an 8-acre smallholding in Somerset. Different conditions entirely. Different periods entirely. Different techniques entirely. These two gardens didn’t co-exist in Dan Pearson’s timeline but were, rather, consecutive. But the book jumps from one to the other and back again, confusing the reader into losing all notion of the passage of years. That he also introduces other gardens in which he has worked from time to time merely adds to the confusion. What may have been interesting and current at the time of original publication of an article becomes nothing when that context is removed and you’re not sure which year you are in. As the timeline confusion grows, the book seems to become more about Dan, Dan and more Dan. It’s almost a prospectus. Everything else – gardens, plants, advice – retreats into the distance, to be quickly forgotten.

If I wanted to be kind I would suggest that this is a book written by an expert for consumption only by other experts but there aren’t enough of those to purchase enough copies to make the book pay. So it has to attract the ordinary gardener such as me. Had I borrowed this book from a library first, I wouldn’t have bought it; I probably wouldn’t have read as much of it as I have before taking it back.

To get anything from this book, you will need to have handy a notebook, pen or pencil, a gardening dictionary or encyclopaedia to research subjects that are here disposed of too quickly and maybe a smartphone with some of those plant-identifying gardening apps installed. And you should not attempt to read it in large chunks.

As it is, my overall impression remains of something which is an over-promotional, disorganised attempt at an autobiography. It’s all “what I did today” – Dan’s diary in the wrong order. This is a great shame because the gardening world has much to be thankful to Dan for. He has a writing style which is both informative and engaging and he appeals to all ages. Taken individually, the articles are informative and engaging, indeed entertaining, as you might expect. It is the act of combining them that transforms them into something with a completely different personality. They were simply not meant to go together. By the time you’ve read a third article, you’ve forgotten most of the first. When you start on the fourth, little is sinking in to begin with. There is no flow – the jumping about in time destroys all hope of that.

I bought the book at publication, some time ago. I drafted this review a while back and have sat on it, wondering whether I was being too harsh. I have now changed a sentence a bit and added this paragraph but otherwise my view of the book is unchanged. I have still yet to finish reading it and, at the moment, have no particular desire to do so.

But I’ll lap up every edition of “Dig Delve”.

“Natural Selection: A Year in the Garden” is published by Guardian Books. UK ISBN 978-1-78335-117-6

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Natural Selection by Dan Pearson

    1. Thank you for that kind comment. As it happens, there’s a large section of “invisible” web site full of book reviews that I’ve compiled over time. It’ll appear as soon as I work out how to organise it! 😉

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