Category Archives: Gardener’s Reading

Wisdom

A friend recently gave me a gardening book – Old-Time Gardening Wisdom by Jerry Baker.  I remember Baker from public television years ago. His folksy advice drew a big following. He had tons of homemade concoctions that could work wonders in your garden.

 

Baker’s fall garden tonic is 1 bottle of beer, 1 bottle of soda pop, and 1 cup of ammonia per 20 gallons of water. Apply until the ground is saturated.

I have no idea what beer, soda pop and ammonia exactly do but Baker swore by his Grandma’s garden wisdom and her endless recipes for the good health of the garden. He wrote over seventy garden books and was known as America’s master gardener. His books are great to dip into for a little garden wisdom before falling asleep.

Baker’s book reminds me of the other garden writers who sit next to my bed – these many bits and pieces of garden lore have entertained me many evenings before slumber. Katherine S. White is one of those writers. In her book, Onward and Upward in the Garden, a collection of fourteen New Yorker essays that appeared in the magazine over twelve years are collected with an introduction by her husband, E. B. White. She puts out little gems like the word nasturtium means “nose twister” in Latin. Most of the book is dedicated to the writing in plantsman’s catalogues. It’s hard to believe that’s possible. In thinking about what we mean by nature she uses the words of Sir Kenneth Clark.

“We are surrounded with things which we have not made and which have a life and structure different from our own: trees, flowers, grasses, rivers, hills, clouds. For centuries they have inspired us with curiosity and awe. They have been objects of delight. We have recreated them in our imaginations to reflect our moods. And we have come to think of them as contributing to an idea which we have called nature.”

Another great garden read is Richardson Wright’s The Gardener’s Bed-Book, first published in 1929 and introduced again in 2003 as part of The Modern Library Gardening Series and edited by Michael Pollan. Wright is very witty but so is Pollan as you can see in his introduction.

“It took a woodchuck and a book to make me understand what’s really at stake in the garden. I’d come to gardening in the naive belief it offered a fairly benign way to kill an afternoon, a refuge from the wider world, but even before the end of my first season I’d been forcibly relieved of my innocence. First came the rodent. A series of increasingly desperate measures to run a hungry woodchuck out of my vegetable patch escalated into a personal Vietnam (with me in the role of General Westmoreland, fully prepared to destroy the garden in order to save it), which promptly exploded the whole “garden as refuge” concept. The spectacle of my own rodenticidal rage suggested that more was involved in gardening than tending a few tomatoes and prettifying my yard. It put one into a relationship with nature that was anything but innocent.”

Such good writing and such a compelling subject. I agree with Pollan, I read to garden and I garden to read.

I Never Suspected – Germaine Greer Loves Gardening

the revolting garden                                      Winter

“How pleasant the lot of the gardener in these winter months! He whiles away the short days and long evenings, devising stratagems whereby he can trick the garbage man into using the path instead of tramping across the tulip and iris shoots to collect the plastic bag thrown to him by his colleague, knocking the buds off the Magnolia stellate as he hoists it onto his shoulder and demolishing the one fat red shoot which contains all that Paeonia mlokseiwitchi would have given this spring. ‘PLEASE DON’T THROW THE LIDS ON THE GARDEN’ is lost among the other graffiti.”

Looking for a winter read, I came upon The Revolting Garden by Rose Blight, a.k.a. Germaine Greer. Greer is a 1970s feminist, famous for her book, The Female Eunuch. Her surprising love of gardening is put forth in this little volume. Believe it, she brings a unique twist to garden writing.

“How cheering the thud of the seed catalogues on the doormat! Now all that you have wanted to know about growing spherical carrots, grey beetroot, turrets of indestructible lettuce that even snails won’t eat!”

 Here is just how and why London gardens are revolting.

“The London garden must be revolting, essentially because the cultural conditions are so very unfavourable to plant life that only the dreariest of plants will make do with them…”

 I thought England was bursting with lovely gardens. Maybe London is the exception.  First she outs privet.

