Robin Lane Fox

Thoughtful Gardening

“Thoughtful gardening leads to knowledge, an asset which is intertwined with gardening's roots.”

Doing activities done with care and deliberation is one way we summon that feeling of being absolutely safe. When gardening, for example, if we enclose ourselves between the butterscotch earth and the ceramic sky and get right down to the tasks at hand, some peace comes upon us. Or at least insight. It is a wondrous state.

Robin Lane Fox (b. 1946) is a British gardener of the first order, sowing both exactitude and whimsy in his borders. He also believes gardening, done with deliberation, will thoroughly expand our knowledge.

Of course, like for most avid gardeners (George Washington, Hermann Hesse, Penelope Lively, myself), gardening is far from all he does. Lane Fox oversees the gardens at New College, Oxford, and happens to be the world’s leading scholar on Alexander the Great.1

Photos of New College garden, Oxford featured in "Thoughtful Gardening" book entry.
Gardens at New College, Oxford University. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Perhaps because of his academic foreground, Lane Fox is sensitive to gardening’s rude offerings and rather un-intelligent persona.

Gardening is a thoughtful activity, but thinkers tend to look down on it. It is practical and repetitive, they think, and it is often very dirty. A few universities give degrees in landscape design and professional horticulture, but their emphasis is on weed-suppression and mass propagation… I have heard thinkers blame the English love of gardening for England’s industrial failure. I have even heard them dismiss gardening as a substitute for proper study.

Lane mentions these ignorances but doesn’t dwell on them. He takes for granted that gardening can be performed as a thoughtful, engaged, and enlightening activity. Instead, he focuses on what results when that happens.

In July, I would go off to my favourite small garden, Helen Dillon’s walled garden at Sandford Road in the Ranelagh district of Dublin. At that season, her drooping dieramas are at their best and her two differently coloured borders complement each other down the length of what used to be the Dillons’ perfect lawn. Go and see what the acknowledged queen of small hardy plants has done to her garden’s grassy axis. At every turn, the small groupings of plants here are works of genius, beautifully grown and understood.

The collection of characters spans from Yves St. Laurent’s Moroccan garden to Nancy Lancaster’s effortlessly stylized borders, which she frequently watered in the wee morning when she couldn’t sleep.2

Photos of New College garden, Oxford featured in "Thoughtful Gardening" book entry.
Gardens at New College, Oxford University. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The gravest attack on gardening is not from intellectuals (as much as it bothers Lane Fox that none of his undergraduates could identify a primrose) but from those who approach gardening casually. Without thought.

I blame trends. Stolen, gutted style. Garden trends, something Penelope Lively explored beautifully in her exposition-cum-memoir Life in the Garden, include Jacobean water features to Victorian color blocking to William Robinson’s turn-of-the-century wild garden. (I would add today’s low-maintenance high-impact banal shrubbery that is so attractive in American landscaping and anathema to bees and aesthetics both.)

Lane Fox writes that naming things deepens our knowledge, creates differences, and brightens our observation. Accompany his words with this pleasurable book about flower names and meanings. A different approach to engaging with nature (but one that arrives at the same destination) is Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder. Unlike Lane Fox, Carson believed we learn even when we do not know, and that meaning can exist apart from knowledge.

Like many books I featured in this Library, Thoughtful Gardening is about caring. Really caring about something, being deliberate, concerned, hyperfocused, curious, and open. Giving over time, effort, brain space, fingernails, all of it to this benign battle with nature. Read more about gardeners and their beloved sacrifices in There Is No Collective Noun for Gardeners.