Garden Book Reviews
Originally written for the Northwest
Perennial Alliance newsletter, in 2006-07.
If you like the pithy, slightly snobbish humor of
Masterpiece-Theater British comedies of a “certain era,” you’ll love writer
Beverly Nichols’ garden escapades. Here are the antics of fictionalized
neighbors, gardeners, visitors, and oh, did I mention CATS?
Though the books may be read in any order, it’s useful to know that they are
loosely arranged into three trilogies. The first concerns a fifteenth century
thatched “cottage” and the travails of a novice building a garden. Down the
Garden Path, The Thatched Roof, and A Village in a Valley
are respectively about the garden, the house, and the community. His second
garden is Merry Hall, a Georgian mansion. The enterprise and “grand scheme” of
reviving, often with more enthusiasm than expertise, this house and attendant
garden are explored in Merry Hall, Laughter on the Stairs and
Sunlight on the Lawn. His third and last garden occupy his later books,
Garden Open Today, and Garden Open Tomorrow and Forty
Favorite Flowers (currently out of print.) Unlike the earlier chronicles,
these are not quasi-novels with casts of local characters, but from a later time
and era, when garden books were more informational about horticulture and
His light, jabbing humor (and not always politically correct observations;
Nichols was born in 1898.) are the main thrust of his books. Think Noel Coward —
friend and contemporary. However, interspersed are some of the most beautiful
prose poems about gardens that you are likely to find. These should be savored,
not dashed through as the comic elements demand — and read while watching the
sunset over your own garden or the bees in the orchard or a kitten in the
Timber press has released two NEW titles in the Nichols library in 2006: A
Garden In the City (about his pre-WWII London suburban garden) and Down
the Kitchen Sink (his entrance into the culinary world.)
Blasts from the Past
Now and again, I like to delve into the past and read books about or by great
plant hunters. The book that introduced me to these fellows (sorry, but most of
them WERE men) and inspired me to further reading was Tyler Whittle’s: The
Plant Hunters. This is the most painless history book every written, filled
with marvelously constructed, amusing tales of dozens of historic plant hunters.
Whittle is fascinated with the amazing hardships that these explorers endured.
There are vivid descriptions of their hair-raising adventures and often bizarre
deaths. Though he sometimes deals with gruesome material, he maintains a chatty
and lighthearted tone, charging these characters and situations with life and
David Douglas, the Hookers, Joseph Rock, Sir Joseph Banks, the Bartrams, Kingdon-Ward
and many others are quickly and clearly made memorable. If you ever mused about
the names of plants and the collectors they commemorate, this is a great
introduction which will make you hungry for more. If you never cared about
reading this kind of history---try this book . From Linneaus to Forrest, these
snippets of the lives of the plant explorers will make you richer with
appreciation and reverence. These men risked and often gave their lives to bring
the bounty and wealth of plants from the remote corners of the world to your
Another biographical work, a small book of great elegance, is the hundred page
biography of Reginald Farrer by Nicola Shulman: A Rage for Rock Gardening.
Shulman traces the brief life of an avid alpine plant collector and his
remarkable passion for plants. One of those British gardeners with more savvy
with plants than with people, he revolutionized the gardening world in two ways.
First, by encouraging the democratization of gardening from being the province
only of the very rich. “Plants are no respecters of wealth.” And secondly, by
being one of the first writers to anthropomorphize plants. His writing style is
immensely dense and floriferous filled with classical allusions, but he gave his
plants personality. The next time you talk about a plant “sulking” in your
garden or “basking” in the sunlight or grateful to be fed, you have Farrer to
thank. Vita Sackville West and the other early 20th century writers popularized
the style so that now it’s the norm.
For those of you who don’t know of him, David Mabberley, speaker at a recent NPA
lecture, is the director of the UW Botanic Gardens (including CUH, Miller
Library, and the Arboretum), the President of the International Association for
Plant Taxonomy, and a renowned author. He has recently written a Timber Press
book: The Story of the Apple.
My first fascination with the origins and distribution of apples came from an
NPR story by Frank Browning. We had just returned from a botanical tour in
Kazakhstan (believed to be the home of the first cultivated apples), so my
husband bought Browning’s book: Apples. It was wonderful. I am
entranced by people’s passions…and this book is by a man with a passion. He
grows ‘em, studies ‘em, eats ‘em, drinks ‘em, loves ‘em. I went on to get his
cookbook: An Apple Harvest: Recipes and Orchard Lore. Frank Browning’s
books are a melange: a bit of botany, a bit of history and some pretty pithy
opinions. (Don’t get hot under the collar when he talks about Washington
Delicious apples! Though, it IS true. I had fresh east-coast grown Delicious
apples on my last trip and they were, frankly, DELICIOUS!)