“…Ligustrum ovalifolium, which can be relied upon to push its charcoal green leaves doggedly upward through the murk to a height of fifteen feet, meekly parting its grimy limbs to allow dustmen to crash through with their bins, catching up plastic bags and cigarette packets like some egregious scavenging dog.”

Aucuba is privets diseased companion.

“…Aucuba japonica or spotted laurel, whose pustular-yellow spattered leaves hang on unabashed when the rest of the garden has withered away under a pile of mattresses, rusting bedsteads, bottles, tin cans and disowned perambulators.”

A third shrub earns Greer’s distain.

“…Fatsia japonica, also accepts life in conditions of verminous, permanent semi-shade, because its thick stems and leathery leaves are so hideous that it is grateful to be cultivated anywhere.”

After thoroughly exposing the London garden, Greer goes on to describe the two types of revolting Italian gardens and the particularly revolting gardens of India. Plants would grow wonderfully in Bombay if people didn’t sit on them, sleep on them and erect shanties on them.

Rose Blight required a deep breath, an hour of yoga and a tranquilizing visit to a salt room. Then David Austin’s little fat Handbook of Roses 2019 landed in my mailbox. Take note, Rose, your namesake is the jewel of English gardens. Inspiring, abundant, tough, unrivaled in beauty and fragrance. The names alone inspire – Roald Dahl, Dame Judi Dench, Charles Darwin, Gertrude Jekyll, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Kew Gardens. Here are 174 pages filled with captivating photographs interspersed with a generous helping of rose information. David Austin is as inspiring as Greer is hilarious.

“Every day, I marvel at my good fortune to have been able to make a life out of breeding roses. My greatest satisfaction is to see the pleasure my roses give to gardeners and rose lovers worldwide.”

I Didn’t Know My Crabgrass was Really Millet

green thoughts

 

I learned so many things from Eleanor Perenyi. Her book, Green Thoughts, a Writer in the Garden is a beautifully written classic in alphabetic order. She starts with “Annuals and ends with “A Woman’s Place.”

In her essay titled “Naturalizing” she talks about plants that hitched a ride with the immigrants, some by chance, some by choice. Crabgrass was not always in America; it came with immigrants from Central Europe.

“The form most familiar to us is native to Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, where the peasants knew it for a rapidly growing crop easily raised in many types of soil. They abandoned it eventually because corn and wheat were the staples of the new world they found, and fetched much higher prices. The millet seed was tossed away and in due time escaped to every corner of the country.”

Now that is good to know. Come the disaster, dig up the crab grass and pass the salt. What would that peasant from Poland think if he knew his pocketful of millet seed spawned a million dollar industry of pre-emergent herbicide? He would never believe it.

There is so much more botanical knowledge to be found in Perenyi’s book. She writes an essay on “Dahlias” which came from Mexico. Then she digresses into facts I had not known about European exploration in the Americas. In grade school we are left thinking that conquistadors were in search of gold. The Spanish were smarter than that. They knew vegetable riches might be far more valuable than minerals. In 1566 Spain banned all foreign plant-hunters and publication of the natural resources of Spanish America. Botanists were routinely part of their expeditions. Columbus regretted he hadn’t brought one, so he wrote himself of all the botanical wonders he found.

“There has never been a more knowledgeable group of botanists and horticulturists than the Spanish fathers in the New World. It is largely thanks to them that Spain’s American colonies were a flourishing garden at a time when England’s were mere specks on the map, constantly threatened with starvation…Not only did they discover the potato, the pineapple, tobacco, tomatoes, maize, etc., they paid their debt to Amerindian agriculture by introducing wheat, peaches, grapes, olives, figs, lettuce, oranges, pears, barley, onions, and countless other crops to the New World that, in Anglo-Saxon myth, they ravished.”

The history of our vegetation is lost to us if not for writers like Perenyi. Take the annuals we see every spring in the garden centers of places like Home Depot and Walmart.

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