Q&A with Val Bourne, author of The Living Jigsaw

By Shelley Pierce | May 20, 2018
by Shelley Pierce
May 20, 2018

Val Bourne is a celebrated garden writer, photographer and lecturer. She has won multiple awards including Journalist of the Year from the Garden Media Guild.  She is a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph, among others, and she gardens on the wind-swept Cotswolds at Spring Cottage, high above Bourton-on-the-Water in Gloucestershire. Val is an Ambassador for the Hardy Plant and a member of several RHS committees. Val is a hands on gardener and a committed plantaholic and she manages her third of an acre garden without using any chemicals at all – something she has always believed in. Her newest book, The Living Jigsaw, explains how it all works.   Read on to learn more and enter below to win one of two copies from The University of Chicago Press.

What inspired you to write this book?

About 14 years ago I wrote a book called The Natural Gardener, published by Frances Lincoln. It came about because in the mid 1990s I was on a radio program called Dig It, a question and answer phone in. I was on with three other gardeners and we popped up at random in pairs. I was completely horrified by their answers, because they treated every problem in exactly the same way. The standard advice was to go down to the garden center and buy a chemical produce. I was on the program for about six weeks and steam came out of my headphones when I heard my colleagues constantly mentioning some chemical or other.

Many of the problems we got on our call line were due to things being planted in the wrong place, or down to a bad variety. To make a long story short, after six weeks I was taken aside and told that, although I had a wonderful radio voice, no one was interested in organic answers. Everybody wanted a quick fix.

I was so cross and I decided to write a book about gardening naturally, but I had one huge problem. I didn’t know why I had so few pests and diseases in my own garden, so I set about analyzing what was going on. I started with ladybirds because they’re so easy to identify. I found a mating pair of 7-spot ladybirds in April 1999 and set about trying to photograph them. They were perched on Potentilla also known as “Gibson’s Scarlet.” Unfortunately, every time I pushed the shutter my camera made a whirring noise and this prompted the amorous pair to set about their business once again. I used three rolls a film and took over a hundred shots, but only four were in focus. It was definitely Tantric sex.

Having seen mating ladybirds I set about looking for ladybird eggs and frisked the garden looking for batches of yellow eggs laid on end. I was getting dressed one day, when I noticed some yellow eggs on an aphid ridden Euphorbia characias. I was pretty sure that they were ladybird eggs and so it proved. It was a Eureka moment, because I realized that natural gardening is a Catch-22 situation. The ladybirds had only laid their eggs on the euphorbia because there was an aphid colony thriving on the foliage. It gave me an insight into how a natural garden work. Whatever people tell you, organic gardening has nothing to do with compost heaps, although they are very useful. It’s a series of interactions between different creatures.


What is the meaning or significance of the book’s title, The Living Jigsaw ?

 The title came about following a visit by some small children. They were seven and nine and this was in the late 1990s. They noticed some blackfly on a white achillea and began to ask questions. I explained that the blackfly were feeding on the achillea using a feeding tube called a stylet. I explained that the plant sap flowed through the creature, through osmotic pressure, and came out of the aphids bottom. They giggled, as  bottom is a word young children like. On cue some ants began to march up and down the Killian stems and feed on the honeydew, the sticky waste substance produced by the aphids. I explained that ants farm aphids for their honeydew and go to great lengths to keep other predators away.

While we were there, a parasitic wasp arrived and started to lay eggs on the blackfly. I explained that the wasp, which was rather like a blackfly with wings, would lay one single egg in each aphid and that a new parasitic wasp would emerge from the aphid through a perfectly round hole. We could see some evidence of this and they were fascinated by the explanation.

We also saw a ladybird lava, a seven spot. It was a warm day and we sat on a seat to have a drink and they were talking about what they’d seen. I went over these interactions and used the phrase living jigsaw, because I thought the children would understand how a jigsaw fits together. This conversation occurred before I wrote The Natural Gardener, but I remember the phrase and I thought it was a very apt description of how the natural world interacts. I wasn’t happy with the title of The Natural Gardener, because I thought there were too many other books with similar titles. I would have preferred to have called that book Gardening with the Planet but the publisher thought this was too pretentious.

After The Natural Gardener came out I carried on looking at my garden and trying to learn more about what went on. I gathered a lot more information on the creatures within it. As I was doing this two things happened. There was a recognition that the natural world, both flora and fauna, were in decline and many gardeners noticed this. A video taken in my previous garden in Hook Norton in the mid-1990s clearly shows lots of insect life above the flowers. That has all gone sadly. There are fewer bees, fewer wildflowers and fewer insects and this has occurred for several reasons. Gardeners have become far too tidy now that they can use strimmers etc, so there are fewer refuges for wildlife. They’re far too quick to use a toxic substance, a pesticide or an insecticide or an herbicide, because horticulture is telling them that’s what they need to do. The accelerated use in gardening and farming has decimated wildlife, particularly in the countryside. Although I’m talking about Britain in my book, this is true in many countries.

