With the first whiff of damp soil or newly mown grass, I run outside and start digging in the dirt. Whether learning to properly prune fruit trees, starting seeds indoors, picking up (and relocating) slugs, or transplanting a misplaced shrub, I have endless passion for plants and the outdoors. During the winter, I comfort myself with books about garden design, plant propagation and particularly about how other people have learned to cope with the unpredictability and imperfection while trying to control plants, bugs, soil, wildlife, and the weather in pursuit of maintaining a garden.
My favorite of Pavord’s books is The Tulip, a history of the 17th century “tulipmania” which swept Europe and nearly ruined the economies of western Europe when the market crashed. The book is now inexplicably out of print, but The Curious Gardener is a close runner up, and infinitely more readable than her rather detailed history of tulips. As a former editor of Gardens Illustrated, the English magazine, she admirably covers all aspects of gardening, not just bulbs. In this practical and delightful guide, she devotes a chapter to each month, with a list of tasks for the gardener (as if we didn’t have enough on the “to-do” list). I always learn a lot from Pavord, who has been gardening in Dorset for forty years. The depth of her knowledge and her passion for gardening shine in her books. I also keep a copy of Bulb, her 500 page compendium with generous descriptions and clear, lovely photographs of bulbs I know, and those I would love to meet in my spring garden.
Home Ground, by Allen Lacy
Probably long out of print, this collection of essays about gardening (first published in 1980) is a classic. Each chapter is short, probably collected from Lacy’s days as a gardening columnist for the Wall Street Journal many years ago. Topics cover a wide and eclectic assortment, from “Jaundiced View: Yellow Geraniums” to “The Miseries of an August Garden” to memories of bonfires made of autumn leaves. He is opinionated, fiercely intelligent, yet gentle and funny. Anyone who gardens has to have a sense of humor, I believe, but not all have the skill to write with humor. One of my favorite Lacy essays is titled “The Transience of Columbines”, a plant in which I have little interest, but he so engaged me on the topic in three pages that I actually planted some in a shady corner of my own garden. A book well worth buying second hand, or borrowing from a well-stocked library.
Onward and Upward in the Garden, by Katharine S. White
Anyone with even a small gardening library will probably have a copy of this book as a mainstay. Many people know it, first published as individual gardening essays in The New Yorker from the late 1950’s through 1970. But I am wondering how many have actually read it. It is now wildly out of date, which is part of its great charm. It is almost Edwardian in style and its content harks back to the 1960’s. This history is fascinating, covering such diverse aspects as the identity of the infamous “Amos Pettingill” of White Flower Farm, the delightfully eclectic Wayside Gardens’ catalog design and development, and the origins of flower arranging. It explores garden suppliers, seed and plant companies, gardening books and a wide swath of plants. Katharine, the wife of the famous writer E. B. White, was every bit as prolific and clever a writer, although their canvases were very different. How grateful I am to have read them both at various times in my life–I will never “outgrow” them.
My Weeds, by Sara Stein
Here is a book that belongs in a class by itself: Stein occupies a very small stage with those who dare try to explain the complex (mostly hate) relationship we have with plants gardeners spend the most time with–our weeds. Of all my gardening books, I have spent the most time with this one. In a garden I recently left after 12 years of struggle, the horsetail plagued me every day, even in winter. From Stein I learned that horsetail is, next to the cockroach, one of the oldest of living things still not endangered. Instead of fighting with her horsetail, which could only spread the misery, she left hers alone. In chapters about the anatomy of a weed, how weeds propagate, proper tools for weed eradication, and the pros and cons of various poisons (mostly cons), she clearly and simply demystifies much of the angst about these plants. After all, some weeds provide food, plant-based fabric and erosion control. While she did not convince me to “love” my weeds, she definitely helped me relax and accept that weeds do not deserve all all the energy and animosity I waste on them. Thanks, Sara!
This recent memoir was recommended to me by a long-time bookstore customer. When I started it, I thought it might turn out to be a rather shallow memoir about a neighborhood, an immigrant gardener for hire, and a happy-to-be-in-America story. But it is much more than that. Wall is white, living in a middle class white neighborhood in mid-America, when she notices an African man gardening at her neighbor’s. She becomes acquainted with him, and soon enough hires him to work on her own yard. She thinks she is “helping him” adjust to American ways after she finds he is from Kenya, and works as a bagger in a local grocery. But in time she finds the opposite is true as they become friends, share family troubles, health challenges, and deeper secrets that each has been holding onto out of fear. While Wall’s book does not paint a unique story of the immigrant experience, it is embellished with ethical and cultural subtleties and a quiet dignity that makes it stand out from the pack.
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, by Marta McDowell
Beautifully illustrated with photos, watercolors, letters and maps, I bought this book thinking it would be a great browsing volume, never expecting I would read every word. But so enamored with all things Potter, I could not help myself. This is a “gardening biography” of Potter, and absolutely charming in its examination of her gardening education, development of her gardens at Hill Top in England, and a carefully researched listing of the various plants she grew in each of her gardens. The section that particularly delighted me, however, and is testimony to author McDowell’s detailed accounting, is the list of plants described or illustrated in each of Potter’s 28 books. A coffee-table book that will fit on the bedside stand. What an absolute treasure!
In a closing note, my dear friend and architect Ed Carr recommended to me his own favorite, English gardener and writer Russell Page’s Education of a Gardener, which I did not know and of which I have recently read a chapter. I have to agree, it belongs in any gardening library. To quote from a famous review: “For anyone with an interest in abiding questions of design and aesthetics, or who simply enjoys an unusually well-written and thoughtful book.” Page died in 1985 after a long and successful career, yet he is still influencing garden designers and lovers of all ages and tastes.