You will probably have gathered that my passions include gardens, history and writing. However, I started life differently studying sculpture at the Slade. Writing came later when I wrote general features for the newspapers including the Guardian and Sunday Times. I took up gardening when we moved from London to the country and I had a garden of my own for the first time. Deeply ignorant but greatly inspired by the gardens at neighbouring Sissinghurst Castle, in Kent, I joined the garden design course at the English Gardening School. It was a revelation and set me on the path to becoming a garden writer.
I was commissioned to write the first book on allotments out of the blue. Practical Allotment Gardening was quickly followed by The Allotment Handbook. I was in luck, as they hit the moment and the two combined sold 145,000 worldwide. Four other allotment books followed, leaving just one final book that I wanted to write on the subject. Of Cabbages and Kings – the History of Allotments which lays out the centuries-old precedent for the right to grow food from the open field system at the time of the Norman Conquest.
Editing Topiarius, the journal of the European Boxwood and Topiary Society was a leap from the labouring poor and their vegetable plots to the landed gentry and their princely gardens, although modern n design is also included. The EBTS www.ebts.org is also a leading authority on the ailments of boxwood (Buxus), the classic plant for topiary. The membership includes an impressive mix of garden designers, head gardeners, botanists, nurserymen and many other professionals.
Topiarius inspired my latest book, Topiary, Knots and Parterres, which won The European Garden Book Award, 2018. It is a romp through garden history, covering Rome, Byzantium, the courtly medieval gardens, the great formal parks of the Italian and French Renaissance through to the Arts and Crafts Movement and today’s elegant, minimalist designs. It took in the many personae that topiary can offer – from elegant green architecture to the comic.
In 2017, I took on an MA in Garden and Landscape History at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. It was the he last MA course on this subject in the UK – has now closed, a tragedy in my view, not least as provides perspective on today’s use of land. However, I was pleased to be asked to asked to edit the newsletter for the Birkbeck Garden History Group. The BGHG was set up in by the alumni of the Birkbeck College MA, following the closure of the course twenty years ago. Their aim is to promote the fast-disappearing opportunities to study garden history. They hold study days and lectures with distinguished garden historians and, like the EBTS, put on excellent, often exclusive, garden visits at not-for-profit prices.
Caroline Foley is a member of the Garden Media Guild.
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