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Gardening books that have shaped me...Part I
In my opinion, these are the keepers: timeless, educational, entertaining and beautiful
I was thinking the other day after recognizing that I had packed up all of my garden books for the move that I had had the agonizing task of editing my collection. I have favourite authors, yes, but I also realized that my tastes and focus has changed as I’ve become a more proficient gardener and also as I’ve aged (read: become more of a realist in terms of what I can accomplish and focus on!)
This wondrous book appeared in 1987 by the author Patrick Lima, with photographs provided by his partner in life and gardening, John Scanlan. For many Canadians it was their introduction to perennial gardening and provided a national version of what they had been seeing for years in British gardening books and magazines. Just south of Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula which intersects Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, what was once cow pasture became the garden Larkwhistle. It showcased long diverse mixed borders with a succession of interest and colour provided by flowering shrubs (although these are not specified in the title, their garden has used them liberally), perennials both large and small, as well as spring blooming bulbs. Everything was presented in such an approachable and achievable way, even though you might not be living on one acre in the countryside. All the classic and workhorse perennials are represented, with a generous supply of colour photos that show you how to position and combine them. For a novice, especially one who learns visually, this was just the tonic!
Lima and Scanlan have closed their garden to visitors now (since 2013 actually) and are enjoying retirement. I remember hearing Lima speak some years ago and he was very passionate about climate change and saving our planet, but also seemed defeated by the prospect of having an influence and stopping that destruction. If I could speak to him I’d say that with this book in particular, but also with the others he has authored, he has provided gardeners of succeeding generations the tools with which to take back the earth and champion it’s health. You can read an excellent article on Larkwhistle here.
These days Michael Pollan is known for his books on food: the industrialization of the food industry, what to eat to stay healthy and ensure our farmers are kept in business, and the history of what we eat. But this is his earliest effort, published in 1991, and it is all at once insightful, beautifully written and often very, very funny as he chronicles his haphazard education as a gardener. Here are Pollan’s words from his Introduction:
“…I soon came to the realization that I would not learn to garden very well before I also learned about a few other things: about my proper place in nature (was I within my rights to murder the woodchuck that had been sacking my vegetable garden all spring?); about the somewhat peculiar attitudes toward the land that an American is born with (why is it the neighbors have taken such a keen interest in the state of my lawn?); about the troubled borders between nature and culture; about the experience of place, the moral implications of landscape design, and several other questions that the wish to harvest a few decent tomatoes had not prepared me for. It may be my nature to complicate matters unduly, to search for large meanings in small things, but it did seem that there was a lot more going on in the garden than I’d expected to find.”
See? He has it all: battling groundhogs, the great North American lawn fetish, the question “what is a garden anyway and how does it differ from nature?”, and can we garden without destroying the land and making things worse, especially for the bees and birds, not to mention the worms, nematodes and microorganisms that we never see.
This book was also on Vivian Swift’s Top 10 Books about Gardens in the Guardian back in 2016, of which I largely agree. You can find it here. Swift is an author and watercolourist whose own book, Gardens of Awe and Folly: A Traveler’s Journal on the Meaning of Life and Gardening is now on my 2021 reading list!
I think we are all drawn in by gorgeous photos, but when they’re accompanied by prose that is full of personality and attitude, as well as such a respect for the natural world, well Ken Druse is the name to search out. You won’t have to look for long because Druse is well represented in the garden section of your local bookstore having just published his 20th book. But this one, pictured above and published in 1992, was my introduction to him and has been a perennial favourite because of his seductive and sublime approach to gardening in the shade.
Novice gardeners have always been intimidated and frustrated by shade, seeking out sunny spots to grow the colourful plants seen on the racks of garden centres. But Druse’s book presents a shade garden that anyone would want to have; one that is rich and jewel-like. He is an active gardener and very accomplished artist (his paintings of his cat and dog can be found here), and has an archive of podcasts that dates back to 2005.
Happily, Druse has published an update in 2015 to his original shade book, entitled The New Shade Garden: Creating a Lush Oasis in the Age of Climate Change. Like his others, this book is chock full of beautiful and inspiring photographs, but he also shares excellent information on how to garden in the shade more sustainably, watering responsibly, flummoxing deer, choosing plants according to the type of shade you have and how to grow them successfully (it’s the soil!) I’m going to have to make space on my already crowded, down-sized bookshelf for this one too!
Gardening is a personal and often very solitary endeavour. When you find a voice who “gets it” and makes fun of the gardeners folly, it becomes a treasure. Henry Mitchell didn’t need splashy photos in his books because his sentences were always so colourful. And what I mean is that he was wry but also surprisingly sentimental, with a healthy dose of get-on-with-it. Henry Clay Mitchell found his true journalistic calling when he began writing a weekly gardening column called The Earthman with the Washington Post, of which he came upon through serendipity. It ran from 1973 to just before his death in 1993. His second column about all else that tickled his fancy, called Any Day, was almost as long lived. His books were largely collections of his newspaper columns and The Essential Earthman was the first of a trilogy, published in 1981.
Like many literary and sensitive men, he battled demons in the form of depression and alcohol, perhaps exacerbated by his stint as a WWII radio operator off the coast of New Guinea. But with a constant cigarette in his hand, he won those fights with years still left (he was sober for around 13 years at the end) until he died from cancer at the age of 69 in 1993. Perhaps the Church of the Garden was his saving grace.
To me, a Hemingway of the soil, Mitchell is the kind of gardener with whom you would want to hang out. He was a true plantsman but didn’t show this off. He wasn’t tidy, he did chores as they presented themselves, tracking draining flower pots through the house on his wife’s newly shampooed carpets. Indeed, he called his devoted wife Helen “his assistant”, but in a kind-hearted and appreciative way. He fed the squirrels because he said they were more fun to watch than bulbs. He let his plants grow wildly and fully expected them to be felled in lashing rainstorms or weighty blizzards. He understood that no garden was perfect, nor should it be. He is a must-read for every gardener with dirty fingernails and tangled hair.
“By the time one is eighty, it is said, there is no longer a tug of war in the garden with the May flowers hauling like mad against the claims of the other months. All is at last in balance and all is serene. The gardener is usually dead, of course.”