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.
On her website, Mary Reynolds refers to herself as a “reformed landscape designer”. This Irish gardener, whose first Chelsea Show Garden won a gold medal in 2002 and introduced the general public to wilderness gardens, incorporates lots of dry-stacked stone, wildflower plantings, and spiral walls into designs that wouldn’t look out of place in The Shire. Her gardens have a distinctively Celtic flair. They involve a bit of whimsy and witchcraft — and are frequented by old gods and faerie folk.
The Garden Awakening: Designs to Nurture Our Land and Ourselves, was not what I expected. Coming fresh off of Penelope Lively’s book of essays, Life In the Garden, I was looking for more of the same… but perhaps with a little more practical information thrown in. And I suppose, in a sense, that is exactly what I got. But Reynolds employs a holistic approach to gardening, often using spiritual language when writing about nature. I had a hard time connecting with statements like the following —
… we are losing what few wild places we have left; those patches where the spirits of the earth are flowing freely, where harmony and balance still exist, and we feel accepted for the truth of who we are. We have strayed off course and need to find our way again.
Reynolds goes on to explain we need to invite Nature (always with a capital N) back into the garden, and “allow her to express her true self in these spaces and then work to heal the land”. And though I’ve taken some of her quotes out of their original context to give a sense of the overall romantic flavor of the prose, let’s be clear — Reynolds isn’t writing this way for poetic effect. She insists her clients sit in their garden and connect with the “life force in nature” prior to planning. She is adamant a gardener’s first responsibility is to heal the land and, in order to do this, we need to form a bond with it.
Land creates a bond with people who work with it. If this bond is formed and then the land is ignored, damage is sure to follow — the same as it would for a child. Today, much of the land feels forgotten. It has retreated into itself because we don’t believe in it or don’t notice it anymore. We only seem to take notice of uncultivated places, which have no bond with us and no need for us. These are what I call lost opportunities. Your land is like a member of your family. It can form a bond with you but it won’t unless you develop the relationship together. The quality of the relationship will determine the strength and quality of the bond.
It all sounds a little hippie-dippy, I know. But as I delved deeper into the book I found myself agreeing more and more with what Reynolds had to say. I now count myself among the converted.
More than just philosophy, The Garden Awakening contains a wealth of practical information on topics like cultivating a forest garden, an idea/version of gardening which was entirely new to me. This is an old form of agriculture which incorporates tree canopies into the garden design. It’s a garden built in layers, — the tall-tree layer, low-tree layer, shrub layer, herb layer, etc. This type of system allows you to create and control the microclimate of your little ecosystem to a certain extent, as well as encouraging fertility in the soil. And if you have a small garden, like me, and are wondering if it will work for you — I can attest from my own small experiments that it’s surprisingly scalable.
Reynolds has other surprises. There are, of course, the obligatory charts of plants and where best to use them. But she also gives advice on reintroducing microorganisms into your soil, creating swales for drainage and water conservation, using seed balls to plant, and — my personal favorite — building Hugelkultur raised beds. Hugelkultur is another agricultural system that, like most of the ideas Reynold’s advocates, is centuries old. And surprisingly simple. It involves mounding woody branches, twigs, and logs, then covering the mound with soil. You plant directly into/onto the mound. The slow decomposition of the wood underneath keeps the soil layer fertile for years. It’s a reportedly excellent method for growing vegetables. I’m thinking of attempting one next year.
And that’s the beauty of this book. It is filled with ideas that are easy and interesting. And directs the reader to additional resources. Reynolds peppers her explanations with the titles of books which influenced her – like the Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Gardening. It’s a name I was already vaguely familiar with: Fukuoka’s seedballs have inspired a generation of Gorilla Gardeners.
In the end, and despite a rocky start, The Garden Awakening has genuinely transformed my relationship with my own front and back yards. Mary Reynolds knows her stuff. There’s also a film – Dare To Be Wild – about the Chelsea show garden I mentioned at the beginning of this review. It looks like a silly romance rather than a documentary… but based on my experience with The Garden Awakening, it too might just be filled with surprises.
Title: The Garden Awakening - Designs to Nurture Our Land & Ourselves Author: Mary Reynolds Publisher: Green Books/UIT Cambridge Ltd. (Cambridge, 2016) ISBN: 978-0857843135
Now I’m no longer a judge and my reading life has gone back to normal, I’ve been catching up on a backlog of reading. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with gardening. This isn’t entirely new. I posted a month-long series back in 2009 (the year this blog started) on gardening books, though my focus back then was on vegetable gardening. These days, while I have reintroduced the veg patch to our backyard, my interest is more environmental. There’s this whole movement towards nature and wildlife gardening, I love the idea of creating green, wildlife corridors in urban and suburban settings. But I’m also interested in ornamental garden designs – like the gardens Monty Don and his co-hosts explore weekly on Gardeners World.
So, over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about nature and gardens. Of course, there will be some translations in there, and I’ll also be including some novels (and an essay on a certain television show) that, as a gardener, I find inspirational. In celebration of ten years of blogging, I’ll also be linking back to those early reviews, with some judicious editing.
I first read May Sarton in high school. Journal of a Solitude was given to me by my friend Martha, whose children I met first and friendship I matured into. Sarton is a novelist, poet, and memoirist. I imagine she won’t be to everyone’s taste… her poetry is (in my opinion) unreadable. I’ve never been interested in her novels. But in her writings about her day-to-day life and the connections she felt to the places she lived, I’ve found valuable lessons on aging and nurturing one’s sense of self as a creative person.
