The gardening guru: Robin Lane Fox doesn't give a fig
Part of the great appeal of Robin Lane Fox’s garden writing is the fact that he doesn’t give a fig for fashionable opinion
Robin Lane Fox, Master of Gardens at New College, Oxford. Photograph: J L Lightfoot
If somebody ever compiles a list of the different adjectives used to describe the garden writing of Robin Lane Fox, the Oxford don, Alexandrian scholar and longstanding gardening columnist for the Financial Times, then it will surely include the following. Opinionated. Witty.
Fearless. Erudite. Politically incorrect. Acerbic. Humorous. Deliciously odd. Occasionally chauvinistic. And, as indicated by the title of his most recent book Thoughtful Gardening (a compendium of his writings for the FT), thoughtful.
In gardening circles, Lane Fox is well known for the breadth and scope of his weekly gardening column, which is as likely to touch on the subject of history, science or literature as it is on horticulture and the proper cultivation of plants.
Deeply sceptical of what he describes as “the dotty view that gardeners should simply ‘work with nature’”, he’s also known for his outspoken and unrepentantly unfashionable views on organic gardening – “a load of politically correct horsesh**”, and his unsentimental take on garden pests.
An example is a memorable column for the FT, in which he bemoans the damage that squirrels are doing to the Oxford college gardens that he cares for before offering a wartime recipe for squirrel stew, remarking in an aside that the artist Toulouse-Lautrec often ate the flesh which he described as “refreshingly nutty”.
In another, Lane Fox describes in deadpan fashion how he’s decided to remedy the problem of an ageing badger wreaking havoc in his flower borders, by leaving out heaps of peanut butter laced with the anti-depressant, Prozac. “Why Prozac? I regard it as the proof of the lateral thinking for which an Oxford education is famous,” he writes, adding that it soon resulted in “a remarkable quiet on my lawn”.
Lane Fox is also known for his traditionalist views on garden design, many of them views with which a younger generation of gardeners take issue, just as they do his stance on organic gardening. The charms of prairie gardening, for example, leave him entirely unmoved, as do wildflower meadows “that look a mess for five months of the year”. But part of the great appeal of his garden writing is the fact that Lane Fox doesn’t give a fig for fashionable opinion.
The result is an honest, authentic, authoritative voice, one born of knowledge and experience and hours spent in the garden.
“Other people are brilliant at the violin, or at drawing, but I was brought up in an upper-class English country home where we had a gardener, a wonderful fellow who taught me a lot about growing plants. So I find it strange that so many people hate gardening. That horrible idea of low maintenance has somehow taken hold, when instead a garden should always offer something to look forward to, that great combination of beauty and the basics. Too many people want a garden, while trying to escape the basics . . .”
Through his column, Lane Fox has had the opportunity to visit many of the world’s greatest gardens, and meet many of the world’s greatest garden makers and plantspeople of the last half-century, including Rosemary Verey, Graham Thomas, Valerie Finnis, Arthur Hellyer, Nancy Lancaster, Helen Dillon, and Christopher Lloyd.
His friendship with the latter began with a gentle rivalry (Lloyd was then the gardening columnist for Country Life magazine). It famously culminated in Lane Fox outrageously digging up a large specimen of purple-leaved berberis and sending it to Lloyd by parcel post, after the latter had challenged him on his dislike of what he’d described as a “dreary plant, best suited to the gardens of a provincial hotel”.
A truce was called, and a lifelong friendship instead blossomed between the two. “Without my interest in gardening, my life would have been so impoverished; over the years, it’s afforded me the opportunity to meet so many interesting people, so many brilliant gardeners from all walks of life.”
Remarkably, Lane Fox got the unique opportunity to combine his love of gardening with his love of horse riding and his work as an Alexandrian scholar, when the American film director Oliver Stone offered him the job of historical consultant on the movie Alexander.
Typically, Lane Fox added his own unique input. “I told Stone that I’d do it on two conditions. The first was that I’d have a place on horseback in the front 10 of any major cavalry charge by Alexander’s cavalrymen being filmed by him. The second was that the opening credits would include the words ‘and introducing Robin Lane Fox’ . . . He agreed to the first, but not the second.”
Watch the movie and you can catch glimpses of Lane Fox in scenes depicting the famous Battle of Guagamela (where Alexander defeated the Persians), or leading the charge against the elephants in the Battle of the Hydaspes. The latter was filmed on a jungle-themed set in the grounds of the Central Botanic Gardens of the Saraburi Province of Thailand, with Lane Fox taking on an advisory role as regards suitably elephant-resistant plants.
By his own admission, this gardening columnist has led a remarkable rich and interesting life. “There are lots of people who are voyeurs,” he says, “but I’ve always believed in the ‘ing’, whether that’s the ‘ing’ in writing, gardening, hunting, or whatever takes your fancy.”
Robin Lane Fox will give a talk at Hardymount Gardens in Tullow, Co Carlow on July 29th as part of the Carlow Garden Festival (July 25th- August 4th),. Other speakers at the festival include Carol Klein, Helen Dillon, Matthew Jebb, Séamus O’Brien, Dermot O’Neill,June Blake and Fionnuala Fallon. See carlowgardentrail.com