Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Dear Friend and Gardener

I had trouble with this book. I just couldn't get into it. Was it because I don't share the authors' fascination with the many types of snowdrops? Or maybe because I don't care for opera? And what exactly does opera have to do with gardening? Perhaps it was the writing. The letters were more esoteric discussions than chatty correspondence between two gardeners who are also close friends. Are the English more formal in their letter-writing?

The answer, of course, is that these are not "real" letters. They are merely a literary device suggested and edited by publishers. This was hinted at by Mr. Lloyd in his introduction but I didn't catch on until the very end when the "correspondence" drew to a close. I read the entire book under the impression that I was reading genuine letters originally written with no thought of future publication. Once it was revealed that the "letters" were written specifically to be published in book form, I felt cheated. It should have been clearly stated at the beginning that this is a collection of essays addressed to each other so that the reader is not led to think that s/he is about to be privy to something special.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

I checked this book out of my local library about four years ago and liked it so much that I bought it so that I could re-read it at my leisure.

The author and I are kindred spirits. We garden organically, prefer heirlooms, abhor lawns and lawnmowers, and adore compost. I have to keep reminding myself that she was writing in 1981, long before any of these things were "fashionable".

Her writing is lighthearted and very readable. Even the essays on vegetables, which I don't grow, are enjoyable. I especially like her exasperation at unclear directions. It's nice to know that other gardeners have the same difficulties with unclear instructions that I do.

Each essay is complete in itself, so the book can be read right through or you can skip around. I'm so glad that I finally have my own copy. It's one of those books that I will read over and over.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Curious Gardener's Almanac: Centuries of Practical Garden Wisdom

In 2003, Niall Edworthy and his family purchased a home in West Sussex, England. It had a yard, a shed and a vegetable patch. He describes his first attempt at growing vegetables as a disaster. He bought a couple of books, asked advice from neighbors and the second year was merely pathetic. He decided to get serious about this gardening business and took a course, bought more books, bothered everyone who was willing to talk gardening and ended up with a "half-decent" garden the third year.

He has distilled all of the garden wisdom he collected from courses, books, other gardeners and his own experiences into a marvelous little book, "The Curious Gardener's Almanac: Centuries of Practical Garden Wisdom". It's neither a narrative nor a real almanac. Even the author has difficulty defining exactly what it is.

It's arranged by season, but you can dip into it at any point. Along with the usual plant lists, natural pest deterrents, and recipes, he includes historical information in the introduction of plants, the origin of many of their names and interesting facts such as 2/3 of the world's eggplants are grown in New Jersey. How about the invention of the wheelbarrow? Or how to test soil temperature? He suggests using your elbow but originally one dropped one's pants and sat. My favorite was his compost recipe which contains human urine. Seriously.

Each season is introduced by quotes and more quotes are scattered throughout the text. There are the usual suspects, Thomas Jefferson, Celia Thaxter, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prince Charles and there are the unexpected, Cervantes, Galileo, Charlemagne, the Koran. Also offered are proverbs from Greece, ancient Egypt, China and Arabic speakers.

The last chapter is on children and gardening. It offers lots of fun facts and activities such as building a ladybug house and growing your initials.

This would be a great holiday gift for gardeners, beginners through the most experienced and anyone interested in the history of gardening, plants and tools.

Review copy courtesy of Perigee Books.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

My Summer in a Garden

I didn't know until I actually had this book in my hands that it was written in the nineteenth century. Those are my favorite reads. I love getting a firsthand account of life in the past.

As a flower gardener, I'm always interested in what flowers gardeners grew in the past. Although Charles Dudley Warner writes about his veggie garden, it turns out we have a lot in common. I was delighted to read about the toad in his garden. Oh, how I wish I had one in my garden eating pests! We disagree about birds. Perhaps because he was a veggie gardener and I'm a flower gardener. He considered birds pests because they ate his produce. I like them because they consume pests.

He had to deal with some very different "pests" than most gardeners today. At least the ones who garden in my area. We don't have to worry about cows or chickens wandering into our gardens or boys stealing our produce.

The biggest difference between then and now was a visit from the President. Try to envision what it would be like to have the President visit your garden. The entourage. The Secret Service. The paparazzi. When the President visited Charles Dudley Warner's garden, he came alone. He toured the garden, enjoyed some liquid refreshment and jokingly offered the job of Head Gardener at the White House to his host.

It's anecdotes like that that draw me to books written long ago. I can understand why people say that they hate reading about history. Who wants an endless recitation of dates and wars and empires? It's so much more interesting to read about the every day lives (and gardens) of every day people (and gardeners).

