This exploration of British gardens is one of the best books of 2022

It is perhaps unsurprising that Dark has been dubbed the “Monty of the Millennial”, given the way he interweaves personal narrative with an encyclopedic knowledge of horticultural and social history and strong opinions about how whose gardens should be created.

“Lawns suffer terribly from being the default,” he writes. “They are mindlessly applied to back gardens from fence to fence in a way that is both disturbing and unattractive. Nobody wants to lie on the ground between two austere verticals – like being in the back of a truck”.

Verbena bonariensis, for Dark, it is “salt in the kitchen of horticulture, a flavor enhancer”. In front gardens it should be placed as close to the road as possible, so that anyone looking inside does so “through a veil of jewellery”.

Its range of references is wide (the reader encounters Tennyson, Roman history, Edith Wharton, Victorian gardening magazines and the most obscure of botanists along the way), partly the result of hours spent at the London Metropolitan Archives. In each chapter, Dark starts from the starting point of an ordinary, often overlooked plant, in a sequence of mind-expanding associations.

So what prompted a 21-year-old fresh out of history at the University of Bristol to immerse himself in the world of horticulture 15 years ago and become so deeply fascinated by the human stories behind the plants on our doorstep? ” I have been very lucky. At first, I experienced a catastrophic failure to thrive in an office environment. Within three months, I realized that I didn’t really want the corporate life and it didn’t really want me either,” he says.

“I wanted a tan and a job outside for the summer, and I realized what I really wanted to do was train as a gardener. A lot of people have this epiphany in their 30s and 40s, but I was lucky enough to have it in my early 20s. Dark enrolled at Capel Manor College, before completing an internship at the Garden Museum and a Masters in Garden and Landscape History at the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research.

Dark’s first gardening clients were oligarchs – “some of the richest people in the world. One of them recently had his assets frozen. It was useful to have access to an unlimited budget so early in my career. It made me realize early on that there is more to a garden than the money at your disposal. I find gardens interesting because of their connection to people.

“Working for someone who is completely absent and has a portfolio of homes across the world, and doesn’t even know what’s in their garden, is soulless.

“After that I went to Chiswick House and Gardens where all the volunteers really cared. It was much more satisfying.

“I like the front gardens of the grove not because they are the epitome of horticulture, but because the plants are chosen by someone for a reason. The front gardens display the personal choices and tastes of their owners for all to see and speculate.

About Charles Holmes

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