Book Review: The Bedside Book of the Garden Dr D. G. Hessayon

The Bedside Book of the Garden Dr D. G. Hessayon (Expert Books, £12.99)

Dr David Hessayon likes to bill himself as ‘the most famous author nobody has heard of’. This must be true; over a writing career spanning five decades, some 50 million copies of this reclusive author’s books have been sold. Fifty million!

The first, Be Your Own Garden Expert (1959), set the template for a commendable series of pared-down practical garden guides, which other publishers, envious of the sales figures, have tried to emulate from time to time, but none have really succeeded.

Dr Hessayon had the perfect recipe, and it was nothing to do with stylish design or alluring photography; the soft-cover ‘Expert’ books, with their trademark 1950s retro appearance, are hard-working, low-budget guides leading you straight to the information you need to know, whether it’s dealing with weeds, growing the perfect lawn, siting a greenhouse, planting bulbs at the right depth or choosing trees and shrubs, to name only a fraction of the subjects he’s covered over the years. So The Bedside Book of the Garden comes as a shock a small, chunky hardback in a pretty dust-jacket, delicately gilded, and clearly aimed at the Christmas-present market.

Inside, the 80-year-old bio-chemist with a gift for communication invites you to ‘settle back and enjoy the wonderful features and fascination of our favourite national pastime’. Its opening chapter is all about People, with jaunty potted biographies that include plant hunters Robert Fortune, the Tradescants and John Bartram, and famous gardeners such as Repton, William Robinson, Jekyll, Vita Sackville-West and Empress Josephine.

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‘The Secret Life of the Garden Bee’ is a fascinating section in the chapter on wildlife, where you will find answers to other conundrums, such as when birds first learned to drink cream from milk bottles (1921, apparently). Plenty of people will also find the chapter headed ‘Be Your Own Garden Lawyer’ compelling, as it covers The Law on Borrowing, The Law on Weeds, on Pets, on Nuisance, on Trees, Hedges, Fences, Children and Hosepipes, among other things. Much of the material was previously used in Dr Hessayon’s Armchair Book of the Garden, some 25 years ago, and there has necessarily been some updating, together with the repackaging.

A few entries on the nuisance of bullfinches, for example (which are now in serious long-term decline), and the Chelsea Flower Show lack up-to-date information. The show’s headlong commercial focus and jettisoning of nostalgia in the third millen-nium are unrecorded. Even so, this is sure to be one of the most entertaining of this year’s horticultural stocking-fillers, ideal for any insomniac with the faintest interest in gardening and I don’t mean because it will send you to sleep.