The Grove by Ben Dark – A Nature Odyssey in 19 1/2 Front Gardens – celebrating the plants to be seen in a London Street

The Grove by Ben Dark

This book is subtitled “A Nature Odyssey in 19 ½ Gardens” and reflects the regular walks along a London Street undertaken over a year or so. Ben Dark is a professional gardener, speaker and author who seems to get genuinely excited by the trees, plants and general flora of the urban setting. He has extensive historical knowledge of plants from a documentary as well as practical experience, and this book is about the identity of the plants that can be found in a city. While he acknowledges that these are not impressive gardens in the traditional sense – indeed several of the garden spaces are paved parking spaces – those plants and sometimes lovingly tended specimens are as interesting as the enormous heritage gardens in their way. The urban spaces that have become so important over the last few years seem in this book to be bursting with survivors of all kinds of historical trials and tribulations, from the original development of the houses, the destruction of so many areas during the Second World War, and the damage inflicted by fashion, technology and other fads.

Dark successfully blends his personal experience of a long-term investigation into the plants that surround him and his little family on daily walks with the history of the plants that he identifies, how and why they appear in their present form, and reflections on the sometimes tough places they now grow. This is not a garden-by-garden review of the street with disapproving comments on people’s choices to make parking or convenience their priority, but a biography and description of the plants that do appear, growing in the shade of buildings, around unpromising obstacles, in unlikely gaps. Some are lovingly tended or at least given obvious consideration, seemingly offered to passers-by as virtual gifts. They are markers of passing seasons, dictating the atmosphere of the locality and the emerging from winter into spring, however briefly. Some, like the London Plane trees, are survivors of many skirmishes with planners, installations of utilities and historic pollution, and are almost symbols of resilience as much as the buildings that managed to survive bombs; more so as they continue to live and thrive, offering shade and in their immediate setting to other plants a place to burst through. Dark devotes a chapter to them, their origin and survival. Similarly, the London Pride plant, inspirational and ubiquitous at times because of its cheapness and popularity with accidental gardeners, despite being condemned by rockery purists. Buddleja is seen as a railway plant – thriving in the most unlikely of crevices, beautiful to some who value the wildlife it attracts, but less popular as a plant to deliberately obtain and nurture.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book is the sense of history that Dark revels in as he looks at each plant. Thus, we are asked to consider how the shoes of Roman soldiers may have spread seeds far and wide as they trampled across the country, how one botanist grew all the seeds and other things to be found under church pews, and how the variants on the cherry blossom trees have been diplomatic gifts and disasters. I am the sort of person who has been looking up different plants as I read this book to identify them, and certainly relating them to examples that I am fortunate to have in my own garden, especially the wonders of the Magnolia. There are also many literary references from gardeners and enthusiasts such as Vita Sackville West, and those writers whose observations on plants and their cultivation were less acceptable at various times. Altogether this a book that I greatly enjoyed, and I would recommend to those whose knowledge of plants is shaky as well as those who know and love the everyday greenery we sees around us.