Book Review – The Kinfolk Garden

Reading time 10 minutes

I am generally reticent about writing book reviews. However, when the first couple of critiques I read online are comedically scathing, my interest is piqued. Can a book really be that awful, or is it the reviewers that I should call into question? I must judge for myself.

Having received my copy of The Kinfolk Garden*, and after reading it from cover to cover in a couple of sittings, I can confirm it’s the other reviewers that I would have to challenge: this is a beautifully produced, original volume; light on text but imbued with style and perfectly in touch with the zeitgeist. Definitely worth a place in The Watch House library.

Gardener Gundula Deutschlander (in print dress) at Babylonstoren in South Africa. The greens in this image get a big thumbs up!
Excerpted from The Kinfolk Garden by John Burns (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020. Photographs by Alexander Wolfe.

The Kinfolk Garden is certainly a different kind of book about plants, nature and design. It’s not a gardening book in any sense (this seems to be the principal objection of mealy-mouthed reviewers who must have been expecting a reference book); it’s a collection of short stories about people whose lives have been enhanced by a relationship with plants, gardens or landscapes. We should all be able to relate to them, despite the diversity of their interests and enterprises. I suspect those reviewers who claim the book is ‘vacuous’ or ‘superficial cosmetic pretence’ (here TFG smirks at how angry some people can get about a pretty book) did not bother to read the copy or acquaint themselves with some of the quietly remarkable characters who feature. Yes, one can establish at first glance that this is a book that might sail close to the wind when it comes to style over substance, but by being original and diverse in the choice of subject matter, The Kinfolk Garden definitely brings something new to the (coffee) table.

‘Plant Mom’ Monai Nailah McCullough.
Excerpted from The Kinfolk Garden by John Burns (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020. Photographs by Rodrigo Carmuega.

I have a great many books about plants, gardens and nature, thousands of them probably, yet I can count on one hand those that are illustrated with photographs of people in their beloved environments. The Kinfolk Garden does so with aching style, as you’d expect from any Scandinavian lifestyle ‘authority’. Florists, garden designers, artists, craftsmen and community activists are shown in carefully composed shots, each of which appears to have been captured at the end of a perfect day, just as the light fades from white to gold. Herein lies my first small complaint: although flattering to skin tones and buildings, this bleached-out, sepia-infused filtration renders greens flat and dull, sometimes almost brownish. As a celebrant of green in all it’s generous vivacity, I find it hard to see green tones reduced to bottle, lime and olive. The photographs are beautiful and harmonious, but by the time you get halfway through, they all start to look quite similar. Since I have started, I may as well reveal my second niggle now: between each of the chapters – Care, Creativity and Community – there is an unnecessary segment of ‘tips’, the literary equivalent of a TV Ad break. These sections aren’t pretty, they are not particularly enlightening, and they provide an excuse for grumpy reviewers to claim that this is trying to be a gardening book. Kinfolk started out as a magazine and it’s as if they feel it’s necessary to remind us of that with these ‘articles’. My advice is to skip over them and pretend they were never there.

PR executive-turned-botanist Fem Güçlütürk at home, in her beautiful greenhouse.
Excerpted from The Kinfolk Garden by John Burns (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020. Photographs by Ekin Özbiçer.

One of the greatest joys of The Kinfolk Garden is that it represents a moment in time, not quite to the extent that the dreaded C word is mentioned, but in that many of the protagonists are entirely ‘of the moment’. Whether it’s Julius Værnes Iversen with ‘alien’ floral installations, Sourabh Gupta making exquisite paper plants for friends who can’t keep the real thing alive, or Kristian Skaarup and Livia Haaland farming on a Copenhagen rooftop, these are creatives and visionaries on the edge of what’s happening in our world right now. Whether one likes what they’re doing or not, I think we should all be interested in them. Those characters who are not breaking new ground in the same sense, appear to have been chosen because they are timeless, exceptional and perhaps a little underrated. I was delighted to see the Parisian landscape gardener Camille Muller peering out from these pages, having encountered one of his beautiful creations in Madagascar many years ago. Also to read more about Luciano Giubbilei, a garden maker who operates on a higher plane, often investing many years in the development of a design for his clients. I had never heard of perfumer Abderrazak Benchaâbane, the man who helped Yves Saint Lauren restore Jardin Majorelle before founding the Palemerai Museum in Marrakech, yet his story is a remarkable and important one. If you’ve not grasped already, The Kinfolk Garden is also a book that celebrates diversity without needing to point a finger at it. I may well have a handful of books illustrated with photographs of people, but I could count those that aren’t dominated by the white, middle or upper classes on ….. well …… one finger.