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Passalong Plants

I was tempted to buy this book years ago when I became interested in heirlooms. The fact that it was about "southern" passalongs discouraged me from doing so. New Jersey is one growing zone north of what is considered "southern". There are classic southern plants that can be grown here in sheltered locations but all it takes is a colder than normal winter and those delicate immigrants succumb.

Thanks to global warming, my zone 6 garden is now closer to zone 7, the northern-most "southern" growing zone. Colder than normal winter temperatures are rare now. I am more open to the idea of growing plants that are considered borderline in zone 6. I got out a pad and pen, ready to take notes as I dove into a whole new world of plants via "Passalong Plants".

The authors, Steve Bender and Felder Rushing, have chosen to tell a story about each plant rather than just describing it. Southern gardeners and their gardens come alive through their anecdotes. The reader comes away from the book with much better "pictures" of these old-time favorites than any photograph (which are supplied in abundance throughout the text).

The essays can be read in any order. They are helpfully arranged according to the characteristics of the plants so that, for instance, if you are looking for fragrant plants, there is a section on those alone. There are also groupings of essays on plants that are aggressive spreaders, the most common "passalongs", plants with strange characteristics (such as "naked ladies" and walking iris), plants with garish colored flowers and bare root shrub passalongs that are commonly sold in nurseries.

By far my favorite section was on yard art. I don't "get" bottle trees but plastic animals, painted rocks and especially tire planters took me back in time to my childhood in largely rural upstate New York. The book ends with a chapter devoted to organizing plant swaps for your own passalongs.

I finished the book and realized that my pad was empty. I had been too caught up in the stories to stop and take notes. It's on my bookshelf now, waiting for winter when I am making decisions about what to plant next year. I will page through it again in my constant

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Two Gardeners

I was enthralled and deeply moved by this book. Enthralled, because reading their letters was akin to reading modern day garden blogs. I was deeply moved by their deaths because I felt by the end of the book that I knew them.

Their letters also brought back a lot of memories for me. My maternal grandmother was a few years older than Katharine White. Unlike many women of her time, she married late in life and had my mother when she was close to 40. When I knew her, she had retired and was living in an apartment. I loved accompanying her when she went "visiting". Part of those visits involved tours of her friends' gardens. Gardens that looked very much like the photos and descriptions of Katharine's and Elizabeth's gardens. Their letters sounded eerily like the conversations during those visits.

The descriptions of the flower shows made me laugh! I remember shows like those derided in their letters. My poor mother tried and tried to learn flower arranging. Books, classes, garden club lectures, nothing helped. She finally settled on just entering specimen plants and flowers. I should add that she won several prizes in local shows. And that I inherited her inability to arrange flowers in an attractive manner.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Teaming with Microbes

I was disheartened to read in the Preface to "Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web" that the first part of the book would be difficult to get through. I pressed on. Very science-y. An excellent sleep inducer. No joke. I did fall asleep while reading it one warm afternoon. But it was definitely worth it. Like the authors, I urge you to read the entire book and not just the second part which is the heart of the book.

Their argument boils down to one sentence: "No one ever fertilized an old-growth forest". Think about all the wild places you have ever seen, lush with growth. How did they get that way without the help of Scott's or Miracle-Gro? And if Scott's and Miracle-Gro are so superior, why don't our yards and gardens look better than those wild places?

The authors' thesis is that we should garden like Nature gardens, working with the flora and fauna in the soils rather than against it through the use of compost, organic mulches and actively aerated compost tea. Best of all, they provide precise instructions and call for materials that most of us have on hand anyways. No need for expensive ingredients or equipment!

I was thrilled to discover that I am not a "lazy composter" as I have always thought. Instead, I practice cold composting (not turning the compost), a method that produces the most "nutritious" compost! And what I jokingly refer to as "composting in situ", using the mower to shred up leaves and dumping them with the grass clippings onto my beds in the fall is actually a recommended mulch. As are the leaves I leave in my gardens over the winter. The only thing I am doing wrong is removing the leaves in the spring. And my deepest, darkest secret is nothing to be ashamed of. Instead of carefully working my compost into the soil, I just spread it on top. Again, a recommended method for amending the soil!

Of course, there are things that I have to do differently. Such as leaving the leaves on my beds. And even though I don't roto-till, I should still stop "loosening" the soil in the spring when I plant my seeds. The soil should be disturbed as little as possible. Planting in individual holes or narrow furrows is fine. I should learn to make and use actively aerated compost teas. Perhaps most importantly instead of throwing anything and everything into my composter, I should pay closer attention to the individual ingredients and their proportions, maybe go so far as to have different composters to make compost tailored to the needs of the various plants in my gardens.

This is a wonderful book that I will be referring to again and again.