Garden Books for the New Millennium, Part 1

Having written two postings about my favourite garden books, it occurred to me that the most recent of them was published nearly 20 years ago.  In part that’s because it takes a while for a book to become a favourite, to endear itself to its reader to the point that the reader would not want to be without it. Books that have been around only a few years (less than ten, let’s say) need to prove their worth and earn their keep.

Even so, back in January I decided it was time to have a look at what sort of garden writing has emerged since the turn of the millennium. I looked for books of the philosophical sort, rather than those consisting of “how to” information. The first one I picked up was Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate : at work in the wild and cultivated world by Wendy Johnson (Bantam, 2008).  It took me more than a month to read it, because it’s a hefty book — nearly 450 pages, measuring 9 x 7.5 x 1.25 inches.

This is a big book for a reason. Johnson is a passionate gardener of vast experience, and has packed all of that into this volume. Her perspective on gardening is informed by her experience as a Buddhist and this pervades every part of this book, which makes it rather complicated. Zen wisdom is inseparably intertwined with Johnson’s gardening practices. Balancing the two elements must have been a challenge when writing this book. The first two chapters describe how Johnson began gardening at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, her early training in Buddhism, and several of the teachers in both fields who shaped her outlooks. Subsequent chapters focus on soil, compost, watering and weeding, dealing with pests, growing from seed, gardening values and the meaning of “harvest” in its broadest sense.

Soil is, of course, vitally important to a gardener, and Wendy Johnson is serious about soil. She approaches it from a number of angles — its chemistry, its physical texture, the organisms that live in it and help to create it, and as the gardener’s “home ground,” which he or she must come to know intimately. The chapter covers a variety of topics, from testing (and tasting!) your soil, to the effects of positively or negatively charged ions on plant nutrition, to an anecdote about transforming an area of impoverished subsoil into a school garden, to advice on digging and cultivating.

The chapter I found most entertaining, however, was the one on compost-making, entitled “Life into Death into Life.” As one who thinks of the compost heap as a place of life and death, I was intrigued, and as I read on, entertained as well. Johnson is a wild enthusiast for hot compost, exulting in high temperatures achieved as compost materials break down. She relates incidents in which dead animals (a chicken and a deer) were quickly reduced to skeletons following burial in compost piles. This is a gardener who has entrusted personal mementos to the invisible fires of the working heap, who says “Every compost pile has a unique signature, a hot, rotting charm all its own.” This statement precedes a memory of a “succulent pile” dubbed “Holy Shit,” that reached 160 degrees F. After reading this chapter, I resolved to be more diligent about my own composting practices.

Subsequent chapters impart valuable new insights into gardening practices such as watering, weeding and cultivation of the soil. The section on pests is particularly reflective of what might be considered unorthodox views. As both a practitioner of Zen Buddhism and an organic gardener intent on producing food crops, Johnson finds herself having to reconcile the entire concept of “pest control” with what she terms “gardening with all beings.” There are no easy answers, and Johnson admits that she does not believe it is possible to garden without harming and taking life. But the gardener must practice awareness and develop a degree of tolerance for the depredations of creatures labeled as pests. In addition to philosophical musings on this problem, Johnson offers a wide array of pest control techniques in keeping with organic principles.

The final two chapters celebrate the many ways in which gardens and gardening enhance life by bringing people closer to the earth and to each other. Johnson cites examples of the many gardens to whose creation she has contributed — private sanctuaries, meditation gardens, schoolyard food gardens and memorial gardens. Both failures and successes are celebrated, concluding with menus and recipes for a harvest from paradise.

As I read this book, I did at times think that Wendy Johnson’s gardening experience was too far removed from my own to be relevant. Green Gulch is actually a farm that sells some of its produce, very different from my 50′ x 120′ yard with its tiny vegetable patch and tree-root-infested perennial borders. In addition, while I recognize the reasons for including quite a bit about Zen Buddhism in this book, some may find it distracting. Finally, although there is much sound practical advice for gardeners here, this is more a book to read and savour, rather than a handy reference. Like the best garden writers, Johnson has strong opinions and expresses them with verve and enthusiasm. Whether one agrees with her or not, this book is worth reading, and with time, will no doubt be found among the favourites.