The real gardeners’ questions answered

Ken Thompson’s The Sceptical Gardener explodes many hoary myths, while giving serious (and often humorous) advice

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

The Sceptical Gardener: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Good Gardening Ken Thompson

Icon Books, pp.304, £12.99, ISBN: 9781848319332

Why is it that gardening in the public prints is so often treated as a fluffy subject for fluffy people? Writing that a plant is ‘incredibly beautiful’ or that everyone is ‘really passionate’ about their allotment/community garden/windowbox doesn’t seem to me to be an adequate substitute for telling thoughtful gardeners something they didn’t know already. The trouble is that there is a shortage of trained gardeners and horticultural scientists who both have something interesting to say and can write engagingly, and of these only one can make me laugh out loud. His name is Ken Thompson, and he was for many years a lecturer in the Plant and Animal Sciences faculty at the University of Sheffield. These days he writes popular science books, including Do We Need Pandas? (on bio-diversity), Where Do Camels Belong? (about ‘alien’ plants and animals) and, just published, The Sceptical Gardener.

This is a compilation of articles which have appeared over the past five years in the Saturday gardening section of the Daily Telegraph. Congratulations to the editor, Joanna Fortnam, for giving space to articles so determinedly rigorous and decidedly unfluffy. Thompson’s mission, as far as I can see, is to read every botany and ecology journal you’ve never heard of, examine critically the evidence presented on subjects to do with gardens, gardening and garden wildlife, and translate it into something comprehensible that both amuses and informs the general reader. These journals include Urban Eco-
systems, Global Change Biology, Functional Ecology
and Arthropod-Plant Interactions. I began to think he had made that last title up, until he revealed that two or three new scientific journals are founded every day. Every day! Crikey, no wonder we need some help.

These are some of the things I’ve learned from this book: you don’t need to buy native bumblebees for your garden; the presence of garden birds may positively affect the price of your house; putting crocks into plant pots is a waste of time and good terracotta pots; reintroducing the lynx would help northern gardeners; and you are very unlikely to burn plant leaves by watering them in sunny weather. I am also glad that I now know — even if the information isn’t immediately useful to me — that the ‘skunk cabbage’ generates more heat, relatively, than almost anything else on earth and that the Swiss cheese plant needs those holes.

Thompson plainly enjoys confounding expectations and exploding myths. But it is not just that he takes many a hoary old shibboleth and examines it carefully from all angles, it is also the way that he does it. That’s where the humour comes in. For example, when discussing the fact that Ginkgo biloba is increasingly wrongly spelled on websites, he writes: ‘That’s what I love about the internet — its ability to prove that all your worst fears were justified.’ His conclusion on forest gardening is that it ‘is unlikely to feed many people beyond those who write books about it’.

Occasionally he strays from his core mission to tell us about what music gardeners choose on Desert Island Discs, or that gardeners in literature are usually portrayed as dummies (think Mr Collins or Sir Leicester Kroesig, or Widmerpool’s father, who supplies liquid manure to the gentry). His completely justified tilt at Gardeners’ Question Timeis a delight. For all these reasons, or even if you have simply had enough of people refusing to take gardening seriously, I suggest you buy The Sceptical Gardener.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £11.04 Tel: 08430 600033

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Show comments
  • Callipygian

    Thanks, I’ve just bought this on Kindle!

    • Migru Ghee

      The first two or three pages.

  • rtj1211

    The simplest thing any gardener with 250sqm or less to grow vegetables in is to question rigorously why the dictums suitable for farms ploughed with shire horses are equally appropriate to those with rather less space available. In addition, ask whether certain ‘dictums’ are true or not.

    I have asked this question about numerous things and have proven fairly comprehensively that:
    1. You lose no yield per main crop tuber planted by using planting densities double that proposed in most major ‘treatises’. Plant rows 50cm apart with 4 tubers per 1.5m row in 1.5m wide no-dig beds and you get well over 3 lb/tuber planted. The best plants may yield 4 – 5 lb at harvest time.
    2. Plant garlics in autumn 15 – 20cm between rows and 15cm within row – again little if any yield reduction per bulb with double traditional density of planting.
    3. Comfrey tea fed to runner beans and climbing beans on biodynamic ‘fruit days’ has significant effects on bean yields if you feed once cropping is underway.
    4. Tomato plants in pots can stand happily in saucers filled permanently with water during the warm days and nights of summer (if days are 20C or higher and nights 12 or higher). All the nonsense about causing rotting is just that and keeping the soil permanently moist prevents any damage to plants in warm/hot spells.

    What seems to be lacking out there are fora where people share their insights. Reinventing the wheel seems rather silly to me.

    • Callipygian

      Or you could just go to the supermarket.

      • Jeremy Poynton

        Ìf you are happy with tasteless fruit and veg, you can indeed.

        • Callipygian

          Tasteless? Not where I live!