My next big apple journey was with Joan Morgan and Alison Richards in their
beautifully illustrated volume: The Book of Apples. Elisabeth Dowle did
the gorgeous watercolor portraits of apple cultivars. This is a book about the
evolution of apple varieties and a compendium of the characteristics of over
2000 varieties. It’s also the sort of book where you can pick up juicy little
tidbits such as: the main consumers of apple juice are folks in the former
Soviet Union—where it’s second only to water.
I was building an apple book collection! I found a 1905 two volume edition of:
The Apples of New York by S.A. Beach at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR.
I flip through HUNDREDS of pages of long-lost apples once known and raised.
Nickajack, which was considered an OLD apple in 1861; Skank which contains a
plea not to let go out of cultivation because it is SUCH a good dessert apple,
as well as familiar names such as Pippin and Northern Spy. I have planted
several unusual varieties in my own garden as a tribute to this book.
Which brings us to: The Story of the Apple. I bought this more out of
my collecting instincts than really expecting to learn anything more about
apples. Boy, was I wrong. This is wonderful book with an in depth history of the
apple starting with the ancient fruit forests. (If the technical genetic bits
get to you, just skim, you’ll still get much from the book.)The authors take
historical and scientific theories and give you the underlying thinking and
reasoning behind the ideas. There are literally 1000’s of cultivars of apples
around the world. They do not strike from cuttings nor do they come true from
seed. Through grafting humans have preserved and protected apple varieties over
the centuries. Mabberley’s new book just expanded and re-ignited my
appreciation of this fruit. Besides, where else will you learn how dung beetles
and the Battle of Hastings relate to apples?
So, this autumn, as you ponder the various apples at the grocery stores and
fruit stands, consider broadening your appreciation of these ancient fruit.
Nothing is as good as lazing in a hammock on a fall day with a good book and a
fresh, crisp apple.
There are times when a light-weight gardening memoir is the right thing to read.
Or one of those long lists of great plants through the gardening season. But
sometimes, it’s really nice to read a book that will jolt you and make you
think---perhaps, even get you miffed at the author or question his/her
credibility. Recently, I read three such books. They were exciting, stimulating
and even at times maddening.
The first is a book by David Bodanis: The Secret Garden: Dawn to Dusk in the
Astonishing Hidden World of the Garden. We learn about the micro-landscape
of our gardens. How microbes and insects live, breed, and interact. How Mr. and
Ms. Human (I was really offended by the humans in this book!) do damage to that
world and how that world rebels. In the process, you might think twice about how
you cultivate your soil and what you put on it or in it. In a ½ inch pinch of
soil, there are more microscopic creatures and bacteria than there are humans on
planet Earth, all with unique jobs. I learned that there are soil mites who are
farmers of fungus beds, growing their own food! It’s a wild and tiny world out
The author of my second suggestion, Francis Halle, is such a plant advocate that
he resent zoocentrism in biology and sometimes even belittles animals.
Certainly, he presents interesting arguments for some novel views about the
relationship of plant and animal physiology and evolution in his book In
Praise of Plants. Halle is a botanist who’s spent four decades exploring
the rainforest treetops and has come to some pretty remarkable conclusions. I’m
not qualified to know if his arguments are sound, but he certainly made me think
long and hard about how plants function. He cultivated great respect for some of
the truly amazing things that plants do on a daily basis: living on minerals,
air, and water; the ability to regenerate parts; the amazing “immortality” of a
single plant. The next time you see the old stalwart Rhododendron, ‘Roseum
Elegans,’ struggling in a gas station parking strip, you might stop to consider
that this is the identical plant that Waterer cloned in 1851. It certainly
makes ME marvel.
My third suggestion is Demons in Eden: The Paradox of Plant Diversity.
When was the last time that you vowed NEVER to plant THAT thug in your garden
EVER again? Jonathan Silvertown addresses the question of why, with the
presence of extremely successful plants (read: thugs) is there any diversity at
all. Why haven’t the kudzus Japanese knotweeds REALLY taken over the world? If
you answered niches, you’ll find that that isn’t always the answer. While
reading this book, I learned a great many things about places and plants that I
didn’t know existed---AND was entertained by Silvertown’s clever and engaging
prose. He’s a comfortable writer with some difficult concepts.
So when you are in the mood for some thought provoking, challenging, or unique
views about plants and your garden, you might try dipping into any of these
New from Timber Press
The main thing that connects the two books I’m recommending this time is that
they are both recent publications by Timber Press. They do have another
connection, lots of information coupled with a wry sense of humor.
The first of these is “The Self-Sustaining Garden,” by Peter Thompson.
