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Gardeners can cultivate ‘back-fence’ conversations

Some gardeners like to keep their indeterminate tomato vines tidy by trellising only three fruiting stems per plant and pruning off side stems, or lateral suckers. [Photo by Rhonda Nowak]
A cat-faced tomato results from an enlarged or perforated blossom scar. [Photo by Rhonda Nowak]

“[I]t wasn’t until I cracked open Eleanor Perenyi’s “Green Thoughts,” a tart, smart and beautifully written set of alphabetical essays ... that I realized how much was really going on here, right under my nose. Perenyi had found in the garden everything from sexual politics and class struggle to culinary fashion and, particularly relevant to me, ecological insight.”

– Michael Pollan in “Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden,” 1981

It was not long after author/journalist/professor Michael Pollan began his adventures in home gardening that he picked up Eleanor Perenyi’s book “Green Thoughts” and was initiated into a genre of literature he had never known existed. He recalled, “What Perenyi had done was to introduce me to an unexpectedly rich, provocative and frequently uproarious conversation that, metaphorically at least, takes place over the back fence that joins any two gardens in the world.”

Pollan wanted in on this conversation, and so he began reading other books like Perenyi’s, which he described as “quirky, sui generis writing often produced by a good mind operating in a small space.” He searched for the sort of books in which the authors go beyond imparting gardening advice to making insightful connections between gardening and the world at large – insights that are still relevant today.

Not only does Pollan credit “Green Thoughts” and its kind for spurring his own prolific writing career (he has published 10 books to date, including “The Botany of Desire” and, most recently, “This Is Your Mind on Plants”), but in 2002 he launched the Modern Library Gardening Series, a collection of garden classic literature that has grown so far to include 10 titles:

“The American Gardener” (William Cobbett, 1823)

“My Summer in a Garden” (Charles Dudley Warner, 1870)*

“The Secret Garden” (Francis Hodgson Burnett, 1911)

“In the Land of the Blue Poppies” (Frank Kingdon Ward, 1913)

“The Gardener’s Bed-Book (Richardson Wright, 1929)

“The Gardener’s Year” (Karel Capek, 1929)*

“Old Herbaceous” (Reginald Arkell, 1951)*

“We Made a Garden” (Margery Fish, 1956)

“A Garden of Earthly Delights” (Joyce Carol Oates, 1967)

“Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden” (Eleanor Perenyi, 1981)*

Since I began the Literary Gardener column in 2015, my intention has been to introduce readers to the authors of garden-related literature like those in Pollan’s Modern Library Gardening Series (* denotes MLGS books on my “Garden Books to Read” list for 2022.) In addition, I’ve included on my yearly list, novels that prominently feature gardens (“Four Gardens” by Margery Sharp and “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” by Giorgio Bassani).

I’ve included well-written books that discuss gardens and gardening from a historical perspective (“The Northwest Gardens of Lord & Schryver” by Valencia Libby), as well as books that emphasize the role of contemporary gardens and gardeners in protecting our planet (“The Ecological Gardener” by Matthew Rees-Warren and “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas Tammany).

Finally, my book lists have dipped into nature poetry and eco-poetry (“Here: Poems for the Planet” edited by Elizabeth J. Coleman and “Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California” edited by Lucille Day and Ruth Nolan). Oftentimes, eco-poets are gardeners or backyard naturalists who write as a way of coming to terms with humanity’s impact on the natural world.

Although most of the books on my lists are not classic literature in the traditional sense, I think they all are written in the spirit of what Pollan described as holding conversations, in some way having to do with gardens, over the back fence. Frequently, these conversations use gardening as an entry point to delve into other matters: politics, economics, art, sex, class, race, morality ...

Eleanor Perenyi’s chapter on tomatoes is a perfect example of a literary gardener’s “back fence” conversation. Always strongly opinionated, Perenyi first made it clear that commercial tomatoes aren’t worth the plastic they’re packaged in. She wrote, “How wonderful that we can buy tomatoes and corn on the cob in January! Wonderful indeed, until you taste them.”

To their lack of taste, I would add this about today’s commercial tomatoes: They are part of an unsustainable food production and distribution system that relies on toxic pesticides and herbicides and fossil fuels. The tomatoes we buy at the store in January are shipped from Mexico and Florida, where low wages and poor working conditions for laborers are commonplace.

Next, Perenyi described what the flesh of a good eating tomato should look like: “It should resemble an archipelago broken up with lakes of seeds – which are vital to flavor. Peeled and salted and left to stand for a few minutes, such a tomato exudes a good tablespoon of juice and is slippery as an eel to handle.” Not for her the tomatoes with few seeds and solid flesh, the hallmarks of long keepers.

Perenyi also brought up practical issues related to growing tomatoes, including pruning tomato vines. Indeterminate tomato vines keep growing until frost kills them or their tips are pinched off. Some gardeners like to keep their vines tidy by trellising only three fruiting stems per plant and pruning off side stems, or lateral suckers, that grow between a developing fruit cluster and flowers growing above the fruit cluster on the same vine.

I prune off some of the side stems but keep those that are growing right above a tomato cluster to provide a bit of shade. I pinch out flowers and do a heavy pruning of side stems in September to encourage the plants to focus on ripening tomatoes that are still on the vine.

Perenyi admitted she was unfamiliar with the practice of tomato vine pruning until reading Thalassa Cruso’s book “Making Vegetables Grow” (1975). Cruso is another literary gardener well worth knowing. Born in the United Kingdom, she was an archaeologist who came to the United States when she married American archaeologist Hugh O’Neill Hencken. Cruso was a regular guest on “The Tonight Show” as a horticulture expert and hosted “Making Things Grow” on PBS. Altogether, she wrote six gardening books.

Cruso, Perenyi, and all the writers on my garden book lists and in Michael Pollan’s Modern Library Gardening Series are part of a fascinating, historical conversation about gardens and gardening (and politics, economics, art, sex, class, race, morality ...). Unfortunately, Americans are having fewer “real-time” back fence conversations these days, and I count myself in the growing number of Americans who don’t know most of their neighbors anymore.

On the other hand, Eleanor Perenyi’s good friend, Charlie, wrote to say thanks for “bringing her back to life” in the Literary Gardener columns, so I’m glad for my small part in keeping the conversation going.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. For more on gardening topics, see literarygardener.com or email Rhonda at Rnowak39@gmail.com.