Thing #1 — I’ve been a listener to the Book Fight! podcast pretty much from the beginning. I own a tee-shirt. I frequently laugh out loud while listening to the two hosts, Tom & Mike, banter about NANOWRIMO, Kit-Kats, fan fiction and, occasionally, books. And it’s through them I learned about Barrelhouse, a magazine devoted to literature and pop culture (but not always in that order). I wrote my first review for their recently re-vamped Book Reviews section back in May.
Thing #2 — Did I mention I wrote my first review for Barrelhouse’s website on Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes, translated by Emma Ramadan? It begins like this:
I’ve long been a fan of Andrea Wulf’s non-fiction. So when the follow-up to The Brother Gardener was announced in 2011, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation (it’s a mouthful!), I immediately pre-ordered a copy. Despite my initial enthusiasm, though, it sat on the shelf. In the end, it took me eight years to read, and even then I chose to listen to the audiobook.
Meticulously researched, well-written, thoughtful and rich in detail… in short, Founding Gardners is everything I’ve come to expect from Wulf. But this particular story, which she chose to put so much effort into telling, never engaged me in the same way as The Brother Gardeners. This isn’t Wulf’s fault so much as a weakness in the material. Where her first book introduced readers to the largely forgotten character of John Bartram and described his influence over gardens on both sides of the Atlantic, this new book (new being a relative term of course) goes over what is already well-covered territory. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison – these are quite famous men who have had thousands, if not millions, of pages written about them. The question becomes, is there anything new to say?
Divided into nine parts, with each part focussing on a different event in which gardening can be tied to the birth of the United States of America, Founding Gardeners makes the case that the answer to that question is a “yes!”. Wulf devotes an entire section to how Jefferson and Adam became close friends while touring gardens in England. And in another shows Jefferson betraying that friendship a few years later, rallying political support in the Northern states under the guise of touring the gardens of New England with Madison. She describes the creation of Washington, D.C., the capital city that almost wasn’t. And how George Washington wanted his gardens at Mt. Vernon to showcase plants “Made in America”. She even revisits the 1786 visit to Bartram’s garden which facilitated the founding of a nation.
All of which is very interesting, but to my mind, the true gardening gems in Founding Gardeners get much less space. For example, both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson actively procured seeds from around the world, through a variety of means, in order to make the United States agriculturally and (as a result) economically independent. Jefferson smuggled grains of rice out of Italy in 1787 at great risk. He was looking for a type of upland rice that could be grown in dry instead of flooded fields, which were often mosquito-infested and the breeding ground for malaria and yellow fever. Franklin, ever practical, “believed that the colonists’ reliance on agriculture for their main income, combined with seemingly endless resources of land, could be turned to their advantage. America could be self-reliant…” While overseas, he was constantly sending seeds back home to friends to plant and cultivate.
Every time someone told Franklin about a new edible plant, he was thrilled by the possibility of its economic potential. “I wish it may be found of Use with us”, he told one correspondent when he forwarded seeds for a new crop, and when he heard of tofu, it so excited his curiousity, he said, that he procured the recipe from China, dispatching it together with chickpeas to a friend in Philadelphia.
The pages Wulf spends on Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier are much less interesting (and more numerous) in comparison. In the United States, these three places are hallowed ground and the destination of many a school trip and/or family vacation. Maybe that’s why much of what Wulf relays about them felt “potted”, — the kinds of facts gleaned from a group tour. And not an altogether thorough one. The flaw in Founding Gardeners is that for the amount of time she spends on Monticello, Mt. Vernon and Montpelier, too little is given to exploring the role of enslaved people in the creation and maintenance of these plantations. Because, despite their pretty names, that is what they were: Southern plantations. I’ve taken the tour at Monticello, and one of the facts we learned was that Jefferson not only built his house on a hill using slave labor, but when he was short of funds he would sell the men, women, and children who lived there in order to continue the work. So, while Jefferson’s, Washington’s, and Madison’s homes are impressive in a grand way, it’s important to understand what the grandiosity cost.
I bring this up because there’s a definite unevenness in how the gardens of the Founding Fathers are discussed, with the obvious preference being given to the men from Virginia. I couldn’t help wishing for more time spent farther North in the more modest gardens of Adams and Franklin. Peacefield, Adam’s home, remains elusive even after reading the book. And Franklin’s modest Philadelphia garden is given only one paragraph in the Prologue — and for a man who we know to have been a botanist, and are told was “proud of his botanical books and enjoyed showing them to visitors” this seems like short shrift.
Overall, while it didn’t meet my expectations and I was frustrated by what I felt were significant ommissions, I did enjoy Founding Gardeners and will revisit parts of it again. The audiobook narrator, Antonia Bath, does an excellent job – but I recommend the print format in this instance. There’s a lot of information, loosely organized, that I think needs the kind of focus that comes from reading words on a page.
