Favorite Garden Books: One Man’s Garden
During 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).