Month: July 2010

Books for Slow Reading

Yesterday I heard about the idea of slow reading (on CBC Radio 2). I  read a couple of internet articles about it, and got to thinking about books that might lend themselves to slow reading.

A comment on Patrick Kingsley’s Guardian article, “The Art of Slow Reading” said that few books published today are worthy of slow reading. “Read old books,” this comment said. I think there’s something to that. Much of the advice dispensed to writers these days seems to be geared for speed — hook the reader and keep him or her moving from scene to scene before they can escape. Many current books do that, but sacrifice much in the process. They are shallow and not memorable. Once read, they are forgotten. They are never re-read. What can you expect of books that are really Products from a giant marketing machine?

The hallmark of the Slow Read is that you are sorry when you finish reading it and want to read it again, perhaps many times over the years. Slow reads should be meaty and substantial. That suggests long works, weighty tomes of 500 pages or more. Many of my favourite books for re-reading are just that.

Before I get into the list I will just say that it is representative of nothing but my own idiosyncratic whims. These are books I have read more than once and can envision reading again.

In no particular order, but starting with fiction:

…And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Les miserables by Victor Hugo

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The Girl in a Swing; Maia; and Watership Down, all by Richard Adams

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Gormenghast and Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake


Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon

The Outermost House by Henry Beston

And for gardeners:

Herbs and the Earth by Henry Beston

The Essential Earthman and One Man’s Garden by Henry Mitchell

Green Thoughts by Eleanor Perenyi

My Weeds by Sara B. Stein.

It was fun running around the house to my various stashes of books, looking up all these titles and authors. In the process I found many more books that I would like to, and probably will, read again some day.

Finally, for those of you with e-readers, I will mention my own novel, The Friendship of Mortals, which I would unabashedly recommend as a Slow Read (or even a fast one). You can find it at:


Hell Month Begins

Looking back at the weather notes I have kept for the past decade, I see it every year — “Garden looks like Hell.” The early bloomers have gone to seed, have been cut down or withered. The roses have black spot and more spent flowers than fresh ones. There are dry green leaves and twigs all over the ground, pulled from the trees by the latest windstorm. A scurf of withered leaves and faded rose petals covers the pond, in which the water lily leaves are starting to die and blacken from lack of light.  It’s Hell Month again.

It actually lasts more than a month, most years, from mid-July well into August, ending when we finally get rain, some years as early as mid-August, others not until September.

Remember re-enchantment? It’s really hard to achieve right now. There are days I’d rather go to the beach or stay in the house and work on this blog than venture into the blasted garden.

But I did spend a couple of hours this morning cutting things down and edging.

Results of a heavy deadheading session

Remember this: when in doubt, edge. A fresh edge to the lawn adjoining a perennial border will make that border look better, even if you do nothing else. And if you manage to whack down or pull up the seedy and weedy, the results may very well stave off Hell Month for another week or so.

Rain Barrels

Rain barrels are fashionable these days. If you want credibility as an environmentally responsible gardener, you install a rain barrel or two. For about $100 you can get a purpose-made model (plastic, of course) with various nifty features. Or you can make your own.  I have three home-made barrels — two used to be plastic garbage containers and the third is actually a genuine wooden barrel — very picturesque.

Funky Wooden Barrel

Former Garbage Can

There’s only one problem — it doesn’t rain here in the summer. In April and May my barrels actually fill up with rainwater, and I use it for the small amount of watering I do at the time — newly planted things or pots.

In June, rain becomes scarce and by July nonexistent. My rain barrels would be empty until late August or September if I didn’t fill them with the hose. How ironic is that?

Filling up with the hose does make sense. I do that only to the two plastic former garbage cans, which are open at the top. The funky wooden barrel stays mostly full of rainwater, because I draw from it very sparingly. Empty, it would dry out and crack. But the two plastic barrels are handy water reservoirs for filling my watering can, which gets daily use through the summer. It’s much faster to fill by dipping into the barrel than starting up the hose every time. I get through an entire hand-watering session (a zillion pots plus half a dozen especially water-needy plants in the ground) on one barrel fill-up.

In summer I think I should have been born under the sign of Aquarius.


This spring I decided to be a better deadheader. Now it’s summer and all the tough, self-sufficient plants that do so well on my dry soil are in bloom.  The garden is full of colour and buzzing bees busy pollinating. Before you can say “Go forth and multiply,” there will be seeds.

Bee on Mullein

Many of those tough, self-sufficient plants are prolific seeders.  They share this quality with weeds; in fact, some wouldn’t hesitate to call plants such as toadflax (Linaria), lamb’s ears (Stachys) and campion (Lychnis) weeds and treat them accordingly.

For me it’s too late.  I welcomed these and others of their type into my dry garden with open arms and discovered their seedy tendencies by experience. Since about mid-June I have made weekly rounds of my garden, secateurs in hand, snipping and clipping any blooms that are past their best, before the seeds can ripen and scatter.



Many years I wasn’t persistent enough.  Seeds develop with astonishing speed, and in late August or September I would find myself creeping up to certain plants and shaking the stalks gently to hear if they rattled (which they inevitably did), then trying to cut and trap them in a bucket before they showered seeds all over.  Almost always the snip of the blades was followed by the peppering sound of seeds bouncing off neighbouring foliage as they fell earthward.  At this point I would tell myself that a certain amount of seeding is necessary for continuity, and that the seedlings won’t be that hard to remove next spring. Not strictly true, which is why this year I resolve to keep up with deadheading.

Deadheading need not be viewed as a tedious chore.  There is another aspect to it.  Think of it as perennial pruning.  There is a whole book about this — The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust.  The author discusses different techniques for removing spent blooms from plants, or cutting plants back to delay bloom and reduce size for better appearance.  The book includes many before and after photos illustrating the techniques, as well as a plant-by-plant section.

It’s all a matter of attitude — think of shaping and managing your plants throughout their season, rather than frantically trying to keep up with their fiendish seed-producing tendencies.  Think of deadheading as sculpture rather than housecleaning. Consider that removing the first flush of blooms often leads to another round of bloom rather than seediness.

Be brutal. Don’t fuss with snipping off individual dead flowers, even though that may be optimal for some plants, Lychnis coronaria and Campanula persicifolia, to name two. But if you have a lot of plants, trying to do it right soon means you won’t do it at all. Once most of the blooms on a stalk are past their best, cut off the whole thing. The tough plants will cheerfully send up new bloom stalks, and if they don’t at least you will avoid excessive seeding. You can experiment, in the spirit of Ms. DiSabato-Aust. Do the flower-by-flower thing on one plant and the crude but effective cut-the-whole-stalk treatment on others, leaving a few alone as a control. That’s the beauty of these slightly weedy plants — having so many, you can treat them harshly without fear of losing them.