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Rainy-Day Garden Reading

Tallahassee Democrat

August 14, 2015

By Becky Lyons

The Garden Bookshelf. Photo by Becky Lyons

garden booksIt’s hard to keep a gardener out of the garden. But sometimes it’s just too wet, or hot, or cold. And sensible people know better than to be out in our frequent thunderstorms, right? So take an opportunity to stretch your gardening knowledge or just spend an amusing hour or two with one of the many, many excellent books related to gardening.

If you’re in the mood for something that might challenge your ideas about gardening and the gardener’s role in society, Michael Pollan is a good author to pick up. As stated on his website, one of his abiding themes is “… the places where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in the built environment.” His book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991) was included on the American Horticultural Society’s list of 75 Great American Garden Books. This work blends personal stories, gardening history, social philosophy, and interesting tidbits about many topics dear to the gardener’s heart. Further, the book presents this blend in a way that makes it hard to choose between devouring the next chapter and pausing to reflect on a subtle but potent mixture of ideas. Much like a great meal or a well-planned garden, come to think of it.

The introduction describes the book as the story of the author’s education in two gardens; one virtual, “… of books and memories, that dreamed-of outdoor utopia, gnat-free and ever in bloom…” and one actual, “…five acres of rocky, intractable hillside…” On the personal side, Pollan describes the styles of his grandfather and his father as gardeners, and on the historical side he blends in references to well-known figures like Thoreau, Jefferson, Capability Brown, and Proust.

It’s difficult to select key points to share from this work, there are so many enticing images and concepts. (Yes, it’s very like visiting a nursery in the spring or reading seed catalogs when the weather is frosty). Pollan describes the main thread of this work as the idea that gardens, virtual, metaphorical, or real, are “where nature and culture can be wedded in a way that can benefit both.” Which right there is a concept worth pausing over. How often do we as gardeners think about the connection between the terms horticulture, culturing in the sense of getting our hands dirty and yanking those darn weeds, culture as nurture, and culture as a component of the society we live in? He goes on to explore the thought that wilderness/nature and gardens/culture have in American history been considered mutually exclusive. Sometimes, each of these two aspects have been preferred over the other, as symbols variously of humankind’s work ethic or triumph over savagery or harmony with the natural order or even embodying a reflection of the divine.

For instance, the chapter Why Mow? approaches the suburban lawn as a historical and social phenomenon, uniting neighboring lawns across the country (at great expense, need it be said) in contrast to the English propensity to walled and fenced yards. But the lawn is also portrayed as a deeply personal statement, either in conformity or individuality. Pollan describes his initial approach as the Zen of mowing, but later it came to feel more like an authoritarian imposition on nature. This dichotomy is expanded through discussion of Puritan convention, democratization, and ecology. He states “Lawns, I am convinced, are a symptom of, and a metaphor for, our skewed relationship with the land.”

Other topics receive similar treatment, digging below the surface of what you might commonly expect in a gardening book. The metaphysics of compost, what we owe to J. I. Rodale, moral virtue and status are intermingled. Roses through history, and social class structure as reflected in hybrid teas and old garden roses, are discussed in another chapter. Weeds — are they deserving just as much support as any other romantic aspect of nature, or are they invaders, the lowest in the hierarchy of plant life. (Did you ever realize that most of what we think of as weeds can NOT survive in undisturbed land, and were imported deliberately or accidentally?) Seed catalogs as a reflection of aesthetics, and garden design, tree planting, and land clearing as political statements are also addressed.

To sum up, this book is a grand mash-up of concept, information, and story – historical and personal. “It may be in the margins of our gardens that we can discover fresh ways to bring our aesthetics and our ethics about the land into some meaningful alignment. I know, I know — my grandfather’d think this was the biggest, fanciest bunch of excuses for lazy gardening he’d ever heard. But I’d want to try to make him see it, the tension I’ve come to love about this place…” Since gardening is all about balance, dynamic tension, and working at the edges, this book helps make explicit some of the feelings many of us have.

For something a little more light-hearted, you might want to try William Alexander’s The $64 Tomato (2006). This gardening saga contains a lot of information, but even more it is a story that gardeners can definitely relate to. How many of you have had the “eye is bigger than the stomach” experience when laying out a vegetable garden, or creating a seed order? Come on, be honest. Well, so did this author, and the journey can be as hilarious as it is frustrating.

Alexander lightly touches on the perils inherent in heavy machinery and electric fences; the conundrums of weeding and watering twenty-two (!) beds; choosing garden ornaments that aren’t too, umm, suggestive and/or tacky; and coping with deer and other voracious wildlife both big and small. Readers just have to chuckle, shake their heads, empathize, and occasionally say out loud “What were you THINKING???” But the joys and rewards of gardening, particularly in bringing food to the family table, are also woven in. Even if you don’t calculate the expense of growing your tomatoes, you can remember the flavor of that one perfect Brandywine or the sight of a sturdy seedling or whatever. That will probably lead you to agree with Alexander that “Gardening is, by its very nature, an expression of the triumph of optimism over experience. No matter how bad this year was, there’s always next year.” Oh, and there are also recipes!

So as not to leave flowers out of this extremely limited set of literature recommendations, how about a reference book that is as much fun to drool over as it is useful? Antique Roses for the South, by William C. Welch (with contributions by Margaret Sharpe and S. J. Derby, 1990) is the go-to book for anyone interested in growing roses for pleasure (as opposed to as scentless spots of color in the landscape). This book is lushly illustrated, showing roses in the landscape and as individual blooms to go along with the extremely helpful descriptions of individual plants. It also includes chapters on arranging, crafting, and propagating roses, and lists of suggested roses for various characteristics or landscape needs.

But even if you’re not planning to make potpourri or cover a pergola, nothing beats sitting down with this book on a rainy day and imagining where in your own yard you could fit a graceful ‘Perle d’Or’ or a climbing ‘Cecile Brunner’, or marveling over some unusual plants such as the green rose, Rosa chinensis ‘Viridiflora’. All three of which, by the way, are located in the UF/Leon County Extension Office’s demonstration garden.

So the next time you can’t be out in the garden, consider a library trip or an on-line shopping indulgence – or dig something out of that pile of books your loving friends and family gave you and read!

Becky Lyons is volunteering as a Master Gardener in training with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Service.  For gardening questions, email us at