Garden-related literature: Dig up these reads for 2023
It’s that time again — time to curl up by the fireplace and garden in my mind as I work my way through a stack of books I’ve gathered to read and discuss in my columns during 2023. The books are a mixture of fiction, nonfiction and poetry; a few were recently published, and others have been around for more than half a century.
I’m anticipating that all the books will offer new insights to gardening (and life) that will keep me inspired all year. Here are brief descriptions of half the books on the list; I’ll present the other half next week.
January: “Mixed Greens: Poems From the Winter Garden” by James McGrath (2019)
This volume is a collection of poetry from the perspective of a 90-year-old poet, artist and teacher who looks back on his life and his artistic works as “mixed greens.” One reviewer writes, “If Life itself were to say, ‘Give me a voice for all the myriad of experiences I have given to you,’ it would be this collection of poems.”
One of my favorite poems from the book is called “Broken Branches”:
This poem is for the broken peach tree
in the orchard,
wounded but bearing fruit.
The tree knows of sadness,
juiciness and shade.
A broken branch in a peach tree
is like a poet
with a broken heart
lost but writing of love,
who knows of sadness,
juiciness and shade.
February: “Beth Chatto’s Woodland Garden” by Beth Chatto (2002)
Chatto is known for her expertise in creating shade gardens; in fact, she won 10 gold medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for her shade garden designs. In this book, she describes how she created a woodland garden from a derelict site on her property in Essex, England. In an engagingly personal style, she moves readers through the different seasons and explains her plant choices for her garden to keep it beautiful and inviting all year long.
The book is filled with interesting quotes, but here are two of my favorites:
“As gardeners, the older we grow, the more we realize how limited is our knowledge, and our experience, and how we each have to discover what is aesthetically pleasing in our contrived associations, without losing sight altogether of the simple harmonies of Nature.”
“Infinite possibilities are open to us: There are as many plant associations as there are melodies in music and ideas for pictures to paint.”
Speaking of pictures, the book contains beautiful photographs taken by Steven Wooster of the woodland garden and plants at different times of the year.
March: “Garden by the Sea” by Mercè Rodoreda (1967)
Set in 1920s Spain, the novel takes place over six summers at a villa by the sea inhabited by a young couple and their beautiful, rich friends. All the while, the guests are observed by the villa’s gardener, a widower who’s been tending the garden for several decades. The story is told through the gardener’s perspective, and the garden plays a central role in how he views his life and the people around him.
Here’s an excerpt from the book that captures the gardener’s loneliness during the winter months when the couple and their friends have gone away:
“I stayed in bed many mornings and neglected the garden. That autumn I let the leaves rot rather than burn them. They lay quietly along he paths, where the wind had left them, and with each new rainfall they blended into the earth. They would nourish the soil and help my spring plants grow.
“I never even glanced at the sea …”
Rodoreda, although not well known in the United States, is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. She wrote in Catalan, a language similar to but distinct from Spanish, and the novel has been translated in several other languages since its publication.
April: “Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy and the Indolent” by Ruth Stout (1961)
Ruth Stout is known for her no-till gardening methods (and for gardening naked!). This is her second gardening book in which she sings the praises of year-round mulching as the key to growing productive gardens without a lot of work.
I consider myself to be aging, busy and indolent, so this is the book for me! Here are two of my favorite quotes from Stout:
“Now and then I am asked (usually by an irritated expert) why I think I invented mulching. Well, naturally, I don’t think so; God invented it simply by deciding to have the leaves fall off the trees once a year.”
“At the age of 87, I grow vegetables for two people the year-round, doing all the work myself and freezing the surplus. I tend several flower beds, write a column every week, answer an awful lot of mail, do the housework and cooking — and never do any of these things after 11 o’clock in the morning!”
If only I had half of Ruth Stout’s energy!
May: “The Writer’s Garden: How Gardens Inspired Our Best-Loved Authors” by Jackie Bennett (2016)
I’ve already read garden writer and editor Jackie Bennett’s book about “Shakespeare’s Gardens,” so I’m eager to delve into this one in which she writes about 20 influential authors and the roles gardens played in their lives and their literature.
Some of the featured authors are: Jane Austen, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, Beatrix Potter, William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Henry James and Virginia Woolf. (Interestingly, Woolf pops up in three of the books on this year’s list.) Each vignette of the authors is accompanied by beautiful photographs of the authors’ gardens and particular plants.
Here is a quote from Bennett about the writer’s garden:
“Gardens have also provided writers with solace — a place to escape to, to think and to write. The ‘writer’s retreat’ is an enduring image that many of us try to recreate in our own garden.”
June: “Onward and Upward in the Garden” by Katharine S. White (1979)
K.S. White wrote gardening articles for The New Yorker for 12 years, including the first ever critical review of garden catalogs. White’s husband, E.B. White (author of “Charlotte’s Web”), compiled the articles into a book after she died.
I love to peruse garden catalogs, but I never paid much attention to the quality of the writing. Yet, here is what White wrote: “Whatever may be said about the seedmen’s and nurserymen’s methods, their catalog writers are my favorite authors and produce my favorite reading matter.”
After reading White’s book, I’ll look forward to reading (not just viewing) my garden catalogs with a fresh perspective!
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.