Winter, for gardeners in our climate, is a time of blessed rest. But also planning, scheming, and above all, reading. This year I’m making a conscious effort to delve back into my actual books, a pretty good collection that’s been assembled over the last thirty-odd years and recently gets neglected in favor of the quick google when a question arises.
I do regularly read a few garden blogs, many of them written by people with distinctive voices and years of expertise. My Instagram follow list is mostly British and German gardeners, with a smattering of French and Portuguese and even Russians… Americans too, of course. The internet is great for keeping up with what’s current in the world horticulture scene, but the information often seems so fleeting, and sometimes so superficial.
Returning to the bookshelves, and the bookstores, has been nourishing. So here’s my winter reading list, so far…
The Bad Tempered Gardener by Anne Wareham
A book I’ve had for several years (it was published in 2011) but never got around to reading… and my loss, because what a challenging, maddening, inspiring writer she is. The mistress and creator of “The Veddw”, a well-known garden in Wales, Wareham pokes holes in many a sacred garden cow: plant obsession, television gardening personalities, open garden days, roses…just a few of the topics she skewers with wit and intelligence. Her willingness to question established norms is refreshing, and a sampling of some titles from this collection of essays will give you an idea of their scope: “I Hate Gardening”, “Are Gardens for Gardeners?”, “Sharing a Garden”, “Status”, “Roses and Taste” to name a few.
Her irascible style brings to mind the late, great Christopher Lloyd’s writing, tempered with a healthy dollop of self-deprecation. She made me think, and re-think, some of my long-established ideas. She’s like that long-time friend you have who knows how to push your buttons in an infuriating way… but in the end you know she’s right.
Spirit of Place by Bill Noble
A book that was much talked about and promoted last spring, written by a well-known professional gardener and former director of preservation for the Garden Conservatory. It documents the creation and evolution of his property in the Upper Valley of Vermont, an area I know a fair amount about, having visited friends there many times. So I was interested to read it. Still, it took me three tries before I was engaged enough to finish the book… the first chapters seemed a replay of a planting style, and a plant palette, that were popular twenty years ago. Plants like Hydrangea paniculata ‘Quick Fire’, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, and Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ were thrilling us back at the turn of the century. Now, not so much. Reading further, I began to appreciate his very deep and broad knowledge of plants, and to marvel at the collection he’s assembled of really the best of the best shrubs, perennials, and alpines that are hardy in a challenging northern climate zone. And I acknowledge that the garden was, after all, started more than twenty years ago. My own garden being now just half that age, it’s encouraging to see how two decades of growth pays off in the maturity of established plantings.
This is definitely a plantsperson’s book… beginners will be daunted by the cascade of Latin names and comparison of cultivars and subspecies, although they may enjoy the many good photographs. In the end I found it to be an enjoyable read but one that chronicles a collector’s, rather than a designer’s, taste. Much of the book is a bed-by-bed documentation of plants therein… interesting enough for plantaholics, but hard to follow without constantly referring back to the plan on the endpapers. I longed too for more of Mr. Noble’s personality to shine through, and to visit his garden to see the plantings first-hand… he seems like a nice fellow, and acknowledges towards the end of the book that “much of the garden is outfitted with old-fashioned plants and garden styles not currently in fashion”. That raises the question of what our current horticultural obsessions will look like in twenty years…and whether they will age as gracefully as this solid assembly of top-notch cultivars in his garden has done.
Essay on Gardening by Henk Gerritsen
Much more congruent with my own curmudgeonly gardening temperament is this book I’m actually re-reading, for the third time I think. Henk Gerritsen is one of the founding figures of the “Dutch Wave”, but little known in this country, partly because he was more of a writer than a designer, and partly because he died at a relatively young age. But he penned several early books with Piet Oudolf, as well as this one, his definitive collection of thoughts on nature, ecology, and gardens. Gerritsen’s original obsession was with the wild plants of Europe, and he only came later to be interested in gardening, creating with his partner Anton Schlepers an idiosyncratic and influential garden they called Priona. This is a book that’s perfect for the bedside… there’s no straightforward narrative line, so you can dip in and out of it at will. And his take on things horticultural is often challenging, always thoughtful, and usually witty.
A couple of quotes…
“Gardening is the most elusive of all the fine arts. The art of gardening uses living material, which has its own laws and prerogatives and which won’t allow itself to be manipulated by the artist without a struggle.”
Regarding weeding, he writes…
“I know quite a few gardeners who with satanic pleasure dedicate every free weekend to committing a veritable bloodbath in their garden, so that they may maintain their air of pacifism during the week. And what of the weeds? They lived happily ever after…”
Indeed, Gerritsen has been perhaps the main proponent of what is disparagingly called “the weedy aesthetic” by those skeptical of the current trend towards naturalistic planting. But in his case the scruffiness of his garden seems the result not so much of laziness but of his extremely deep knowledge and appreciation of wild, atypical, and species plants. I haven’t had a chance to visit the Priona Garden, but from the many photos in this book it appears that the lavish wildness is balanced by a thoughtful use of topiary, hard paving, and other kinds of structure that act as a design counterpoint to all the effusive planting.
This is also one of the most beautifully designed gardening books I’ve seen recently, and at almost 400 pages, it’s packed with challenging ideas and practical information, especially regarding plant communities and habitat archetypes. If you’re seriously interested in ecological gardening and naturalistic planting this is a must-read, seminal work on the subject.
Printed nursery and seedhouse catalogs, once one of the mainstays of a gardener’s winter reading, increasingly appear to be going the way of buggy whips and eight-track tapes. There used to be so many good ones from small, family-run nurseries, packed with opinionated takes on everything from trees to rock-garden plants. Now we’ve lost dozens of those independent outfits, and the ones that remain find it harder to justify the expense of printing and mailing a paper catalog. And who can blame them. But they are sorely missed, particularly those book-sized inventories dense with text and nary a photo, like Forest Farm’s (still sent out but much reduced) or the fantastic descriptions detailed by Dan Hinkley for Heronswood Nursery. (Once, on the train up from the city, I accosted a woman who was reading the Heronswood catalog and we happily nerded out on plants for the rest of the trip).
There are still a few printed catalogs left, for now at least, that make good reading… Select Seeds, Old House Gardens, and Prairie Moon Nursery all present accurate information illustrated with attractive photos. My go-to for vegetables and some unusual flowers is the Vermont company Fedco. Their thick newsprint catalog is full of information and opinion, and they send larger quantities of seed for the price than anywhere else I’ve found. And for perennials, I love Digging Dog in northern California. Though many of their plants are Zone 6 and warmer, they list enough desirable Zone 5 selections to keep me coming back year after year. And a new one that’s really a great reference is the ornamental grass catalog of Hoffman Nursery in North Carolina. They’re a wholesale grower, so I’m not sure the catalog is generally available, but if you can get your hands on it you’ll be fascinated by all the selections described (35 varieties of Carex! With a comparison chart!)
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Here in the Hudson Valley, the Witch Hazels are blooming and the snow is retreating, but there are still many chilly evenings available for snuggling down with a good, old-fashioned book. I hope you’ll rediscover some of your favorites, and find a few new ones to keep you occupied. That is, until the longer evening light and increasingly warm temperatures of spring seduce us into spending those evenings actually gardening.
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.