My Favourite Gardening Books, Part 2

This week:  Henry Mitchell, Sara B. Stein and Allen Lacy.

Two books by the late Henry Mitchell, The Essential Earthman (1981) and One Man’s Garden (1992) are possibly my absolute favourites when it comes to garden reading. His prose is so approachable, so idiosyncratic and full of whimsical phrases, that I would enjoy it almost as much if he were writing about fly fishing or golf, subjects in which my interest is very limited. Mitchell (who gardened in Washington D.C.) had strong opinions about plants and expressed them unequivocally. He liked big plants (Gunnera, for example) but disliked disproportionally big flowers, had no use for lawns and was ambivalent about trees (desirable in large gardens but not in small ones — like mine, something I totally agree with). I have read and re-read these books so many times that I suspect the rhythm of Mitchell’s prose, the way he put words together, has crept into my own writing. I admit that I have borrowed some of his phrases — for example, describing elaborate and labour-intensive soil preparation as “zub zub zub.” I now refer to any laborious task — sanding woodwork in preparation for painting, say — as “zubbing.” Mitchell gardened on a clay soil in a place with wet summers; I work with a sandy soil in a summer-dry Mediterranean climate, but his thoughts on plants and gardening have coloured my choices. Because of him, I have mulleins in my garden, although not the Verbascum bombyciferum he describes as “the bomb-carrying mullein,” but Verbascum olympicum.  When I read his essay on plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) and its irresistible blueness, I decided I had to have it, and now I do.  Henry Mitchell died in 1993 at the age of 69. An essay in One Man’s Garden never fails to move me to tears.  It’s the one titled “Turn Down the Noise,” and it proves beyond a doubt that behind the wit and humour was a serious man and profound thinker — truly an Earthman.

There are many other gardeners as fond of Mitchell’s writing as I am. A blogger who calls herself the Bookish Gardener actually has a Henry Mitchell category in her blog, replete with quotes and extracts from his writings. Prof. David Neumeyer of the U. of Texas at Austin devotes a section of his website to Mitchell, complete with photographs.

My Weeds (1988) by Sara B. Stein, is about much more than weeds. Essentially it’s about the relationship between gardeners and plants, both weeds and non-weeds. In zesty, clever prose, Stein imparts a wealth of information about how plants grow and reproduce, and how the efforts of farmers and gardeners to manage them have had unintended results in many cases. The book is rooted in Stein’s own experiences with garden-making and struggles with weeds. An interesting detail is the endorsement on the back of the jacket by Eleanor Perenyi, who calls it “a fascinating and original book.” Interesting because Stein is an unabashed user of pesticides, while Perenyi eschews them unequivocally in her book, Green Thoughts. Gardeners of all persuasions have more in common than not, it seems.

I first encountered Allen Lacy’s The Garden in Autumn (1990) in a library. Being a librarian, I (ironically, perhaps?) buy relatively few books, but I had to have this one. Fall is the season I love best, so I decided that mine should be a garden that celebrates the decline of the year. (I’m not sure that I have succeeded in making it so, but that’s another story). After an introductory chapter in praise of autumn, Lacy takes the reader through an array of plants, from perennials that linger and those that are true fall-bloomers, to bulbs, grasses, annuals, shrubs and trees. The book is full of delicious plant descriptions — the colour of the chrysanthemum “Mei-Kyo” is a “strange raspberry sherbet,” and the oak-leaved hydrangea is “old-rose and lime-cream.” Simply reading about the plants is almost as good as seeing them in reality, an experience analogous to reading cookbooks but not actually cooking.

And an addendum:  Christopher Lloyd, Peter McHoy and Tracy DiSabato-Aust.

Three more books — not first-rank favourites, but I wouldn’t want to be without them.  The first is Christopher Lloyd’s Gardener Cook (1997). A friend gave it to me, and I have read it several times (although I don’t think I’ve tried any of the recipes). Mr. Lloyd was another opinionated gardener (and cook), which makes the book an entertaining read. I promise myself I will read his other books some day.

The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust celebrates garden maintenence — deadheading, cutting back and trimming. It’s more a reference than a book one reads cover to cover, but DiSabato-Aust presents the information engagingly, with many photographs illustrating the effects of the techniques she describes.

Another reference is Peter McHoy’s Pruning : a practical guide. I turn to it regularly when I’m facing the fact that some plant in my garden (Oregon grape, honeysuckle, photinia or various clematises and roses) needs pruning. I cannot call myself a confident pruner, but McHoy’s book is somewhat reassuring. The first part describes and illustrates tools and techniques; it’s followed by an A-Z (by Latin name) with specifics.