henry mitchell

Trees in the House

Of Henry Mitchell’s collected “Earthman” columns, some of the funniest are about bringing tropical potted plants into the house for the winter. He couldn’t bring the plants in until the rugs had been sent out for cleaning and returned, quite an operation in itself. Inevitably, plant-lugging was left until a severe cold snap threatened, whereupon the job was done by flashlight, with dogs getting in the way and guests expected for dinner. Which guests had to share the living room with large, neck-tickling, leaf-dropping plants. And sometimes things went seriously wrong, as when a bucket containing a palm tree in muddy soil went bumping down a flight of stairs, disgorging its contents all the way.

I have only one large plant that needs to be lugged in and out in spring and autumn — a jade plant whose trunk is six inches in diameter at the base, and which stands almost five feet tall. Today we brought it in, using a handy device called a Potlifter, a set of adjustable straps and handles designed specifically to make carrying large potted plants quite easy for two reasonably fit people. Since the straps are permanently adjusted for the jade plant’s pot, it took hardly any time to strap it in and carry it to its winter location.

October 13, 2013

The jade plant is an inside/outside tenant, but I also have three quite large plants that stay inside year round, and I’m beginning to wonder whether they should be evicted. Two are weeping figs (Ficus benjamina), one plain, one variegated; the other is a young rubber plant (Ficus elastica). Right now it’s about five feet tall, but in another year or so it will be scraping the ceiling. Previous specimens, once topped, did not branch gracefully but ended up resembling leafy gibbets. One grew sideways in an amazing manner and was finally dispatched. Before doing it in, I air-layered the present plant, doing so only because the original (the “ur plant”) was acquired by my mother in Pittsburgh more than 50 years ago. The present manifestation has therefore acquired a kind of numinous aura. If I kill this last scion, what kind of bad karma will I create? As for the weepers, I would happily give them away (assuming anyone would want them), but I rather like their pots and would want to keep them. Niggardly, I know, which is why the two continue to occupy a good portion of my living room, shedding leaves at regular intervals. (I wonder if that’s why they’re called “weeping’).

It’s ironic that I have similar situations outside and inside — big trees. One day, the axe will fall. One day.

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.

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.