Skymeadow: a review

by frankbeswick

Skymeadow is more than a conventional gardening book, but is a psychological reflection.

Skymeadow is a biographical account of Charlie Hart's journey from anxiety and grief to mental wholeness by way of gardening a seven acre smallholding in East Anglia, the wide flat lands of Eastern England. Hart details a childhood that was economically privileged, but fraught with anxiety and excessive sensitivity, through a spell at Cambridge University, during which time he struggled to cope,through the blessing of meeting the right woman, and thence to successful living as a gardener and garden writer. All in all a thoroughly good book.

Image courtesy of DarkWorkX, of Pixabay

Skymeadow

The real name of Hart's small seven acre estate is Peverel Farm, which is situated on the borders of the counties of Essex and Suffolk, two flat or gently undulating English counties whose lack of hills makes for distant horizons and wide skies.It is the wide dome of the sky that led the Harts and their four children to name their rural English Arcadia Skymeadow.

Charlie is shown to be fraught with troubles. The privileged son of one of Margaret Thatcher's advisers, who was raised on a farm, he suffered much from his troubled family life.He seems to be hypersensitive and plagued by anxiety, and like many creative people he struggled to find his true course in life.His anxiety was exacerbated by grief at losing both parents by his late twenties, a misfortune that hit hard on what was a sensitive nature. However, we find in Hart a religious streak which permeates the book, but not so much as to be too obvious. He cites the Catholic writer G.K.Chesterton twice, did Theology at Cambridge, uses the term "God Willing" and describes a garden as a sacrament, a sure indication of deep religious influence.He comes over as a man of strong conscience, as we see in his participation in the anti-slavery movement, for whom he assisted with a show garden at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show.Religion, gardening and four children, he seems like a man after my own heart!

The book shows that he has had his share of good fortune, particularly in his having the wherewithal to purchase on a mortgage seven acres of prime land in Eastern England. Most of us would have had to farm that plot intensively to survive, but he had good business opportunities sufficient to enable him to convert the farm into a partly ornamental garden.Having attended Cambridge with the network of opportunities and contacts that it provides must surely have been a help.The chance to participate in the Chelsea Show was fortuitous, but deserved, and it opened up a future as a garden writer.

Hart's relationship with his father, a strong and dominant character dominates the book, and we feel that he benefited from his father's strengths, while suffering from his flaws. But his anxiety seems  to be the main struggle, and it is pleasing to see that he conquers it to a great  degree, ultimately by looking it in the eye as he says.This is a worthwhile read for those plagued by anxiety..He has a good relationship with his mother and cared for her in her final illness, along with his two brothers Hart comes across as a basically good person.

The Land

Skymeadow is a small triangular plot situated where the rolling lands of the English Midlands slope down to the flat terrain of East Anglia. Unlike much of East Anglia, whose soils vary from sandy heath to organic peat Skymeadow has the heavy clay soils of the East Midlands. There were advantages and disadvantages to this, as the clay is hard to work but is richly fertile.  This shaped Hart's gardening, for such soils are usually handled by the plough, but the land had not been ploughed for many years. Essentially the farm had been a much loved hobby farm that fed its previous owners to some degree. It was ripe to be turned into an expansive garden.

The area is, like much of South East Britain, drier than the west of the country, as it is further from the prevailing Atlantic winds that soak us in the West.But the drier and colder easterlies afflict it.While water is not currently a problem, Hart had to consider his water usage and retention.

As one who works a small plot I was initially baffled by how he would manage seven acres while keeping down a job. But Hart minimised his work by planting trees.He inherited a small, productive orchard with plums and apples, but augmented his facilities with a wider range of tree, including cherries, gages and figs. He also installed a long hawthorn hedge. He speaks of his elm hedge. This is interesting as Dutch Elm Disease has all but wiped out the elm in England, but it seems that the disease only strikes at a certain level of maturity, so the elm survives as a bush. This is interesting information. 

Flowers are a major crop, and he has worked diligently to plant roses in many of the flower beds.This is in memory of his childhood home, a farm not far north of where he now dwells. A range of other flowers has gone into the garden, including snow drops. I notice that his use of bulbs indicates a decision to opt for lower maintenance. This is how he manages seven acres!

A productive vegetable garden is found at Skymeadow, and the author keeps a number of animals, including dogs, cats and chickens. The cats are maintained to deal with the perennial problem of mice Skymeadow is a garden where wild life is welcomed, and there is a badger sett in a quiet corner of the garden.A range of wild birds can also be found. 

Yet Skymeadow is a family garden where space for children to play is important, there being a small football pitch for his son Isaac. We see therefore that the garden is a wide use of space whose management makes room for all stakeholders. Thus family life is not being neglected, and this is a great positive, as Hart shows that he is not indulging his gardening obsession at the expense of others.  

Reflections

One of the interesting points about this book is the short chapters, which maintain interest by their succinctness. Hart writes in a clear and lucid style with good economy in the use of words.This is an advantage to readers, for he avoids the mistake of overwhelming the reader with excessive language.

Furthermore, while the book is  a good source of horticultural information, he does not give an  excessive mass of facts. Masses of detailed factual description is the failing of many gardening books, and fortunately he avoids it.I think that his success is due to the fact that he never loses sight of the fact that gardening is a human activity that meets human needs. Nor has he let himself lapse into becoming a solitary gardener, a type of generally cantankerous male whom we have all encountered.

There are, however, no photographs in the book, only small line drawings, so this is something of a lack within it.  

This is an interesting, well-written book that will delight readers.I commend it to you.

Updated: 01/12/2020, frankbeswick
 
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frankbeswick 11 days ago

Yes, not every writer is a talented photographer.

blackspanielgallery 11 days ago

I like the idea of using fewer words. Unfortunately, for the internet fewer words seem less likely to rank with Google. As for drawings in lieu of photographs, that is sometimes best, since finding the right moment to capture with a ca,era is often difficult.

frankbeswick 13 days ago

It is always good to hear from you Derdriu.

The author did soil modification with leaf mould, some sand and compost. Non-clay tolerant plants, such as carrots, were grown in containers.

The cantankerous solitary gardener is known by his inability to get on with others.I once sat on an allotment society disciplinary panel dealing with such a guy who simply could not get on with others. He was blocking paths between plots with his bike and refusing to move it. I let him off lightly because those he had annoyed were his accusers, and I suspected that truth was not being fully told and that he was being set up.

Merely liking to be alone with your garden is not the mark of this type of person. .

DerdriuMarriner 13 days ago

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practicalities and products.
Do the plantings match the soil or does the author modify in order to have other than clay-tolerant plants?
It's intriguing your parting mention of the "solitary gardener, a type of generally cantankerous male whom we have all encountered." How would I recognize that type: argumentative, opinionated about pest controls and watering times, unmannerly, unsmiling?
When I think of gardeners who've had to be solitary some or much of the time, I think of my grandfather, enjoying every minute of his short life in his grapefruit orchard and quoting Browning and Keats.

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