BOOK REVIEW: “A Garden Well Placed”

A Garden Well Placed – The Story of Helmingham and Other Gardens‘ by Xa Tollemache is described by the author as “a story book, the tale of the love story between me and the garden at Helmingham”. It is also Xa’s first book and is an excellent overview of her career as a garden designer.

I think we can all identify with the emotions we share between gardens we design and tend, inherit and nurture. ‘Love story’ is an apt phrase and no matter what time in life we start to garden, the companionship and bond one develops with a garden cannot be ignored.

In the Foreword, Fergus Garret points out that: “Xa Tollemache is an innately sensitive designer combining classical and contemporary styles with a deep and perceptive understanding of a sense of place.” He outlines how she paints with plants and her ability to embrace the qualities of history, landscape, architecture and people within her work.

Xa started gardening when she moved into Helmingham Hall in Suffolk in 1975 as a young wife and mother. For the next 20 years she developed and improved the gardens, learning on the way, and it was Helmingham, she insists, that taught her how to garden to such effect that in 1996 she was able to start her own garden design practice. She also passed the stringent Society of Garden Designers exams admitting that they were the hardest thing she had ever done.

(Above: Helmingham, credit Gary Summers, SMD Photography)

The book is a record of her career as a garden designer and her first Chelsea garden where, she won a Gold Medal. She defines 1996 as the start of her career as a professional designer – she says ‘rather late in life‘ as until then she had been a busy housewife and mother and also a very competitive dressage rider. In 1997 the editor of the Evening Standard asked her to design a garden for the paper for the Chelsea Flower Show, winning that coveted Gold on her first attempt, no mean feat!

The first chapter on Helmingham Hall is a delightful introduction because it outlines the author’s early married life bringing up the children, renovating Helmingham and developing the gardens. In this chapter she includes a seasonal calendar for the Helmingham gardens, with tasks throughout the year and a very detailed introduction to the garden itself and its yearly life cycle.

(Above: The garden at Framsden, credit ©Anthony Cullen)

After setting the scene with a very full and informative chapter at Helmingham Hall, Xa takes us to a number of the gardens that have been touched with her design magic including the romantic Dunbeath Castle, Castle Hill, Devon, Wilton House, Wiltshire and Framsden Hall, Suffolk (the garden at her new home). There is also a chapter on her design for RHS Garden Hyde Hall, Essex, where she designed the Global Growth Vegetable Garden.

Through the book’s pages you feel that you are having a cup of coffee with Xa while she tells you about the trials, tribulations and joys of taking on a project such as Helmingham and brings you into her world of the outdoors, fresh air and the country.

I liked her candid approach too, she is not afraid to admit when she was wrong or lacked knowledge and how she came to learn by her mistakes. The writing style is fluent and interesting and you soon start picking up all sorts of ideas yourself without really realising it.

(above: Helmingham Hall credit Gary Summers, SMD Photography)

The book is richly illustrated with photographs from a variety of talented and well-known professional garden photographers including Andrew Lawson, Allan Pollok-Morris, Anthony Cullen and Chris Reeve as well as Tim and Xa Tollemache themselves.

Some years ago when Reckless Gardener interviewed Xa on the eve of a forthcoming US lecture tour, she said: “When I go to a site for the first time, I spend a long time understanding the house. I look at the landscape and study the light and where it appears. It is pretty much the same anywhere I go.” She feels that one of the most important aspects to consider when designing a garden is that it sits in harmony with its house and it is this sense of ‘place’ which comes strongly through the whole of this book.(You can view read this interview here).

Today, Xa designs gardens all over the UK and in Europe and the US and as won many awards, including two more RHS Chelsea Flower Show medals and the HHA/Christies Garden of the Year Award. She has also designed a range of garden furniture and is currently a Member of the Council of the Royal Horticultural Society, Chair of the Gardens Committee and an RHS judge.

A Garden Well Placed’ – the Story of Helmingham and Other Gardens, is published by Pimpernel Press Ltd in hardback at £35.00 –

The publishers kindly supplied the reviewer with a review copy. All images ©publisher and respective photographers.