Instead of a roundup of “gardening books,” maybe we should just refer to this category of publication as Dirty Books. Anything to do with soil falls under our new rubric. That way, writers who farm wouldn’t feel the need to elbow aside rosarians who write, who in turn wouldn’t jostle rudely past backyard gardeners concerned with mundane raised beds of veggies, bruising thin-skinned egos along with the tomatoes. Anyone insane enough to dig holes, pour money into the ground, wait to see what happens and then sit down at a computer to tell us about it has earned the right to a little respect.
While it’s true that we can’t live without food, it’s equally certain that we need beauty to live well. Anna Pavord, a gardener who plants sweet peas with her cabbage, understands this very well. The author of “Bulb” and “The Tulip” has collected in THE CURIOUS GARDENER (Bloomsbury, $35) selections from 20-odd years’ worth of essays published in the British newspaper The Independent. Let me lay my seed packets on the table: I am a Pavord groupie. Anyone who can look at a vase of tulips and offer a cogent explanation of world economic history has my devoted attention. She is intelligent, perceptive and well informed, writes gracefully and has a dry, sly wit.
The introduction to this collection provides a tantalizing glimpse into Pavord’s development as a gardener. As a newlywed, she lived on a boat equipped with an Aga stove — it’s a wonder the vessel didn’t sink — and it was only when she had small children that she began to retreat to the vegetable patch for a few moments of peace. It took her years to get the point: “Gardening was not necessarily about an end result. The doing was what mattered.” By the time she decided to sell the rectory in which she had lived for 35 years, her library was crammed with a thousand gardening books. Her own garden had been a source of inspiration, and the day of the move was wrenching. “I thanked the garden for all that I had learned from it. I laid my cheek against the moss of the courtyard wall.”
This small bit of introductory memoir was so delightful that I was dismayed, on moving to the main text, to find myself abruptly plunged into a set piece on horticultural horoscopes, followed by a column on the seeds Pavord intends to sow this January — but which January is “this” January? Annoyingly, the articles are undated, as if to trick us into acknowledging their timelessness. But I want to know what era Pavord is referring to as “the year of the casserole,” and when exactly she was exclaiming about “the torrents of apocalyptic prose and images of gas masks and underground bunkers that have filled our papers over the last few weeks.” Undeterred, I plowed on, confident in her ability to unearth gems no matter what subject she tackled, whether it’s the value of working in your husband’s cast-off coats, with their multitudes of pockets, or why she lost interest in red roses after a trip to Ecuador, where native flowers were being bulldozed to make room for yet more commercial rose beds.
Every once in a while I prised out another nugget about Pavord’s creature habits. I had imagined her as somewhat prim (was it the rectory?), so I was glad to discover, in an essay called “Slow Gardening,” that driving home on the motorway she storms past Stonehenge “with Eric Clapton pounding in my ears.” Pavord’s preparations for her daughters’ weddings are engagingly nerve-racking, even if “you have to work hard to spoil a small Norman church with Saxon underpinnings and a 16th-century wall painting above the chancel arch.”
It may, of course, be difficult for an American gardener to apply some of Pavord’s hard-won knowledge. Then again, I have yet to meet an American gardener who doesn’t harbor, in some unbuttoned vest pocket, a seedling of Anglophilia. Useful or not, Pavord’s writing affords a cozy affinity by association.
To truly understand how a garden can be a way of life, love and sustenance, dip into THE VIEW FROM GREAT DIXTER: Christopher Lloyd’s Garden Legacy (Timber Press, $27.95). The garden at Great Dixter is one of the world’s treasures, and these reminiscences from Lloyd’s friends and family capture the sensual pleasures of daily life in his great timbered home — filled with savory meals, Scotch and Champagne, fine needlework, lovely flower arrangements and handcrafted furniture. Lloyd, a marvelous and influential writer, died in 2006, but his 15th-century manor house, renovated by Sir Edwin Lutyens, still teems with life. And the garden, under the sensitive and idiosyncratic eye of Fergus Garrett, remains true to Lloyd’s legacy. This book will enthrall you until it’s time to make your own pilgrimage to East Sussex.
