I HAVEN’T READ A NOVEL in ages. My reading these past few months has consisted almost solely of gardening books. I pore over them, turn down corners, highlight, post-it. (If they’re from the library, which many are, I xerox.) Most are picture books. Some are practically literature, which I read for the pleasure of the writing as well as for information and inspiration.
The classics of the genre hold up well, even if they’re a few decades old. In this category are Russell Page (1906-1985) and Henry Mitchell (1923-1993), both of whom I discovered only recently.
I’m just a third of the way through Page’s The Education of a Gardener, first published in 1962. Essentially a memoir of his career designing gardens all over the world, I found this bit particularly relevant to my own half-acre, above, whose view into the woods is the best thing about it:
- “In a small garden designed to ‘borrow’ the world beyond its boundaries, a few carefully placed trees or clumps of foliage, an uncluttered groundwork of grass or sand or low green planting can be correctly scaled to the outer scene, while a simple seat or a few carefully set paving stones will be enough to indicate that is a humanised landscape, in fact a garden.”
Page can be quite funny. These sentences, written almost 50 years ago, were prescient, too, since planting in masses or drifts of just one thing has become one of the signatory elements of 21st century landscape design:
- “Nothing is so unsatisfactory as a walk through a garden where the same plants or combination of plants keep recurring in small patches at every turn. I immediately want to dig them up, replant them all together in one place, and let them tell their story fully and just once.”
Talking about the ‘decadent formality’ of 18th century French gardens, Page writes:
- “One glance from the centre of the main axis of their dreary compositions is enough. There seems no point in setting out for a long and monotonous walk during which one will meet with no surprises and nothing of horticultural interest.”
For 23 years, Henry Mitchell wrote a gardening column, “Earthman,” for The Washington Post. In a collection called The Essential Earthman, published in 1981, he applies lessons from his own small city lot to the world at large. Right now I’m taking comfort from his advice for surviving winter, the gardener’s gloomy season:
- Whenever it snows, go out with a broom and swat all conifers likely to be broken.
- Whenever there are ice storms, pull the window shades down.
- Resolve not to try delphiniums, tuberous begonias, or carnations again.
- Start saving money for next fall’s bulbs.
- Make up your mind whether you will give space to a pussy willow bush. Whichever you decide, decide, and stop being of two minds about it.
Mitchell often makes me laugh. In a riff on garden envy, he writes of a man he once knew: “If there was some plant you had mentally been saving up to buy next year, you could be sure he had at least a dozen mature specimens of it in his woodland.” He reminds gardeners not to feel sorry for themselves, because “Even the great gardens lack many things,” and winds up with “I was sorry because I had no lorapetalum, and then I met a man who had no snowdrop.”
I’m glad the supply of great garden books is almost inexhaustible.