POINTS OF VIEW—BOOK REVIEW
BY WAYNE L. HANDLOS, PH.D.
I knew this would happen. It’s the end of the month and the newsletter must be produced. I sit here waiting for inspiration. The crows are
quarrelling. The doves coo and flutter back and forth between the messy weeping birch and the dying cypresses. Somewhere there the
doves have pathetic excuses for nests. For the third consecutive year a pair of green herons are skulking about. Rarely seen, their call is
distinctive – “kyowk” according to the bird book. How do you become a transliterator of bird calls?
Months ago – February to be exact – a friend sent a volume: One Man’s Garden by Henry Mitchell (Houghton Mifflin, 1992, $14). As I
read it I marked pages with quotations I thought clever or quaint or insightful. I marked the pages with Post-It notes because I don’t
like to deface books. I knew it. Now I am faced with the task of figuring out which are the passages that had inspired me when I first read
the book. This isn’t always clear now.
For instance, in the introduction was it? “No gardener needs reminding that life depends onplants. No plants, no life. Very simple. This
rough and real fact is the basis for the gardener’s awe of plants, and from this fact springs the gardener’s anxiety about pitching out any
green thing.” Or was it? “There is no need for every American to be lured into gardening. It does not suit some people, and they should
not be cajoled into a world they have no sympathy with.” Or was it? “All I require of society, in the matter of gardening, is a decent
awareness that gardeners have a greater stake in society than others, and an occasional reflection that no life is worth living without a
vine and a fig tree.”
On page 4, I seemed to have missed this “catchy” introduction. “A dear person, assisted by another dandy woman, gave me twenty-two
plastic trash bags of horse manure for Christmas, …” How could you not read on?
We read on page 6: “Architecture is the mother art of
gardens, not because a garden needs to be (or should be) cluttered with architectural gewgaws, but because the stuff of architecture
– the tension between differing volumes, the fall of light and dark,– is the essence of a garden.” Or was it the justification of the excesses
that most of us are prone to? “Nobody can begin to grow one fiftieth of the plants that it is possible to grow in this or any climate, and it is
well to understand that to begin with. …But the temptation to devote every square foot to growing another plant should be resisted, …”
Did I think this was the kernel of wisdom on page 15? “Perfection is not required and certainly need not be expected in any field of
gardening.” Or was it? “The way it works is, a gardener plants stuff all over the place. Much of it dies and much is chopped out.
Taste changes; … Economics change, … What one sees now is the remains after all thehazards have occurred over the years, and
what remains physically and economically possible.” Or was it this? “The garden is a process, not a sculpture or a painting that once
given form will stay that way. … A garden is ephemeral. Few are the gardens that have lasted more than forty years, and even in that
time they usually have changed character beyond belief.”
About Charles Darwin: “The man had a brilliant intelligence, but the things he learned about plants did not require more than ordinary
intelligence. He asked the questions that we might have asked as children (how do vines climb?) but no longer ask once we grow
up and become stupid. One minor lesson of the past century is that you start asking questions about primroses and you will bring down
the whole civilized world. What terrible chaos, what grief, sprang from Darwin’s simple experiments and endless careful note taking.
And, of course, what miracles of new freedom, new knowledge, and old truth that nobody before him had bothered to discover.”
“Nature is endlessly ingenious and, of course, unspeakably vicious and barbaric. Any complaints should be sent not to me but to the
designer of the universe. I never minded that fact that the whole system rests essentially on death, and who eats whom, … The only
good thing about the system is that from time to time nature is beautiful beyond dreaming, and nothing can be done about it.”
“A garden is not merely a beautiful aesthetic exercise. A garden is also the field of battle for the enthusiastic gardener. Certain lapses
from correctness may be expected, and certainly must be forgiven, …”
One of his deeper insights comes on page 64. “Peace comes to the gardener when at last he has all his flowers in reasonable and sane
balance – the day after the undertaker comes.”
On this one I am in full agreement (page 96). “It is curious to me that so many gardeners occupy their leisure making things neat and tidy.
It is one thing to trot past a fine bush laden with attar-scented blooms and another thing to settle down and gaze at it for an hour.” But on
this one I’m not so sure. Maybe it was meant as “tongue in cheek,” “I cannot imagine any sane person sitting there gazing at marigolds
day after day. That is why only beautiful flowers are worth growing.” Why do we grow difficult plants (page 98)? “Somebody once offered
to take the agaves off my hands, thinking I considered them a nuisance. Well, of course they are. So are dogs, but people don’t come up
offering to rid you of your dogs.”
