A Gardening Book for Those Who Hate Gardening Books
May 31, 2017
Dear famous gardening writers: please shut up.
Of course you mean well. We, your tentative, inexperienced readers, shy of hosepipe and clumsy of secateur, appreciate your attempts to make our lives more beautiful. We share your fantasies of roses, zinnia, clematis; of bowers laden with grapes and pomegranates, or cool spaces for entertaining, with creative seating solutions and solar lighting. But some of us live in cities. We are merely gardeners-in-waiting, with only a tiny growing space, or nothing at all; other people’s gardens, not to mention gardening books, intimidate us. We barely have room for a strawberry plant, let alone sweeping grassy vistas. And while we may nurse secret dreams of self-sufficiency, orchards, pigs, blackcurrant gluts, and “Little House on the Prairie”–style pickles, some of us buy our apples. I know. It’s a shock.
When we are messing about in the soil, each of us experiences the same disappointments and pleasures, the same balm to the soul. So why isn’t garden writing universal? Reading is life to me, so shouldn’t I spend every non-gardening moment delighting in the classic garden writers?
In fact, I never read them. It’s not them; it’s me. Try Gertrude Jekyll, the queen of geometric Edwardian garden design, or Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf’s aristocratic seducer (described by the playwright Noël Coward as “Lady Chatterley above the waist and the gamekeeper below”): the moment they refer to blocks of pink roses, to the Lower Barn or lily ponds or, curse them, manure heaps, my empathy dies. It isn’t only the posh Englishness, the ancestral fountains, the “help.” It’s that I want to see, in actual print, somebody confess that, when, at last, she finds a square centimetre of soil, it is invariably on top of a nameless allium planted last November, much too shallowly, with insufficient grit, rather close to a horrible mauve geranium bought out of pity.
Christopher Lloyd, the great modern British garden writer, published a book in 1972 called “Shrubs and Trees for Small Gardens,” for plots “of no more than an acre”; I own approximately 0.0015 of an acre. I do try not to be bitter. But how can I engage without a bench, pond, greenhouse, log pile, sundial, decking, terracing, pleaching, topiary, water butt, gate, nuttery, parterre, arbor, beehive, stream, rockery, gravel, or hammock? I own no potting shed or wheelbarrow or, sadly, any chickens; I have nothing to topiarize. Besides, my heart is in Asian vegetables, edible perennials, fiddlehead ferns, and callaloo, not flowering shrubs or stringy English beans. The old guard leaves me cold: irritated, not inspired.
Fortunately, there are a few glorious alternatives: books by writers who happen to garden. If you are a reader who gardens, or wants to, then they wrote for you. Katharine S. White, the New Yorker fiction editor whose gardening columns are collected in “Onward and Upward in the Garden,” recently reissued by NYRB Classics, understood the deep pleasure provided by nursery catalogues and seed lists. When you’ve run out of those to read in the bath, her intelligent observations are marvellously soothing. For sheer opinionated pleasure, you cannot beat “Green Thoughts,” by the American Eleanor Perényi, whose two gardens were on a Hungarian ancestral estate and, after her divorce, in Connecticut. Perényi’s honesty, intolerance, and appreciation of all that makes gardening a joy—night, vegetables, dung, experimentation—make me forgive her everything. Even acres.
Most urgent of all, run out, right now, and find “The Gardener’s Year,” by the Czech playwright and polymath Karel Čapek, who invented the word “robot” and, after becoming the Gestapo’s Public Enemy No. 2, died, in 1938, of double pneumonia and a broken heart. Čapek’s own gardening had taught him a secret: peonies may bloom, the sun may shine, but those of us who garden barely notice. While others are sniffing the roses, we have our bottoms in the air and noses to the ground, occupied with the part of our gardens that we truly love: dirt. As he put it, if a gardener entered the Garden of Eden, “he would sniff excitedly and say: ‘Good Lord, what humus!’ “
“The Gardener’s Year” is warm, charming, adorably illustrated by the author’s own brother, and, almost unique to its genre, funny. Čapek is particularly brilliant on the travails of town gardeners: the lack of space; the impossibility of laying one’s hands on the ingredients for really good compost, the ash, dung, lime, charcoal, silt, guano, and moss without which our soil, allegedly, will be thin and poor. Ordinary garden soil, on the other hand,
Generally consists of particular ingredients which are: clay, manure, rotten leaves, peat, stones, shards from pint bottles, broken bowls, nails, wires, bones, Hussite arrows, foil from chocolate wrappers, bricks, old coins, old smoking pipes, sheet glass, mirrors, old labels, tin pots, bits of string, buttons, shoe soles, dog dirt, coal, pot handles, wash-hand basins, dishcloths, bottles, railway sleepers, milk cans, buckles, horseshoes, tin cans, insulating material, bits of newspaper and countless other constituents which the astonished gardener wrests from his flowerbeds every time that he hoes. Perhaps one day he will unearth an American stove under his tulips, Attila’s grave or the Sibylline Books; in a cultivated soil everything can be found.
Forget the lily ponds; Čapek is the Thurber of compost. Wit and cow dung: What more could you possibly want?
Charlotte Mendelson is a prize-winning British novelist and the author of “Rhapsody in Green,” a memoir about her passion for gardening.