There were litigious issues regarding the content of pesticides and herbicides and their effects on the natural world and that includes us. The EU began a Pesticides Review which saw lots of chemicals withdrawn from the market. Others were reformulated, to make them more eco-friendly. It was a lengthy process and there was a lot of annoyance in some quarters that certain products were no longer available. However many younger gardeners realized there were real problems in the natural world and they wanted to embrace a different style of gardening.

In 2006 I moved to a new garden called Spring Cottage, high in the Cotswolds. The garden had been treated with lots of different chemicals, judging by the number of tins in the old shed. There were no plants to speak of and consequently very little wildlife. No birds visited the garden and the first year I planted broad beans, always a martyr to blackfly, no predators arrived to eat them.

I set about reviving the garden and making it much more wildlife friendly. The whole process is described in The Living Jigsaw and I probably wouldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t moved gardens. It was a game of snakes and ladders. I moved from an eco-friendly garden that was full of wildlife and insect life to sterile environment and I really had to think about how to plant it up. It’s all in the book.

I’ve tried to include new scientific research, on what eats slugs for instance, and explain how to plant up a garden that’s self-sustaining. I’m a committed organic gardener. I’ve never used chemical props, not even for slugs, and yet my garden is healthy, lovely to look at and it offers something throughout the year.


Your book champions natural gardening.  Why should we embrace natural gardening?

When you hear that there are no wild bees left to pollinate the apple crops in China, because the habitat is no longer there to support them, it sends a shudder through you. Apparently small children have to go up a ladder with a paintbrush instead and the results aren’t that brilliant. Bees do a much better job. It’s one instance how dependent on the natural world we are. We have time to change and improve and although this book is written about a British garden, it’s a global problem. Wildlife is threatened by what we do. We have a responsibility to conserve our wildlife and gardeners, who are a nurturing bunch, can do an awful lot to help the planet.

None of us garden in a bubble, or live in a bubble. Everything we do has implications and this book attempts to explain the nitty-gritty of the natural world. It points out that the lower orders of life underpin our world. Unfortunately. The lower orders are the very creatures gardeners often target. However, they are part of the living jigsaw and, if you stand back, and let nature do the work for you, you’ll get an eco-friendly garden. I spend as much time watching insects as I do looking at flowers.


Has it been really difficult convincing people to adopt a chemical-free gardening lifestyle and to get them to let nature takes its course?

 Well it’s hard for me to say because I’ve always been an organic gardener. However when I looked back at the radio questions going out and buying and applying a chemical was often more time-consuming then a hands on organic solution. Often gardeners were growing things they couldn’t really sustain, or planting them in the wrong place.

Sometimes a gardener growing phloxes had suffered mildew, a water stress disease, purely because they were growing these moisture-loving plants on thin, dry soil.  Putting your plants in the right place and growing what you can is an integral part of natural gardening.

Sometimes the plant was a poor example and in Britain we have an AGM system of awards given to excellent plants.  Roses were particular problem because many highly bred roses suffer from blackspot. The solution is to find roses there are healthy and resistant and there’s a section in the book on bombproof roses.

Chemical solutions aren’t particularly time-saving and they are undermining your ecosystem and cause greater problems in the long run. It’s far easier to look at your garden carefully and assess the problems and target them very specifically. If you have slugs and snails eating your hosts what’s wrong with going out at dusk and picking them off? Wear gloves if you’re squeamish. Slug bait will kill all your slugs and snails, even the ones that eat detritus and clean up for you.


What advice do you have for those willing to give natural gardening a go?

 My advice would be the set about planting your garden so that its self-sustaining. Grow wide range of plants that includes trees, shrubs, herbaceous, annuals, grasses, ferns, bulbs and annuals. These will attract more insect life and an abundance of insect life will attract more birds etc.

Layout your garden so that your plants are in the right place. Spring flowering plants do well under a leafy canopy. Midsummer plants tend to be sun lovers. Autumn flowering plants benefit from catching afternoon sun as the year fades. You’ll avoid disease and you’ll always have something to attract and sustain a pollinator and lift your spirits.

Create some wild areas in corners of the garden or against a wall and leave them largely undisturbed. This allows creatures a refuge, whether it’s shrews, voles, toads, beetles or hedgehogs.

Don’t know and strip everything down to the ground. Areas of longer grass can be made in to highly fashionable mini meadows. Longer grass allows more beetles and other insects a home and ground beetles are the best predators of slugs.

Win one of two copies of “The Living Jigsaw“!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Sunday, May 27, 2018 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

Why do you want to pursue natural gardening?

Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)

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