Val Bourne The Natural Gardener

Val writes for The Daily Telegraph, Saga Magazine, Crocus, Hartley Botanic, Garden Answers, the Hardy Plant Society Journal and many other magazines. 

About Val Bourne

Like most gardeners I plough a lonely furrow, for whenever I have any spare time I head outside to tinker about. I’ve spent over 60 years doing just this, so my garden is my best friend, my solace, my exercise class and my inspiration. I caught the habit early from my grandmother, who was born in 1881, and I followed her hands-on methods – the same ones she had copied from her father before her. She was, of course, organic, although she never used that word or understood the concept. However, from the age of three I was inspired by her, and she taught me about the magic of plants. She had a tale about every plant and explained to me the joys of Alchemilla mollis, for instance, with its wonderful raindrop-catching foliage and jewelled edges, created when water seeps out round the extremities. I learned that it was named after alchemists who had thought the water magical and that it would good for the complexion. She also explained why peonies could never be moved – in fact an old wives’ tale, but it brought the garden to life and I soaked it up like a sponge.

My earliest memory is watching a bumblebee gather pollen and nectar from a frilly dark aquilegia at eye-level, so I have always been an insect watcher as well as a flower lover. In my mind they’re completely integrated: the moving layer that hovers above the floral layer has always fascinated me just as much as the flowers. As for many people, my childhood garden fostered an interest in the natural world.

Some years ago I wrote a book called The Natural Gardener about the way I gardened at Hook Norton in Oxfordshire. It put forward the idea that it was quite possible to have a lovely garden without resorting to any chemical props. I wrote it because I have always gardened naturally and had lovely gardens. It didn’t mean that I was immune to problems. I had slugs and snails just as much as you probably do, and occasionally I sacrificed my runner bean plants or all my cosmos to the hungry gastropod – leaving me muttering darkly for days. Most of the time, though, my plants flourished and I rather took it for granted that most people gardened like me, big-booting the slugs and snails when needed, counting the ladybirds and chasing the bees.

In 2005 I left Hook Norton after 18 years. The Best Beloved and I moved to a new garden at Spring Cottage. It was a weedy third of an acre plot devoid of any garden plants. Worse still, the garden shed was full of out-of-date chemicals that included, among other things, a yellow tin of DDT. It was straight down the snake and back to the start, with no ladder in sight. Ten years on there’s a healthy ecosystem, drawn in by the planting and gardening style, and I’ve learned a lot more about how gardens work. My new book The Living Jigsaw also champions natural gardening but goes much further. It says you’ll encounter fewer problems in a chemical-free garden, not more. You’ll enjoy it more, you’ll be healthier and, most importantly of all, so will our planet.

Val Bourne

Spring Cottage

Reading List

The Natural Gardener, Frances Lincoln, London

by Bourne, Val (2004)

My Side of the Fence, Jeremy P. Early, Reigate

by Early, Jeremy (2013

The Complete Garden Wildlife Book, New Holland, London

by Golley, Mark (2007)

Nature in Towns and Cities, HarperCollins, London

by Goode, David (2014)

The Ecology of a Garden: the First Fifteen Years, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

by Owen, Jennifer (1991)

Wildlife of a Garden: a Thirty-year Study, RHS, Wisley

by Owen,Jennifer (2010), 

Wildlife Gardening for Everyone, Think Publishing, London

by Tait, Malcolm (ed.) (2006) 

The Back Garden Wildlife Sanctuary Book, Astragal Books

by Wilson, Ron (1979)


Val has managed to turn a sometimes daunting subject into one that is eminently enjoyable.

Gerry Edwards

Organic Fruit Grower and Chairman of the RHS Fruit Committee