Title: Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation, Nature & the Shaping of the American Nation Author: Andrea Wulf Audiobook Narrator: Antonia Bath Publisher: Knopf, New York (2011)
I also seem to be a bigger fan of a certain Voltaire quote than I realized.
My review of Founding Gardeners: How the Revolutionary Generation Created an American Eden will be available later this week. I listened to it on audiobook, so it was an entirely different experience. But more on that later. For now, I think this old review holds up surprisingly well a decade on –
Penelope Lively was born in 1933. She’s written over fifty books — novels for adults & children, plus some non-fiction. Life in the Garden is a collection of essays very like the series of gardening articles by the American writer Katherine S. White. Originally written for The New Yorker, White’s pieces were collected and published by her husband after her death in Onward and Upward in the Garden.
Both women, or should I say both gardeners, are refreshingly modern in their tone and approach. White wrote an entire essay dedicated to the experience of pouring over seed catalogs, while Lively isn’t above a sly aside on the influence Monty Don and Gardeners World have over the British planting public. I can’t imagine May Sarton ever being so gauche as to discuss the role of commerce in her garden – she never reveals where she bought her plants or what the local nurseries were stocking in their greenhouses that season. Sarton’s garden, we are expected to believe, was grown entirely from the clippings of memory left on the altar of her doorstep by friends and neighbors.
I’m being a bit unfair, but certainly Sarton expressed no interest in “the garden as a social indicator” — an idea Lively explores in suitably lively fashion. 🙂 She was in her seventies when she wrote Life in the Garden and had long since downsized from the Oxfordshire garden she tended with her husband Jack (who died in 1998 and whose memory is everywhere) to the more modest London plot she keeps today. Where before she and her husband employed Richard Taylor, who she calls “friend, collaborator”. “He and Jack would work together, in unceasing conversation; I would come out and find them paused, each leaning on spad or fork”. From Taylor she moves on to consider the preponderance of Scottish gardeners in literature. Wodehouse’s dour Angus McAllister waging war on the Blanding Castle slugs and Beatrix Potter’s fearsome Mr. McGregor, who Jack believed “to be a much misunderstood man”. These days Lively relies on a service which employs immigrant laborers rather than an individual whose calling has been passed down through the generations.
The two central activities in my life — alongside writing — have been reading and gardening. And there has been a sense in which the two have meshed: I always pay attention when a writer conjures up a garden, when gardening becomes an element of fiction. I find myself wondering what is going on here. Is this garden deliberate or merely fortuitous? And it is nearly always deliberate, a garden contrived to serve a narrative purpose, to create atmosphere, to furnish a character.
Lively, more than Sarton and White, connects gardens and literature — something I’d been craving since the start of this project. She opens her essay The Written Garden, with a description of the dreamt garden introducing us to Manderlay in DuMaurier’s Rebecca. She also discusses the fictional gardens found in the works of Elizabeth Bowen, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Carol Shields and several more writers I’d never heard of. Then, in the second half of this same essay, she switches to “the garden writing that is free of fictional purpose, concerned only with discussion, advice, celebration — the writing of those who garden.”
Life in the Garden is a short book, made up of six essays (seven if you count the introduction). Each reflects and is permeated with a lifetime of reading. This is distracting at times. The pages are filled with the names of authors and the titles of books, as well as descriptions of plants and planting schemes. Lively makes a seemingly endless series of connections and it can be a bit like reading a compendium or directory — each sentence opening up a rabbit warren of internet research. So much information comes at you and very little manages to stick. Fortunately, she has written the kind of book which you’ll want to pick up and re-read.
Books on gardening, whether they be practical how-tos, memoirs, or essay collections like this one, age well. Even when some of the advice has gone out of style, the components of the garden change very little over time or across regions — hardscaping, soil maintenance, planting beds, structural trees and shrubs, water features — these are still as much a part of our contemporary landscapes as they ever were. The same can be said of the plants.
Clematis appears a dozen times in Life in the Garden: in T.S. Eliot’s poems, on an Anna Pavord calendar, climbing up one of Vita Sackville-West’s apple trees and planted in a Giverny garden famous for its waterlilies. My clematis, which does not look particularly happy where I planted it (by the way), has inexplicably produced two big and beautiful white flowers. And in a weird way, it forms a tenuous connection between all those other gardeners and me. And when I think about that, about this love for and desire to interact with the natural world, I can’t help but wonder… how did they deal with the aphids?
We garden for tomorrow, and thereafter. We garden in expectation, and that is why it is so invigorating. Gardening, you are no longer stuck in the here and now; you think backward, and forward, you think of how this or that performed last year, you work out your hopes and plans for the next.