For your sense of proportion, keep this in mind (page 196). “It is not important for a garden to be beautiful. It is extremely important
for the gardener to think it is a fair substitute for Eden.” In the same vein (page 109). “It is agreeable to waddle about in ones own
paradise, knowing that thousands of others have better gardens with better thises and thats, and better grown too, and no weeds at
all. … reflect that there is no garden in England or France I envy, and not one I’d swap for mine: This is the aim of gardening – not to
make us complacent idiots, exactly, but to make us content and calm for a time, …”
Some of us might take offense at this one (page 160). “Further, take it as unarguable that black-eyed Susans are not worth growing.
Unless of course, they remind you of something disreputable that happened one summer when you were seventeen. Which,
I am sure, is why people grow them. Can’t think of any other reason.”
My neighbor, who sprays pesticide to get rid of the Gulf Fritillary butterflies on his passion vines might not fit this mold (page 173).
“No gardener dislikes butterflies, probably, and most of us are moderately enthusiastic about them.”
How about this for a line of prose (page 177)? “It is merely a festive frippery of a plant, and one that would give pleasure to a
gardener with a blazing-hot balcony, for example.” He meant some kind of Delosperma, a succulent.
On the use of manure and the seeds that it might carry, he offers the following comments (page 178). “What about weed seeds?
As I could not possible have more weeds than at present, this is no terror to me.” It is all in your perspective.
“There are too many trees in Washington gardens, probably because Americans are brainwashed in elementary school with the
notion that trees are sacred. They are not. Trees are, obviously glorious creatures in their place, but then so are tigers, and we do
not insist that every garden have six tigers in it.” (Page 183.)
How many of us are guilty of this offense (page 203)? “Now, no gardener in this world is unaware that the instant the wind
blows in a seed of dock or bindweed or whatever, action should be taken, the very day the weed is first seen. It is going to have
to come out, and the gardener knows it is easier when the thing has three leaves than when it is four feet high and has a root to
New Zealand (not quite to China). But I assure you, amazing as this fact is, that there are gardeners who do not get the dock out
until it is so large the gardener starts wondering if perhaps he can pretend he grows it deliberately for its bold foliage.”
This is more appropriate for the dwellers in the cold north (page 206). “The hearth is solid with plants, as are various tables and
any free floor space. We like to think these plants are giving off wholesome oxygen, though we keep our house so cold, in an
effort to foil the oil company, that I suspect much of what we call oxygen is simply coldness.”
Comments on balance in the world are on page 227. “Something else we know and the beginning gardener should know: there
are going to be disasters aplenty in the garden during a year, whatever the weather is. Things long cherished or long hoped for
will fail, just as things we never dreamed of, wonderful things, will happen.”
“Gardeners, as a caste, are usually grateful for blessings. Indeed, it is wonderful how little it takes to make a gardener happy. A
rooted sprig … a start … a tuft … A rooted sucker … or some seeds …” (Page 228.)
On collecting many types of plants (page 241). “Often, the gardener will learn over the years, the passion and longing abate
somewhat. Most gardeners go through dreadful yearnings – weeks on end of desperate desire – for some plant or other. Old
codgers can look back on their Peony Period, Daffodil Fanaticism, Iris Psychosis, Rose Neurosis; …”
His suggestions of gifts for the gardener oscillate between very sensible and bizarre (pages 250 ff.). “Peat moss is a safe gift for a
gardener. … A load of manure is regarded by all gardeners as a sign of almost divine favor. … Almost any gardener would like
amaryllis or paperwhite narcissus bulbs …I feel you should give a Christmas cactus only to the sort of gardener who will take
care of it for decades. … Weathercocks [wind vanes] …Sheet copper. An Ideal gift. … Sheet lead is grand. … Horse troughs. …
Goldfish or any carp do well in them … Dowels. … Telephone wire. …Tarred twine. … Rat poison. … Bricks. … Buckets. Few
things raise the heart like a shiny new pail… Cut stone. I have rarely met a stone I didn’t love, … Lanterns.”
What can I say? The book speaks for itself. While the author recounts gardening in the Eastern US, many of the stories have
universal appeal. Enjoy.