I’ve never met a Francophile farmer, and I wonder why not? Surely thoughts of the potagers at Château Villandry could transform the way we grow eggplants. But I did spot a penchant for things French in an excellent collection by Paula Deitz, OF GARDENS (University of Pennsylvania, $29.95), which brings together essays written over the past 30 years for The New York Times, Design Quarterly, Hortus and Gardens Illustrated, among other publications. Deitz’s work is not about her own gardens (though her perspective is a personal one) but about public and private gardens worldwide. Her refined, sophisticated and genteel personality shines through wherever she alights, and she has a solid mastery of garden scholarship. She remains in the background, writing in a green shade, but every once in a while a glimmer of sunshine catches her in a reverie. “Whenever I sit down for a cozy reread of a favorite book, invariably a few dry but still brightly colored pressed leaves spill from its pages into my lap,” begins an essay about autumn in New England.
In many of these essays, Deitz reports on the creation of a new landscape, giving the reader a sense of the personality of its designer. Rachel Lambert (Bunny) Mellon talks about the completion of her handsome garden library in Virginia, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, noting that even the interior fittings of the building “relate to the earth: clay tiles, hand-woven linen, and the wood is from our own trees.” Dan Kiley, the modernist designer of the grounds at Rockefeller University along the East River in New York, reminisces about being a free-spirited student abroad, when his aesthetic sensibilities were shaped and “crazy things would happen to me.” Reporting on the construction of the garden at the I.B.M. Plaza in Manhattan in 1981, Deitz describes flatbed trucks hauling huge trusses through city streets — traffic lights were removed for clearance — to build the four-story greenhouse that would protect groves of bamboo. After reading Deitz’s essay, I was inspired to revisit that park, and my appreciation of it was enhanced. There aren’t many garden books that can change your perceptions so subtly but forcefully; this one belongs in the library of every serious student of design.
Remember Bunny Mellon in her Virginia library? “She shapes the terrain and uses trees as sculpture” on her own impressive grounds, Deitz tells us. And “trees are the bones of her garden.” They ought to be the bones of your garden too. If you’re intimidated by the thought of what might appear on the flatbed truck delivering your holiday presents, ask Santa to stuff into a rather large stocking a handsome guide by Allen J. Coombes called THE BOOK OF LEAVES (University of Chicago, $55). The leaves in question are reproduced full size, comically dwarfing the fuzzy gray sketches of the actual trees, and the notes are thin gruel. But you get the idea. On further reflection, this may be a book for those who can’t see the forest for the trees, or even the trees for the leaves. The oaks alone will occupy you for days. At least you’ll know what tree you were sitting under the last time you read “Portrait of a Lady.”
More useful, and gorgeous to boot, is the revised edition of Hugh Johnson’s WORLD OF TREES (University of California, $34.95). Here too the oaks are in plentiful supply — tell me how to resist a man who begins that discussion with Pliny and Oliver Wendell Holmes? Johnson isn’t afraid of raptures: “The tendency to keep their leaves late in the season, dead or alive, is clearly an oak family trait. The oaks as a whole give the impression that evergreenery is never very far away.” Internationally known for his wine books, Johnson has clearly imbibed a deep knowledge of the stuff of which the finest barrels themselves are wrought. This lavish and soulful (now that’s an excellent pairing!) book will have you dreaming of strawberry trees and dove trees and fringe trees. If you can’t buy your love a tree, at least buy her the trees that died for this book. Evergreenery will not be far away.
For those of us who are attached to our raised beds, SOIL MATES: Companion Planting for Your Vegetable Garden (Quirk Books, $16.95), by Sara Alway, is highly useful. However, be forewarned: cute phrases are slathered like cream cheese on bagels. Someone developed a fatal attraction for headings like “Love Match,” “Turn-Ons” and “Love Triangles.” All that’s missing from this breathy Cosmo garden style are headlines like “Zucchinis: Six Ways to Make Them Last Longer.”
Just as white looks brighter if there’s a spot of black nearby, so too is beauty enhanced by a touch of vulgarity. I heartily recommend Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross’s BIZARRE BOTANICALS: How to Grow String-of-Hearts, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Panda Ginger, and Other Weird and Wonderful Plants (Timber Press, $24.95), which comes complete with seductive photographs and a lighthearted but substantive text. Many of these zany marvels are better suited to greenhouses, so don’t get carried away. You can’t invite polite company to tea if you stuff your conservatory with Amorphophallus titanum.