Garden Maker Luciano Giubbilei at the Potter’s House, his creative retreat in Mallorca.
Excerpted from The Kinfolk Garden by John Burns (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020. Photographs by Rodrigo Carmuega.

So, bravo to you, Kinfolk, for publishing a book that’s a little bit different, good to look at and easy for us time-deprived folk to consume: it’s a time capsule in the making and a welcome relief from the conveyor belt of ‘how to ……’ and ‘gardens of ……’ books that appear every year. Sadly you’ve made this volume so pretty that lazy folk can’t see beyond the gorgeous, hazy, sun-soaked photography. Let them write ill-informed reviews and know that smart, intelligent people will find richness in these stylish pages. TFG

Florist Maurice Harris, the creative force behind Bloom and Plume in Los Angeles.
Excerpted from The Kinfolk Garden by John Burns (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020. Photographs by Kourtney Kyung Smith.

*Please note that I was sent a copy of this publication free of charge for review purposes. To find out more about this publication, or to purchase a copy, pop over to the Kinfolk website.

Do let me know if you enjoy my book reviews or not. I could write a whole lot more, but if you’d prefer I stuck to gardens and gardening, I can do that too! TFG.

The Olive Houses, Mallorca, restored by Ask Anker Aistrup and Mar Vicens.
Excerpted from The Kinfolk Garden by John Burns (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020. Photographs by Rodrigo Carmuega.

Categories: Art and Design, Book Reviews, Garden Design, Photography, Plants

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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25 comments On "Book Review – The Kinfolk Garden"

  1. Really enjoyed reading your book review so I hope you do more. I buy quite a few gardening books but I now have a one in one out policy otherwise more shelves will be needed. Sarah Raven’s ” A year full of flowers” arrived today and as expected the photo’s by Jonathan Buckley are gorgeous so that’s my evening sorted.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this review. Gardens like fashion are an expression of individuality. It’s wonderful to see a book representing such diversity. Cookie cutter gardening books as you mention are the norm. Bravo difference ! 👏👏👏

  3. Fair play to you, Dan! It is all so very easy to make the snide remark, to poke fun, to knock somebody else’s efforts and far more difficult to seek out the good that is to be found if only we look a little more carefully and with a gentle and kind eye.

    This is not a book which will appeal to many gardeners, it has its faults and weaknesses, yet it has its place and its value and deserves to be allowed take its place. You have praised it generously yet have not omitted to point out the flaws. I have written the book reviews for the newsletter of the Irish Garden Plant Society for the past fifteen years or so – and now post these on the society’s website and my own blog – and only once strongly criticised a book (a single sentence in a review) because the author was suggesting home-made remedies from garden plants yet the book quoted no sources/justification for these claims. The author took great offense. On another occasion I went back to the publishers with a list of fifty or more factual errors in a book and was asked not to publish a review – a second edition included the corrections. Otherwise, I try to find the good. I recall my day’s as a school principal and writing and reading references – one never wrote anything negative and one read a reference to see what was not mentioned, for there was the weakness!

    Do, please, continue with your book reviews. I realise they can be a chore and, perhaps, something shorter might suffice at times – if you have nothing good to say, say very little!

    1. Do, please, delete/kindly ignore the apostrophe in my “day’s” as a school principal – shame on me!

      I’ll write the lines later this evening!

    2. Sage advice indeed Paddy. I had not appreciated that you were a pro book reviewer, so thank you kindly for the feedback. I am a very amateur reviewer, but I do know my books. It’s clear that writing a book review or a garden review is quite different from writing a restaurant or theatre review. Here it seems quite acceptable to be scathing and to point out the flaws as well as the triumphs. Books reviews, and certainly garden reviews, need considerably more restraint. Whenever I have really criticised something, even when justified, it’s generally met with negative comments, so I tend to steer a course of generosity. At the same time, I’d hate to think someone didn’t get what they expected after reading one of my reviews, so I try to be as accurate as I possibly can be.

      Fifteen years of book reviewing is quite an achievement. Whatever do you do with all the books afterwards? Please keep the kindly tips and pointers coming. Dan

      1. Oh, Dan, you should be awarded a medal for flattery! My book reviewing started when I was editor of the society’s newsletter and the demands of filling pages cropped up all too regularly and that started me off on reviewing books. Over the years I have been very fortunate to have contact with very kind and generous publicists in various publishing houses who send books. I feel it is better to err on the side of kindness but, as you point out, one must give the reader some guidance on book choice and not mislead them. I suppose I am very generous in my praise when I feel it is well deserved – “a book I loved” or the likes! – and more matter of fact with the others. I make it clear when I think a book is excellent and fail to recommend, rather than condemn, those which are not – I simply describe what those books are about while being reticent in my praise. Reviewed books are good as raffle prizes for our local book club or for friends who express an interest and those which remain on my shelves are the ones I really enjoyed – the real test and the real review!

