favorite books

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.

My Favourite Gardening Books, Part I

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.