Over a year ago, I mentioned an intent to write a post about a few of my favorite books on gardens (bloom and seed, 30 December 2018); however, I went on to a very different topic after briefly mentioning three works: Lorraine Harrison’s, How to Read Gardens: A Crash Course in Garden Appreciation, A Short History of Gardens by Gordon Campbell, and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison. I want to pick up that topic again with a new list and a little more explanation about why I recommend each one.
The first is Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners: A Generation of Gentleman Naturalists and the Birth of an Obsession (2010). The obsession the title refers to is with botany, plant collection, plant classification, and plant sharing. It begins in the early 18th-century with American colonist John Bartram sending two boxes of plants and seeds to Peter Collinson in London. The story grows from there to trace contributions from pivotal actors in the development of the botany movement including Carl Linnaeus. The more than a mere record of names and events, though, this is a well-written, genuinely engaging story of how the botanical world even today’s backyard gardener works in came into being.
Two years later, Wulf published Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. For those plant-loving people who enjoy garden history or early American history, informative narrative, or engaging non-fiction in general, I recommend this volume as well.
Also, “historical,” but from a very different perspective is Elizabeth Barlow Rogers’ Writing the Garden: A Literary Conversation Across Two Centuries. (2011). Bottom line, this is a book about books in the collection of The New York Society Library, augmented with books from Rogers’ own collection. In effect, though, it is just what its title suggests: a delightful exchange between quotations from the works of garden writers and Rogers’ comments on and about them. The phrase “garden writers” is misleading, however. These are really people who have written about gardens and gardening, people who were designers, teachers, philosophers, humorists, travelers. There are obvious names in the list, such as Gertrude Jekyll, Russell Page, Vita-Sackville-West, even Michael Pollan, but there are a host of new ones as well.
This is not a book to sit down with on a rainy afternoon and read through, cover to cover. It is one browse though, stopping here and there to enjoy, savor, and consider 10 or so pages of thoughtful literary conversation and superbly chosen documentary illustrations. A winner of the American Horticultural Society Book Award, it is also one I am pleased to have in my own collection.
Some Flowers, by Vita Sackville-West, carries about as descriptive a name as any book might carry. First published in 1937, then reprinted in 2014 by the National Trust in the UK, the work describes 25 of Sackville-West’s favorite flowers in her Sissinghurst garden built with husband Harold Nicholson. Some of those flowers seem more familiar to the British than to the typical American garden, but it is not for the specific plants that I recommend this book. Rather, it is for the sheer delight in reading her delight in the plants she loves. Please do not misunderstand; hers are not simple, sweet greeting-card accolades on pretty blooms. There is the toughness of the practitioner and researcher in these essays as well. She describes the plants in clear detail and gives information on the plants’ origins and cultivation.
Reading this book is akin to listening to the wisdom of a self-taught gardener who has grown outside classrooms and certifications to capture the beauty of the garden. And that beauty is enriched by the delicate watercolor illustrations of Graham Rust.
Last on my list is the most recent book I purchased and read—and maybe the one I was most engaged with while reading it. It is a lovely example of a narrative voice speaking with, rather than to the reader. Well researched, learned without being pedantic, casually personal, yet philosophical and acutely aware of the garden’s relevance to society and nature, Penelope Lively’s Life in the Garden was a BBC Radio 4 book of the Week 2017. Lively is also acutely aware of her own foibles and successes in the garden. She is unquestionably a gardener. For those familiar with her, she is also unquestionably a writer. She is a winner of both the Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal for British children’s books.
Maybe I enjoyed this book because hers is a writer’s voice I aspire to. But I think the real reason is that hers is a view of the garden is one that speaks directly to my sensibilities and thoughts that I have expressed. For example, commenting on the creativity “latent in almost any garden,” she explains, “Someone has manipulated this space, enhanced it, tried to make it beautiful or productive” (183). Or, she makes simple and direct statements such as “Any garden is a defined area, within which the gardener attempts to impose order” (123). At other times, she leads me to slightly new terrain: “To garden is to elide past, present and future: it is a defiance of time. You garden today for tomorrow; the garden mutates from season to season, always the same, but always different. . . . A garden is never just now; it suggests yesterday, and tomorrow; it does not allow time its steady progress” (111).
The conception of garden and gardener presented in these books ranges from the contemporary terrace container collection to the historic global botanical explorer. Throughout, though, the human fascination with and appreciation of plants—unfamiliar plants, blooming plants, fruiting plants—remains consistent. We collect them. We cultivate them. We see in them our impressions of beauty, our material culture, our social behaviors, and our connection with nature. We see and read these things in them, and we want to write about it all.
These books can be ordered online at major bookstores, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million. If any readers have a favorite book that they want to recommend, please post the name in the comment box at the bottom of this post. Those who are email followers can do this by clicking reply and typing a comment as usual above the original message or by clicking on the name of the post in the email message. This will take you directly to the online blog page, and you can scroll down to the reply/comment box and follow the directions to post your message. Facebook followers, please go directly to the WordPress site for your reply so that other followers of After Eden will be able to read your comment.
© Susan K. Hagen and After Eden, 2019