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Favorite Garden Books: One Man’s Garden

February 3, 2013

One Mans Garden2During the months-long period of winter dormancy in northern gardens, many gardeners immerse themselves in seed catalogs and dream of gardens to come. I am more likely to curl up with favorite garden books, garden memoirs or collections of garden essays, that allow me to enter a dreamy world of past gardens. It was in such a mood that I pulled Henry Mitchell’s One Man’s Garden (Houghton Mifflin, 1992) from my bookshelves and sat down to reread it.

Henry Mitchell was a Washington, DC gardener who wrote the much-loved “Earthman” gardening column for the Washington Post from the early 1970s until his death in 1993. One Man’s Garden is a collection of some of his best columns. Like many collections of gardening essays, the book is organized seasonally, beginning in January and running through the calendar (and gardening) year to December.

“Earthman” was not the advice column of a horticultural expert, but the reflections of a passionate amateur gardener. In these essays Mitchell sometimes shares the magical moments of gardening, from small everyday pleasures (like the appearance of the first spring bulbs or bird visitors to the garden) to special events (the rare bloom of an agave). He sometimes shares hard won garden wisdom, and he sometimes writes about his garden adventures and (more often) misadventures. His viewpoint is that of the “everyman” gardener who is always learning from experience and recognizes that mother nature deserves much of the credit for his garden successes.

Mitchell’s philosophy of gardening resonates for me; he insists that the garden is not made for the pleasure of other people, but for the pleasure of the gardener. In his words, “It is not important for a garden to be beautiful. It is extremely important for the gardener to think it is a fair substitute for Eden.” (p. 106) Gardening, he insists, is a process not a product; and that process is likely to include lots of mistakes and periods when one or another garden enthusiasm becomes obsession.

In this way, Henry Mitchell manages to combine strong opinions with humility. The following bit of tongue-in-cheek garden chauvinism, found in the opening pages of the book, is characteristic of the delightful humor to be found between the covers:

There is no need for every American to be lured into gardening. It does not suit some people, and they should not be cajoled into a world they have no sympathy with. Many people, after all, find their delight in stealing television sets; others like to make themselves anxious with usury and financial speculations; still others rejoice in a life of murder. None of these is very good material for a gardener.

All I require of society, in the matter of gardening, is a decent awareness that gardeners have a greater stake in society than others, and an occasional reflection that no life is worth living without a vine and a fig tree. (p. 3)

Most of the humor in Mitchell’s essays comes from poking fun at himself – and, by extension, at gardeners more generally. I recognized myself in his inability to discard plants, as in an essay called “When Houseplants Take Over”:

When our son collected trash and garbage for the city, he had a habit of bringing home houseplants, and the living room and a few other places now resemble Surinam as a result….

The first critical orphan was a gold-variegated agave of good (but reasonable) size. In several years, it has become somewhat gargantuan and has two babies, each the size of a bushel basket. These have also pupped, and a number of  them live in six-inch pots….

The hearth is solid with plants, as are various tables and any free floor space….

It is not clear how the house got all these plants in it, though I blame the first big agave as the essential break in the dike. Then there was that beautiful cycad I fished out of the trash compactor of a downtown hotel and nursed back to life….

All of this would be understandable except that I have always disliked houseplants. I would hate to see any of them go, however….. [T]hese plants are much like the Vietnam War – once you have invested enough labor and woe, you are strangely unwilling to acknowledge that it was a stupid mistake to begin with. You just go on and on. (pp. 205-207)

I’m sure other gardeners will recognize themselves in Mitchell’s accounts of bringing in the tender perennials to overwinter indoors (“Before You Bring in the Plants, Make Sure Your Rugs Are Clean” and “In for the Winter”), always at the last minute and usually with a number of unexpected complications. Take, for example, this description, which is all too easy to imagine:

My great treasures, the Typhonodorum lindleyanum, are safe in the east and west windows….The finest one, growing in the great bucket all by itself, arrived indoors a few weeks ago. As it was heavy, I feared the wire handles might give way. I set the bucket in a large tin pan with handles, and two of us lugged it upstairs. Near the top the bucket leaned over and fell right out of the pan and went head over heels…. It takes more hours than you would think to get a few gallons of mud off carpeted stairs. For some reason the true hazards of gardening, of which the mud bucket is perfectly typical, are not dealt with in gardening books. (p. 222)

If you want gardening wisdom interspersed with gardening humor from a gardener who has learned from experience, One Man’s Garden is a book for you. An added benefit for those with busy lives is that its short essays can be savored in stolen moments (although, if you are like me, you will find it difficult to limit yourself to just one or two at a time).

