This post is probably coming too late in the winter, but there are still weeks of non-gardening weather ahead (especially in areas with real winter) during which reading about gardening has to substitute for the real thing. Also, I find that good garden writing makes me eager to get back into my own garden, so reading it as spring approaches is inspiring.
There are two broad categories of garden writing: instructional and experiential. The first is pure information — how to grow specific plants, how to prune, how to design a garden, install a pond or path. Books of this type are useful, but one doesn’t truly read them or love them, merely consults sections of them for specific bits of information. They are being replaced by the internet; you can do quick look-ups as needed, without lumbering your home with tomes that you may use only a few times.
Then there is what I think of as Real Garden Writing — the experiences and opinions of real gardeners, based on years of working with the earth and the plants that grow in it, expressed in prose that is readable and eloquent. These books are friends of the gardener, turned to again and again over the years and seasons, not for information, but for the peculiar tone of each one, the rhythm of the prose and choice of words.
I have identified eight books that constitute the core of my personal garden writing library, read so many times that the older paperbacks are falling apart. I’ll describe them in chronological order, oldest first.
Herbs and the Earth by Henry Beston (1935). This was the first book about gardens and gardening that I read, long before I had a garden of my own. In fact, it’s rather strange that a thirteen-year-old would have been charmed by this book, but so it was. Perhaps Beston’s gravity, his absolute seriousness (although not devoid of a quiet humour) convinced me that his words were valuable and the subject of herbs important. It’s a slight book, only 117 pages, illustrated with simple woodcuts of the plants that Beston calls “ten great herbs.” Quite apart from his descriptions of herbs, their histories and cultural needs, what I found most captivating about this book was Beston’s descriptions of the gardening experience itself, from the perspective of his garden in Maine. Even at thirteen, I knew I wanted that experience, and now I have it.
The Gardener’s Year by Karel Capek (1929). Originally written in Czech, this is a charming and somewhat whimsical account of a gardener’s year, from winter anxiety about plant survival, to the frantic work of spring, drought in summer, the craziness of plant collecting, the gardener’s anxiety over leaving his garden while on holiday, the deluge of plant catalogues in winter, and other situations familiar to any gardener. The cartoon-like illustrations by the author’s brother add to the lighthearted but sincere effect.
The Dry Garden by Beth Chatto (1978). I latched onto this book eagerly because I garden on a sandy soil near several greedy trees (maple and ailanthus) in a place where rain is scarce from May to September. This book contains straightforward and unvarnished advice from a gardener of profound experience for whom gardening has furnished a livelihood. Ms. Chatto describes her experience of gardening in a dry part of England, and the techniques and materials she uses to achieve success. This is followed by a long list of mainly herbaceous plants that do well in dry conditions. I use this book both as reference and a source of reassurance (although I must confess that I can’t altogether believe Ms. Chatto’s assertion that she doesn’t water her plants at all once they’re established).
Green Thoughts : a writer in the garden by Eleanor Perenyi (1981). This is a collection of essays on a large variety of garden-related topics, arranged rather prosaically in alphabetical order, starting with “Annuals” and ending with “Woman’s Place.” Ms. Perenyi is a woman of culture and sophistication, well-read and well-travelled, and it shows in her musings on everything from compost to garlic to creating standards. She refers frequently to the writings of others (not only gardeners) and expresses pithy opinions on their opinions. (For example, she takes a bit of a swipe at Henry Beston, decrying his thoughts on herbs as overly romantic). But every one of these essays is rooted in real gardening, first in Hungary then in Connecticut, and many of the topics have been extensively researched. Even non-gardeners would enjoy this book.
I’ll save the last four books for next week’s posting.