Two Garden Writers

Garden writing is a sub-genre of nonfiction. It’s not how-to-grow-it manuals, nor lists of plants for different purposes, but essays by gardeners, inspired by their experiences in their own gardens, with observations on gardening in general. Often, these writings are collections of columns or articles originally published over a period of years, arranged by topics or — a very common device — by the months of the year.

Right now I am reading (as well as a dozen other books), Christopher Lloyd’s In My Garden : the garden diaries of Great Dixter. Lloyd, who died in 2006, was well-known for his columns in Country Life and other British publications. His famous garden at Great Dixter, in Northiam, East Sussex, was (and still is) open to the public.

As I read, I find myself unconsciously comparing Lloyd’s quirks and writing style with those of another notable garden writer, the American Henry Mitchell, who until his death in 1993 wrote a weekly column for the Washington Post. Many of these columns have been compiled into three books — The Essential Earthman, One Man’s Garden and Henry Mitchell on Gardening. They are among my favourite books and I return to them regularly.

Superficially, these two gardeners appear to be a study in trans-Atlantic contrasts. Lloyd was a horticulturalist by training and profession; Mitchell was a journalist and amateur gardener. Lloyd attained near-celebrity status in his lifetime, while Mitchell was known mainly to readers of the Washington Post until his collected columns were published. Great Dixter is a large property with a 15th century house and features such as topiary, a meadow, an orchard and a famous long border. Mitchell gardened on a suburban lot, often referring to it as “my cat-run garden.” Their writing styles differ as well — Lloyd strikes me as being a bit acerbic with a touch of gleeful malice at times, but hiding personal feelings behind a British reserve. Mitchell’s writing is folksy and colloquial, and is occasionally quite self-revealing, as in “Budding Romance,” where he speaks of ill-health and the emotional attachments of gardeners to certain plants.

Having read a lot of Mitchell, and now some of Lloyd, I begin to see a few similarities. Both men gardened on clay soil; neither had much use for manicured lawns. Mitchell, I think, had little or no lawn; Lloyd had a meadow of “rough grass,” mowed three times a year, in which various wildflowers flourished. Both gardeners loved exotics and tropicals. Mitchell writes at length of his efforts to get various plants through the winter by bringing them into his house or setting up protective mulches and windbreaks. Mitchell’s house was full of rescued agaves, while Lloyd favoured ferns.

Mitchell loved bearded irises and old roses. Lloyd dismissed bearded irises as too labour-intensive, and disparaged old roses as “a week of glory followed by a diseased mess for eleven months.” Mitchell, for his part, disparaged the English climate: “England has a dreadful climate, hardly any sun and, surprisingly, not enough rain either. Things grow slowly there.” Mitchell liked plants to grow as large and lush as possible, and luxuriated in swags of roses and garlands of clematis.

These differences were superficial. Both men were passionate gardeners who wrote about their passion, and this shows in their writing, which I can’t recommend too heartily. In preparation for a garden-less winter, get hold of their books. They will keep you company through the dormant months and inspire you with plans and intentions for spring.

I will finish with two typical quotations:

Of course gardening is not for enjoyment. No, no, indeed not. It was never intended to be. There is no virtue in enjoyment. The hard grind, the solid slog, these are the character-forming attributes of our — I nearly said hobby — of our mission. Christopher Lloyd, “Discovery and Revelation,” In My Garden.

What the right flower can do, with luck, is heal the gardener, making him fit (more or less) to love, by steps however slow. Growing old, still in awe, still sitting at her feet. Henry Mitchell, “Budding Romance,” Henry Mitchell on Gardening.