Matthew Levesque’s REVOLUTIONARY YARDSCAPE: Ideas for Repurposing Local Materials to Create Containers, Pathways, Lighting, and More (Timber Press, paper, $22.95) is a provocative book that will thrill anyone whose ideal venue for window-shopping is the transfer station (a k a the dump). Shards of tumbled dishware may have more appeal than garden-variety gravel. And bollards, normally used to protect buildings from cars, also make perfect hose guides, though a fence of reclaimed flue baffles looks fairly menacing. Well, an artist has to stretch — and Levesque does so with aplomb. The cage light fixture made of hog wire, containing glass shades girdled with plumbing hubs, is the coup de grâce.
If you weren’t already convinced by your own backbreaking labor, Paula Deitz’s investigations into the roots of our modern gardens leave no question about how much work goes into their planting and cultivation. It made me grumpy, then, to find an off-putting passage at the end of Kristin Kimball’s otherwise appealing memoir, THE DIRTY LIFE: On Farming, Food, and Love (Scribner, $25). “In my retirement, I just want to be a simple farmer,” says a new neighbor of Kimball’s, explaining that he’s in search of tranquility. “What you really want is a garden,” Kimball thinks to herself. “A very, very small one. . . . Tranquil and simple are two things farming is not. Nor is it lucrative, stable, safe or easy.”
Harrumph. Whether they’ve got large plots or small, most gardeners have plenty of blisters to show for their labors. But let’s not squabble. Kimball’s story of leaving behind the freelance writer’s life in New York City when she falls in love with the subject of an article on small farms has a hip “Little House adopts community-supported agriculture” feel. Her modern fairy tale features a hard-working vegetarian single girl from the city who is secretly lonely and unfulfilled: “The word home could make me cry. I wanted one. With a man.” Despite the fellow’s setting up a compost toilet in the middle of the living room, she falls hard. And even becomes a meat eater.
Luckily for the reader, Kimball has a lusty appetite, and her memoir is as much a celebration of food as it is of farming. Kimball’s soon-to-be-husband, Mark, is an incredible cook. (Sorry, though, no recipes. Maybe in the iPad version.) Kimball falls in love over a dish of sautéed deer liver. She and Mark bond over a winter meal of broiled pigeon. Icefish chowder is thickened with yellow cream from the morning’s milking. Black pudding is a treat after a pig slaughter.
Kimball’s husband is engaging, sturdy and compassionate. He doesn’t follow national news (only local counts) and abhors plastic. He takes Kimball’s surname when they marry and is otherwise unidentified. (Though there’s a gratingly coy reference to finding, in an old barn, blueprints of New York high rises designed by his grandfather.) Mark is the kind of person — would there were more of them — who “thought about the effects of every quotidian decision.” His farm is a response to “the impoverished lives, loss of rural culture, and environmental degradation . . . tied to the world’s accelerating cycle of production and consumption.” Mark gives Kimball’s book — and their farm — its ballast. He develops a novel “whole-diet” form of community-supported agriculture in which people subscribe to buy shares of everything from meat to grains to fruits and vegetables. All grown using no fossil fuels: the heavy work is done by draft horses.
As Kimball loses her cool attitude in the round of daily chores, her writing acquires a lilting softness. When a new cow arrives, “the dark smell of her manure mingled with the green, fermented smell of cow breath and the dry and dusty smell of the hay, and the old barn that had slept so long without a living thing to shelter was awake again, alive with its purpose. The first time I milked her, I was almost embarrassed by the intimacy of it.”
Of course, it’s now necessary for all young farmer-writers to kill an animal in public, and Kimball steps up to take her turn behind Jana and Suri, two 50-ish women who once lived on a commune. They light a bundle of sage and wave it around, and before Jana lays the chicken on a tree stump, she cradles it in her arms “like a baby.” “Thank you, Chicken,” she intones. “Now let your spirit fly up, up to Father Sun.” “Sorry about this,” Kimball responds, wielding her hatchet. “Whack.” I laughed, but maybe you had to be there. I’d like to be, well . . . not quite there, but nestled close by, tending my roses and subscribing to this wholesome way of bringing home the bacon and eggs.
Dominique Browning, the author of the memoir “Slow Love,” writes a column for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Web site and blogs at SlowLoveLife.com.