As my garden grows bigger and I grow older, I am realizing that I need to make
more of it take care of itself. Unlike the many “too good to be true” books (you
know the ones I mean: create a Japanese garden in an afternoon, build paradise
over a weekend, no-work perennial borders), this is a reasoned and rational
approach to designing a garden and picking plants that will eventually form a
“matrix.” This matrix is a plant community (trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals,
bulbs) that has balanced components and is compatible with its location (ie. pH,
soil type, moisture, climate, etc.). The author bases his observations on
natural landscapes, though, is certainly not a “natives only” sort of guy.
Thompson’s premise is that you need to think of competition between plants as a
good thing. It does mean relinquishing the desire for prissy, little prima
donnas that can’t stand intrusive neighbors. He’s recommending the stalwarts of
the garden—each planted in the right place. No double-digging, no winter hoeing,
no heavy fertilizing, no bare soil here. However, there are restraints and
compromises to be made. The plantings are focused on matrixes, not the latest
and greatest colors or forms, though there are the rewards of less work and more
As he goes through different sorts of gardens (woodland, grassland, wetland,
scrub), he has a delightful series of case studies. These are a hoot: the
retired captain in a ménage-a-trois whose two women decide that if the cherry
trees go, so does he; or the brigadier who is “particularly cool towards
(plants) known only by their Latin names,” or the Long Islanders who buy a New
Hampshire property in the summer to find the winter northwest winds make their
garden as hospitable as Mount Washington.
My other book suggestion couldn’t be more different. Encyclopedia of Garden
Ferns is, well, encyclopedic. It’s a marvelous fern reference, with plenty
of academic and general cultivation information compiled by one of our local
fern experts, Sue Olsen (who gardens in Bellevue). You can hear Sue’s voice as
she relays the facts and foibles of pteridology: speculating on midnight
revelries looking for “fairy dust,” worrying about the misinformation given on a
TV program about making fern “cuttings,” or watching out for slug chainsaws in
spring. Once, she confesses, ferns were companion plants for her rhodies, now
the tables are turned, her rhododendrons are companion plants for ferns.
If you want ferns for the woodland or the rock garden or even in a xeric garden,
there is helpful information about what to plant and how to plant it. The
“Culture and Comments” for each fern are extremely useful: which ferns will add
a “touch of excitement” to your spring garden, which ferns are easy to grow and
will fill your garden with that lush ambiance that ferns impart, and which need
a “devoted caretaker,” or “make for a proud gardener and bring forth the
admiration of the cognoscenti.” Did you know that Equisetum is now classified
as a true fern or that some species will survive as houseplants? Unlike too many
of the “encyclopedic” garden books, this one is fun to read as well as study.
A Look to the Past and to the Future
Early subscribers to Jerome Rodale’s Organic Gardening Magazine are greatly
satisfied to see the mainstreaming of organic principles beyond carrots, green
beans and potatoes. In The Elements of Organic Gardening, HRH Prince
Charles discusses how he mingles the ancient practices of husbandry and
stewardship with contemporary organic gardening principles at his estate—from
the perennial borders to the vegetable beds.
This is not an intense How-To book. Although the scale and costs of the royal
garden are beyond our aspirations, we can be inspired by how he manages his
estate, with intense composting, concern for the mycorrhizal inhabitants of the
soil, on down to the massive water treatment facilities. (His reed and willow
water filtration system makes me wish that our state and county health
departments were more flexible.)
Though Prince Charles discusses plant rotation, combinations and propagation,
The Elements of Organic Gardening is more a book of concepts and mindsets. It
documents an amazing perseverance and long-view in gardening, beyond mere
seasons, rather culminating in decades!
IPM for Gardeners: A Guide to Integrated Pest Management, by Cloyd,
Nixon, and Pataky is not an organic gardening book per se, though IPM stresses
knowledge of your enemies (and your friends) in the garden wars. This is a
fairly technical book that emphasizes understanding the mechanics of plants,
diseases, pests, and their interactions.
First, consider the horticultural requirements of your plants and match those
with their placement. This will lead to less stress and a greater ability of
your plants to withstand attack on their own. Second, you need to have early and
accurate diagnosis of the problem, be it a fungus, bacterium, or nasty bug.
Next, you need to be able to ascertain what the appropriate intervention is. Not
quick fixes, most are long-term strategies to short-circuit the damage to your
plants by interrupting the attack, helping to level the playing field, and
finally knowing “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.” Some plants will
succumb or may not be worth growing given their proclivities to disease or
pests. Some plants will need to be placed in more appropriate environments.
Vectors may need to be eliminated or companion plants may be a good way to help
discourage pests. Some problems will just disappear with time. The last resort
is chemical intervention.
Whether you are interested in the philosophy or in the nitty-gritty, both of
these books encourage us to ignore little imperfections. A bit of moss in the
lawn, a slightly chewed hosta, a blemish on that apple, and an aphid on a rose
are a small price to pay for a healthier garden.