Plant Dreaming Deep: A Journal was written from c. 1958 to 1973. It immediately precedes Journal of a Solitude in the string of journals Sarton kept and published until her death. (The last, released posthumously in 1995, was called Coming Into Eighty). She was in her mid-forties at the time she wrote Plant Dreaming Deep and purchased the house in Nelson, New Hampshire with the inheritance left to her by her parents. This book is a tribute to that time and place in her life.
Is there anything better than reading about the creation of a home and/or garden? As a child and young woman I spent hours pouring over Laura Ingalls Wilder’s descriptions of the many homes her mother made for their itinerant family; and the room Rose’s uncle and guardian furnished for her, designed to help her heal after losing both parents, in Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins (a novel ripe for adaptation); and I still return to those brilliant descriptions of the Glass family’s Manhattan apartment in Franny and Zooey. I would overlay visions of these mostly fictional places onto my own living circumstances, whatever they were at the time. But it was Sarton’s story which made me realize that there are joys in living alone, not least being the opportunity to shape your home and garden to your own specifications.
From the beginning, Sarton knew that the house in Nelson was a place where she could write. And though she frequently entertained, it remained her sanctuary for over a decade. Having to only please herself, she carefully and thoughtfully planned her new home around the furniture her parents had brought with them from Belgium: cupboards, tables, and chairs she’d kept in storage for years in anticipation. In prose which wraps around the reader like a cozy cocoon, she describes how the New England light plays over her treasures, writing so vividly you can imagine the dust motes gently settling over them. While the house in Nelson isn’t necessarily the home of my dreams or one that would be featured on some shelter website like The Remodelista, the deliberateness of Sarton’s process — her complete disinterest in trends and fashion — is inspirational. Roses Uniake and Tarlow would love her, I think.
But Sarton’s real passion lay in the land and garden which surround the house. She writes about gardening as a collaborative endeavor. Hers incorporated the suggestions of friends, memories of her mother’s garden, the labors of Perley Cole who worked for… really collaborated with… Sarton for over a decade. Every plant, rock, and tree has a memory and meditation attached to it. She zooms in on some small detail and imbues it with significance.
Celine’s intoxicating energy pours out in a hundred directions, noticing everything that needed to be done, making suggestions, and more often than not carrying them out herself before I knew what was happening. She had seen a long piece of granite lying at the edge of the rough grass which I called “the lawn.” Why not bring it up and set it in below the granite step at the front door? “It would make a little more of an entrance, don’t you think?” That she could not do herself, but it was her idea, and it looks exactly as she thought it would.
I don’t know a lot about Sarton’s writing process. I’ve avoided her biography because, from the little I’ve read, she was not an easy person to be around. (To quote Martha, who has read Sarton’s bio, “She was a bitch!”) But it’s obvious these journal entries have been heavily edited and revised, lovingly crafted into personal essays, for publication. The language is too precise and perfect. Her thoughts too well organized. There are themes that expand beyond the confines of the individual chapters and overflow into the other volumes. Sarton, better than any writer I’ve encountered, conveys the sense that a garden is a place outside of time. This is something that took me a long time to learn. For a new gardener, and I speak primarily of myself, every plant is precious. We worry too much about doing irreparable harm. Sarton, an old hand, understood the rhythms and cycles of the garden. She embraced the eternal question of whether to tend or to let nature take over. “That is what the gardener often forgets. To the flowers, we never have to say good-bye forever. We grow older every year, but not the garden; it is reborn every spring.”
Plant Dreaming Deep isn’t a book for the gardener in search of practical tips and applications. Rather it’s a reminder of why we garden. And that gardening is essentially land stewardship (a phrase that is currently very on trend). Perley Cole, who I mentioned earlier and who Sarton valued so much she felt he merited an entire chapter all his own, is “an apparition from another age, an age when a workman still had the time and patience and the wish to do a patient, perfect job”. He proudly scythes her field by hand and refuses to use lawn mowers. Sarton explains that Perley’s “domain is the woods and field; mine is the garden proper.” Thanks to Perley she, who loved flowers so much she planted a cutting garden to keep the house in arrangements throughout the year, learned to appreciate the beauty of the views Cole created through his “tidying up” of her property.
In these last years Perley has been getting rid of bracken and brush to clear out the whole hillside below the garden, and so set off the stone wall and the big trees at its foot. He has pruned out around a single birch, the only one I can see from the house, so that the elegant white figure stands out at the end of one meadow.
Routine and rituals. Completing the task at hand. Embracing Imperfection. I’m roughly the same age as Sarton was when she kept her journal. And reading from the present, something I become more conscious of as I grow older, I remember that these essays are coming to us from a different era… almost a different eon. Plastics, as we know them, went mainstream in the mid-’50s, roughly about when Sarton began writing Plant Dreaming Deep. Household televisions were still a novelty, she never mentions whether she owns one. Cellphones, email, and wi-fi were the stuff of science fiction. What would she think of 2019, almost three-quarters of a century on, and how social media and IG hashtags have come to define the way we interact with the world. Perley Cole would be horrified, I’m sure.
Sarton reminds us, (completely incidentally, for how would she have even imagined the world we live in today?) to value the process – the LABOR – over some fleeting moment of perfection captured and put on display for the world. Sarton, being the poet she was, recognized that life in the garden was and remains an excellent metaphor for life lived outside of it.
Title: Plant Dreaming Deep: A Journal Author: May Sarton Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company ISBN: 978-0393315516