  4. I will try this one out if I can find it. And I direct you to ‘Fearless Gardening’ by Loree Bohl , and ‘The Plant Hunters’ by Georgina Reid. One a US PNW (Loree) and the other from the land down-under.

    1. I don’t have ‘The Plant Hunters’ yet, although this sounds right up my street and is hence on my wish list. My garden is featured in Fearless Gardening, if you look carefully, so I am certainly familiar with that one. Indeed, it should be my next book review!

  5. Exactly! Like you say,
    “Yes, one can establish at first glance that this is a book that might sail close to the wind when it comes to style over substance, but by being original and diverse in the choice of subject matter, The Kinfolk Garden definitely brings something new to the (coffee) table.”
    I think that such books are fine for those who enjoy them. I can tell by the cover that I would not enjoy it. Therefore, I would neither read it nor leave an unfavorable review for it. I mean, the cover informs me that it is a book that is of no interest to me, so if I read it and dislike it, that is my own problem.
    If I may elaborate, one thing that I dislike about the cover is that the book is supposed to about ‘how to live with nature’, but unless the picture was taken in a tropical region of Southeastern Asia, the foliage is exotic, so not natural. The third illustration shows desert plants within a conservatory, rather than out in a desert. People so commonly mistake horticulture with nature. Gardening and horticulture are extremely unnatural! Even in my mundane and utilitarian garden, all of the fruit trees and vegetable plants are exotic, and extensively and unnaturally bred. Only the redwood forest beyond is natural. The Santa Clara Valley, where I would prefer to garden, is naturally a chaparral, with sparse vegetation. Los Angeles down south is naturally a rather bleak desert. All the landscaping that people believe to represent nature is very unnatural. I happen to enjoy the unnatural, but I also recognize it for what it is.

    1. You are so right Tony. All these people who have the time and energy to make a disparaging remark about this, that, or another, really ought to think about channelling their energy into something more constructive. If you don’t like the look of a book, restaurant, garden, or whatever, just walk on by and leave it to someone who ‘gets’ it. We don’t all have to approve or like everything! Dan

      1. Actually, I would be rather annoyed if others in my neighborhood gardened like I do. It would look like orchards, with everything in straight lines and grid patterns, and very little color besides white. I sort of rely on them to make our neighborhood pretty.

  6. I would absolutely adore more gardening book reviews. You would be the perfect host for this as you always pay great attention to detail as well as of course to ultra stylish horticulture! I have already bought The Kinfolk Garden and it has arrived this morning. Magic. That’s today sorted then 😊

  7. It sounds like an interesting read. I like to read what other people are doing. I also like to read what you think about books. Keep on…

    1. Will do. I have more time for reading than ever, but when spring arrives that time will evaporate. Page Dickey’s ‘Uprooted’ is keeping me entertained at the moment. I think you’d enjoy that one.

  8. Please do write more book reviews, when you can find time!! I have purchased a few of the books you mentioned and still have a lot including these to read. It is always good to read about other people’s gardens, just as it is to visit them whenever we can. Thank goodness we are all different and garden in different ways.

    1. Yes, we have a lot to learn from one another Lynne. I am always interested to learn from those who can exercise restraint when it comes to planting. It’s a skill I admire, but have yet to embrace!

  9. More book reviews please 😊 I enjoyed this one about The Kinfolk Garden. In fact, you have persuaded me to look into buying it myself as I am curious about the people featured. Every book has its place.

  10. Loved your review Dan. I think this could be an interesting diversification. You are right about the lack of diversity in gardening books. I happened to see with dismay another ‘how to’ book by a certain Mr Don. No chance a publisher will invest in a new name. As usual love your blog. You have made me try plants I would have not been confident to try. Waiting for my G Mandranese to flower soon x

    1. Yes, mine are just starting to form flower heads. They look a bit tatty after the snow but they’re alive and I’ve been treating them to some tomato feed. I hope yours are lovely when they bloom.

      Actually, I don’t think publishers are too bad when it comes to supporting new names, in gardening especially. There have been quite a number of good new books by relatively unknown authors recently, some of whom have risen to prominence via social media rather than traditional TV etc. I’d love to write a book one day, even though the thought is daunting. Dan x

  11. Stunning camera, useless text, not about gardening at all, just another way to monetize. Can’t believe a true gardener can recommend it other than a means to pay for his bills. Something you buy cheap at a book sale for your coffee table and then regret. Love the cover photo though.

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