Henry Mitchell’s “Earthman” columns are also collected in The Essential Earthman (Indiana University Press, 1981) and Henry Mitchell on Gardening (Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2013 6:08 pm

    Sounds like some wonderful reading for a cold, snowy night like the ones we’ve had recently. Thanks for the review. Will have to pick it up.

  2. February 3, 2013 6:23 pm

    Sounds like a perfect bok to delve into Jean. I will be on the look out for it.

    • February 10, 2013 4:05 pm

      Karen and Donna, This really is a delightful book. Happily, all of Mitchell’s books are still in print and readily available.

  3. February 3, 2013 10:28 pm

    I’ve read some Henry Mitchell, but not this book. I’ll have to get hold of it.

    • February 10, 2013 4:06 pm

      Jason, I’m in the opposite situation; this is the only one of Mitchell’s books that I’ve read. I’m hoping to get to The Essential Earthman soon.

  4. February 4, 2013 1:24 pm

    Jean, this is wonderful! I want to go out and find his book this very minute! Of course, you have chosen some beauties to share with us and I thank you so much! One of my favorites is “the Orchid Thief” by Susan Orleans. Have you read it? I gave my copy away or else I would send it to you. Stay warm!

    • February 10, 2013 4:09 pm

      Shenendoah, I think you’ll particularly enjoy Mitchell, since he gardened in your region. Thanks for recommending The Orchid Thief. I’ve never read it (although I gave it to a friend as a gift one year). Another book to go on my list.

  5. February 4, 2013 8:58 pm

    It sounds like I would really enjoy these essays as I was laughing while reading the excerps. Now if I could just finish the 10 other books on my nightstand….

    • February 10, 2013 4:11 pm

      Carolyn, I know that problem of books piled up — in my case, on the nightstand, on the floor by my favorite chair, and on various tables and other surfaces! And part of the problem I have keeping up with new books to be read is that I keep going back to old favorites and re-reading them :-).

  6. February 9, 2013 1:31 pm

    I laughed out loud of the analogy of houseplants to the Vietnam war. I love writing that is about the act of gardening as opposed to just reference books. Will bookmark this title.

  7. February 10, 2013 3:57 am

    Ha ha ha, I love the sound of Henry! I also laughed out loud at the joke about plants being like the Vietnam war. Athough it is cold and wet here, garden centres are packing in the plants and true to form, I bought loads more than I intended yesterday and it is only February….it just goes on and on, as he says.

    Thanks Jean.

    • February 10, 2013 4:19 pm

      Marguerite and Claire, This is a great example of Henry Mitchell’s humor — and such a good description of the way houseplants can take over our lives! About 25 years ago, when I first came to Gettysburg, the wife of a colleague gave me a potted pothos as a welcome gift. Before long, the pothos needed pruning and a put the trimmings in a jar of water to root. Fast forward a few years, and I now had about half a dozen pots of pothos hanging in windows all over the house. And, of course, the more plants I had, the more I had to cut them back and the more cuttings I had. Pretty soon I was giving away potted cuttings to anyone who would take them (perhaps offering some new insight into the original gift :-)). Finally, a friend begged me to stop rooting the trimmings and just throw them in the compost (but I must admit that I find it hard to do that). It’s all too easy to see how a single houseplant can lead to a house that “resemble(s) Surinam.”

  8. February 10, 2013 1:07 pm

    Hi Jean, from the excerpts, it sounds like a wonderfully comforting a humourous book to read. I have yet to add to my (rather short) gardening bookshelf books like these as opposed to catalogues, how-to and plants dictionaries.

    • February 10, 2013 4:23 pm

      Sunil, My garden books divide roughly into equal thirds: garden reference books, garden design books, and garden memoirs and essays. The latter are often my favorites — especially during our long winters. I treat them like novels — perfect for curling up with next to the fire.

  9. February 13, 2013 6:39 am

    I’m a long-time Washingtonian, and I’ve always thought that everyone’s garden book reading should begin and end with Henry Mitchell.

    • February 19, 2013 9:21 pm

      Cindy, I should have known that you would be a Henry Mitchell fan!

  10. April 17, 2013 10:47 am

    What a lovely recommendation. I’m off on holiday next week and this sounds like an absolutely perfect read! I’m almost as excited about the book as the holiday itself haha.

  11. July 22, 2013 9:25 am

    One of the best gardening books ever! Gets hauled out over and over, read and reread. It never gets old. Thanks for sharing it with the uninitiated. I’m enjoying exploring your blog.

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