garden writing

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.

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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.

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.