Title: Life in the Garden Author: Penelope Lively Publisher: Viking (New York, 2017) ISBN: 978-0525558392
A split second of silence. Suddenly, the faint sound of birdsong and a close up image appears on the screen, – a bird perched on a branch, a close-up of a rose, a bee hovering over a flower – stunningly vivid if you own a high def television. I sip my tea. Cut to a widescreen shot of the garden. The man himself walks into the frame, scruffily sartorial, performing some minor garden task and accompanied by at least one — if not both — of his two golden retrievers. Make no mistake, Nigel and Nell have their own fan base. Monty Don looks at the camera, smiles as if he’s been expecting us — as indeed he has. “Welcome [brief pause] to Gardeners World.”
Since 1968 British gardeners have tuned into this longrunning BBC program, which explores the very best of English gardening trends. Monty Don is the 7th (2003-2008) and 9th (2011-present) host, having been briefly replaced by Toby Buckland. Upon his return in 2011 the show was moved to Longmeadow, his personal garden located in Herefordshire. While Don films almost exclusively from there, making the occasional foray into the world for a flower show or limited series on international gardens, the show has a slew of presenters who act as roving correspondents. These include Carol Klein, Adam Frost, Rachel De Thame, Joe Swift, Arit Anderson, and Mark Lane – many, if not all, award-winning garden designers in their own right. And each with his or her own distinctive and endearing quirks.
Gardeners World became available to viewers on this side of the Atlantic in 2018, just in time for the 50th Anniversary series, as part of Amazon’s Britbox channel. It’s gathered a loyal following. There’s nothing like it on US television. The closest equivalent would be PBS’ The Victory Garden, which ended 2015. And still, from what little I remember, that show lacked the British show’s sense of panache.
Gardeners World popularity derives from it being the perfect combination of the practical and aspirational. My front and back yards will never attain the glory of Longmeadow in late Spring – but it won’t be for lack of trying. In May, my husband and I planted five yews to create a hedge. In preparation, we watched and re-watched a video of Monty demonstrating the steps involved, and then followed his instructions to the letter. My husband has no interest in gardening… but his attention to detail is incredible. Those yews are perfectly lined up, spaced exactly three feet on center, and planted in carefully mounded soil. I mulched them with leaf mold I made from last years leaves, something else I learned from Monty Don video.
But that’s not the end of our endeavors. Our property is too small for a potting shed, so we’re turning the workbench in our detached garage into a potting bench. Beneath it, I’m storing my black plastic nursery pots, which I’m more conscious about reusing thanks to Arit’s exploration last year of non-recyclable plastics in the British gardening industry. I’ve also bought my first Clematis, which is currently planted outside the back door. I fully intend to move and train up the brick side of our house next spring — now that I know how to create a wire support.
Of course we could find instructions on how to do all these things on YouTube, but I find it’s not the same. Over time you come to form a relationship, albeit one-sided, with the show’s presenters. There’s an investment as you follow their progress over multiple episodes. Last season we watched as Monty turned an area at Longmeadow that once housed an old greenhouse into a paradise garden. And experienced the trials and tribulations of working on an allotment (the closest U.S. equivalent would be a community garden) with Frances Tophill.
After watching an episode of Gardeners World, projects that once seemed intimidating are suddenly less so. I’m eager to get back outside. There are things I can do in my own yard that contribute positively to the environment… or at the very least do no harm. I find a general sense of contentment settles in when working in the garden. One of the prevailing themes of this year’s series is gardening as a source of mental wellness. God knows we can all use a respite from the chaos of current events. Or a reminder that the natural world is still beautiful… something we allow ourselves to forget much too often in the looming shadow of global warming and the environmental crisis.
Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of discussion of books on Gardeners World. Monty Don has written several, and Adam Frost just released a very good gardening how-to called (somewhat unimaginatively) How to Create Your Garden. There’s always been a connection between gardeners, writers and readers. I’m not sure what that connection is or why it exists, but gardens have always figured prominently in literature. I’m reminded again of Voltaire’s advice that we tend to our gardens. Or a wonderful quote from Robert M. Pyle, “But make no mistake: the weeds will win; nature bats last.” Perhaps it is that we — gardeners and readers alike — are all homebodies at heart. Or that gardening, like reading, requires vast stores of patience and concentration.
Recently, we visited family in London. It was my first trip to England and we timed it to coincide with the Chelsea Garden Show. It was wonderful – and while the show gardens, themselves, are high theater, I did see a few things I’ll be using at home. And it helped to souse out my tastes… It seems I don’t hate hostas as much as I thought. And that I lean towards the more unkempt, wilderness gardens. The more rusted metal debris scattered around ornamentally, the better.
The running joke was that a Monty Don sighting would make it a perfect day. And then my husband spotted him – no mean feat considering the man was on the top of a tower, recording the BBC program with Joe Swift. I only managed to get a photo of the back of Monty’s head, despite the crowd around me yelling “Stand up Monty!” and “Turn around Monty!” Eventually, he and Joe did stand up and wave. A polite cheer went up from his fans, none of who appeared to be (shall we say?) in the Spring of their lives. But this was a gardening show. And, as I said to our friends, — everyone has someplace where they get to be a rock star.