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The Elements of Organic Gardening

Kip reviews The Elements of Organic Gardening by HRH The Prince of Wales with Stephanie Donaldson

HRH The Prince of Wales has said:

Soil is primeval, and a living organism — we must treasure it. At Highgrove, I have always practised the art of feeding the soil rather than the plant. This is done with the application of home-produced compost directly to the soil surface.

Does that sound familiar? It should, to anyone who was attuned to the organic gardening movement espoused by the Rodales some 40 or more years ago in the United States. The message was no less true then than it is now, but these days it has become respectable to speak of growing food organically — it's a big business — whereas, once such out-of-step talk invited scorn. Now that the movement has the royal imprimatur, it may even become more fashionable. One can only hope.

Prince Charles is no newcomer to the ranks of those who promote sustainable horticulture; he's been at it for nearly 30 years, and he has transformed the Highgrove Estate into a model of efficient, thoughtful, and earth-friendly productivity — an embodiment of the cosmic idealism the heir apparent has come by quite honestly, by all accounts.

The Elements of Organic Gardening begins with descriptions of some of the management systems in place at Hargrove. Water conservation, compost production, and habitat restoration are carried out with meticulous attention to detail and with no effort spared. The Walled Garden is where the food crops are raised:

All the beds and borders are brick-edged, with grass or brick paths leading between the low box hedges to the central arbours.

A tunnel of apple trees, underplanted with hellebores and backed by sweet briar roses, arches over the gravel path that leads from one end of the garden to the other... Similarly, each year, two arched tunnels are formed from hazel and willow wands, one fragrant and colourful with sweet peas, and the other green and mysterious and dangling with runner beans.

Does this sound like a description of the garden in your backyard? It doesn't? Would an annual budget of half a million pounds sterling (I'm guessing) help? Indeed, the middle of the book consists of an exhaustive account of the plants and landscape architecture that give shape to the bulk of the estate lying outside the Walled Garden. I suppose this is necessary for the purpose of a garden book (and these other garden spaces are marvelous, without a doubt, and attract thousands of paying visitors each year who help support the Prince's charities), but the text seems to have strayed off topic, though we are reminded that "all the paths and paving are made of natural materials from local sustainable or salvaged sources."

Finally we are given a tour of Birkhall, set on the edge of the Balmoral Estate in the Scottish Highlands, formerly the summer residence of the late Queen Mother, Prince Charles' grandmother. Again, the garden is fabulous, and the Prince is photographed filling bird feeders while his ducks stand by, anticipating a bit of spilt seed. He should be congratulated for his dedication to environmental issues and his reverence for Nature (and he has been), and I can only wish that any number of other well-placed patrons would take up such worthy causes, but I was hoping for a bit more grist to feed the mills of those of us who get dirt under our fingernails on a daily basis.

The book will be released in September, 2007.

Kip Anderson has been the Victory Garden's head gardener for over 20 years.

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Published August 31, 2007