‘To love a garden is to be in love with words:’ My reading list for 2022
“To love a garden is to be in love with words:
With potageries and racemes, corymbs, hispids and corms.
To love a garden is to be in love with possibility
for it can never, almost by definition, ever be complete.”
— from Kendra Hamilton’s, “Southern Living,” in “Here: Poems for the Planet,” 2019
I think Kendra Hamilton has it right when she says “to love a garden is to be in love with words.” I certainly do love gardens and words, which is why I love to read about gardens and gardening.
For the past several years, I’ve shared my list of garden literature that I will read and write about during the coming year. I’m excited about my 2022 compilation because it includes a mixture of classic garden literature, books on garden history, a book about sustainable gardening, and garden-inspired novels.
Some of the books are part of the Modern Library Gardening Series edited by Michael Pollan. (His new book “This is Your Mind on Plants,” 2021, is not on this list, but it’s definitely a worthwhile read.) The series is an ongoing assemblage of classic garden literature that goes way beyond the typical how-to reference books. A list of all 10 titles in the series so far can be found at www.librarything.com.
Each year a book on my to-read list is one of many sustainable gardening books released by Chelsea Green Publishing. The Vermont-based company specializes in nature and gardening books written from various perspectives about environmental stewardship. Check out all of their gardening books at www.chelseagreen.com.
Here is my list of garden literature for 2022, along with a brief description of each book and the month I’ll be writing about it. I would enjoy hearing if any of the books on the list cause you to fall in love (again) with garden words. Happy reading!
January: “A Gentle Plea for Chaos: Reflections from an English Garden” by Mirabel Osler, 1989. Mirabel Osler (1925-2016) wrote several books about her gardening experiences in Shropshire, England. She writes, “The very soul of a garden is shriveled by zealous regimentation. Off with their heads go the ferns, lady’s mantles or cranesbill. A mania for neatness, a lust for conformity — and away go atmosphere and sensuality.”
February: “Down the Garden Path” by Beverley Nichols, 1932. Beverley Nichols (1898-1983) is best known for his books that chronicle his experiences caring for a succession of homes and gardens in England. In “Down the Garden Path,” his first home and garden book, Nichols warns readers, “I fear that this book holds little practical wisdom. But if any gardeners should honor me by turning its pages, idly, after their day’s work is done, I hope that from time to time they may be tempted to smile, not unkindly, at the recollection of their own early follies.”
March: “The Ecological Gardener: How to Create Beauty and Biodiversity from the Ground Up” by Matt Rees-Warren, 2021. Matt Rees-Warren is a contemporary ecological gardener, designer and writer who advocates for organic gardening, permaculture, no-dig gardening, and gardening for wildlife. His message is hopeful: “Reimagining how we garden may seem like a small way to help mitigate our ecological crisis, but it’s an important one and it has the ability to make a substantial difference…It’s what we do as individual gardeners, today, and tomorrow, that matters.”
April: “Four Gardens” by Margery Sharp, 1935. Margery Sharp (1905-1991) wrote 22 adult novels and several children’s books, including the popular children’s series “The Rescuers.” In “Four Gardens,” readers follow the sensible protagonist, Caroline Smith, as she navigates through joys and disappointments during different stages of her life. Each time period is characterized by the garden she keeps.
May: “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Robert Dodds, 2014. This is a fictional account of the Dutch painter Jerome Bosch during work in 1490 on his most provocative project, a three-paneled oil painting on oak. The painting features the biblical Garden of Eden on the left interior panel, a complex “garden of earthly delights” on the center panel, and a starkly contrasting “hellscape” on the right panel. I couldn’t resist placing Dodds’ book on my list, in part, because I believe all gardens are created with a bit of paradise in mind, but they can go way, way south sometimes, too.
June: “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” by Giorgio Bassani, 1962. This historical novel, set in Italy before the outbreak of WWII, is considered the best of a series of books Bassani wrote about Italian Jews living in the city of Ferrara under increasing antisemitism. The narrator reflects on his youthful days in the mansion and gardens of the wealthy Finzi-Contini family, most of whom were later deported to German concentration camps.
July: “The Gardener’s Year” by Karel Čapek, 1929. The Czech writer and playwright Karel Čapek (1890-1938) is best known for coining the word “robot” in his 1920 drama “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). However, he utilized his sense of comedy and teamed up with his older brother, illustrator Josef Čapek, to create this month-by-month, tongue-in-cheek account of the gardener’s life, most of which, he writes, is spent “with his rump sticking up somewhere among the perennials.”
August: “Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden” by Eleanor Perényi, 1981. This is the book that started Michael Pollen binge-reading classic garden literature. In a series of alphabetically ordered essays from “Annuals” to “Woman’s Place,” Pollen credits Perényi (1918-2009) for finding “in the garden everything from sexual politics and class struggle to culinary fashion and…ecological insight.”
September: “My Garden (Book)” by Jamaica Kincaid, 1999. Just as Michael Pollan loved her book, Eleanor Perényi loved this one. She wrote, “Jamaica Kincaid writes about her subject from an acute angle all her own. I get an enormous kick out of seeing where her lively pen is going to lead me.” Kincaid, indeed, guides readers down the paths of her childhood gardens on the island of Antigua, as well as her garden in Vermont.
October: “My Summer in a Garden” by Charles Dudley Warner, 1870. This is the earliest published book on my list, among the first of a distinctly American genre of garden writing. Pollan calls Warner “the Mark Twain of American horticulture; in fact, Warner and Twain were neighbors and close friends. One of the first lines in the book sounds remarkably Twain-like to me: “So long as we are dirty, we are pure.”
November: “The Northwest Gardens of Lord & Schryver” by Valencia Libby, 2021. I just received my copy of this garden history book, which is hot off the OSU Press in Corvallis. Libby tells the story of Elizabeth Lord and Edith Schryver, who founded the first woman-owned and operated landscape architecture firm in the Pacific Northwest. They designed landscapes and gardens at more than 200 private homes, parks, and businesses in Oregon and Washington. Their Salem home and gardens, Gaiety Hollow, is open to the public.
December: “Old Herbaceous: A Novel of the Garden” by Reginald Arkell, 1950. The year ends with a classic English novel by comedic writer, musical playwright and garden poet Reginald Arkell (1882-1959). His story follows Herbert Pinnegar, a gardener’s boy who worked his way up to head gardener and celebrated flower-show judge, and his 60-year relationship with his employer, Lady Charteris. The book is part garden wisdom, part social commentary.
I think “Old Herbaceous,” as Pinnegar came to be called, would have agreed with Kendra Hamilton’s lines in “Southern Living”; she writes:
“To love a garden is to be in love with contradiction:
ravished by order yet ever open to the wild.
But more than all these, to love a garden is to find
your one true love…”
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.