Monty Don is one of my favourite writers. Long before he graced our tellies I bought The Observer every Sunday, purely because he wrote a weekly column. Even now a friend saves the articles in the Daily Mail for me. I have read all his books except, inexplicably, the ones about visiting gardens around the world. Great Gardens of Italy, Paradise Gardens and, now, Japanese Gardens sit on my shelves unread. I even have two books from his telly series: Around the World in Eighty Gardens and Extraordinary Gardens of the World, both largely unread. There is no logic to this. I buy the books keenly, look at the pictures, leave the book on the ‘soon to be read’ pile on the kitchen table and then put them on the shelf when I need the table for eating, or cooking, or more books.
Having resolved that for the next year I shall read or reread books I already have, I decided to read Japanese Gardens properly. I should have known that this would be much more than a simple description of gardens. There is a fascinating piece on the importance of space, which the Japanese divide into ma (significant space) and mu (empty space). Years ago an inspired pottery tutor told me that in drawing, the spaces in between are as important as the objects themselves. I followed what he said without quite understanding what he meant, until now: ‘A tree that is beautifully pruned holds the sky in its branches like a pose’ (Monty Don). As a bonus from reading this book I may now be able to draw a bit better.
There are descriptions of making stone lanterns and English Japanese Gardens (Tatton Park). I am now also closer to being able to appreciate the point of Japanese gardens – whereas in many Western gardens the aim is for the garden to look as natural as possible while appearing to do very little (wild gardens are actually surprisingly hard work), Japanese gardens are manicured within an inch of their lives to appear ‘natural’. It’s as if nature doesn’t know what it should be doing and needs to be helped to a better naturalism. And, to a certain extent, it works; many of the pictures here show stunningly beautiful gardens which use the ‘borrowed views’ beyond in a seamless display. Many of the gardens use moss as ground cover and actually moss doesn’t do scruffy well in the same way that long grass and meadows do. Towards the end of the book I found myself scrutinising the pictures and inwardly tutting if there were too many stray leaves on the otherwise pristine mossy surfaces.
The point of this book is not to act as a guide to the gardens (although it does this extremely well) but to enable the reader to understand and appreciate a system of garden design and gardening that is so different to our own. At one point Monty Don goes to a house to be taught how to make kokedama, moss balls which support miniature house plants for people who live in tiny, immaculate houses with no gardens. He describes himself as a feeling like a muddy, over-excited Labrador, who needs to be kept away from the furniture and made to sit quietly. I have always imagined that is how I’d feel if I visited Japan – too big, too bouncy and too unpredictable. Consequently Japan has always been fairly far down the list of places I’d like to visit but, thanks to this book it has now notched its way a bit further up the list.
Monty Don & Derry Moore, Japanese Gardens, hardback, £35. As always please order or buy it when the time comes from your local bookshop. You’d miss it if it closed.