Prince Charles opens the gates to his organic gardens

In his new book, he reveals how this environmentally sound approach has beautified his British estates.

It's true that the Prince of Wales has long been known for his advocacy of organic farming and gardening. Still, it's difficult to imagine him picking hornworms off tomato vines or turning the compost pile at one of his estates.

And the gorgeous photographs in his new book, written with Stephanie Donaldson, "Elements of Organic Gardening," might cause readers to mutter, "Well, I could do that, too, if I had unlimited funds and a veritable army of gardeners to do my bidding."

While both reactions are valid, they in no way lessen the value of this beautiful book. It works on several levels – as coffee table volume, organic gardening primer, and landscaping how-to, as well as being of interest to Anglophiles and royal-watchers.

Long before organic went mainstream, Prince Charles was an avid proponent. He recommended improving soils with compost instead of pouring on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. He also advocated recycling kitchen and garden waste for compost and collecting rainwater to provide moisture for plants. Charles endured years of jokes about his views, which were considered a bit odd – but he didn't back down. And he put his money and personal influence behind them – most notably at his Highgrove estate.

Most of the book is devoted to Highgrove – with shorter sections on Clarence House, showing what can be done in an urban garden – and Birkhall, on the edge of the Balmoral estate in the Scottish Highlands, where plants and gardeners cope with a cold climate.

Americans tend to think of organic gardening mostly in terms of vegetable gardens. But Prince Charles shows that following environmentally sound principles in the landscape works just as well with ornamentals, since his estates have the type of landscapes that are typical around European palaces and grand houses: intricately trimmed topiary, towering hedges, and many types of informal gardens – from wildflower meadows, orchards, and lily pools to "productive gardens" of vegetables and herbs.

The prince makes no apologies for the extensive lawns that visually tie all the disparate elements together. Don't call them "lawns," though: "They are green spaces which are mown regularly," the book maintains. No weeding, feeding, watering, or aerating for these nonlawns. If flowers pop up in them, well, that adds a colorful note. If drainage is poor and the grass is overtaken by moss, it's still green and therefore serves its purpose.

Besides applying practical organic principles to all his gardens, Prince Charles also is a firm believer in saving and using heirloom plants of many kinds. "At Highgrove I have done my utmost to create a kind of archive of rare and endangered fruit, vegetables, trees, and plants – a repository that, I hope, will help in a small way to preserve the essential biodiversity on which, ultimately, our survival depends," he writes.

There's a wonderful photograph of the Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla, to readers of the popular press), whom the prince charmingly refers to as his "darling wife." In it, she wears jeans and blue, rubber-toed sneakers, so it's easy to believe, as we are told, that the two spent part of their honeymoon finding homes for the many plants they were given as wedding presents. "Stewardship" may be considered an old-fashioned word, the prince notes, but obviously it's one he and his new spouse take seriously when it comes to the environment.

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