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Favorite Garden Books: Second Nature

December 9, 2009
Second Nature
“As most gardeners will testify, the desire to make a garden is often followed by a desire to write down your experiences there – in a notebook, or a letter to a friend who gardens, or if, like me, you make a living by words, in a book.” – Michael Pollan
One of the ways I keep connected with my gardening self during the long Maine winter is to read garden books. It’s not the books full of glossy photos that grab me. Somehow the gorgeous photos of others’ gardens don’t translate into inspiration for my own garden; for that, I need to visit gardens in person.  The garden books that inspire me are the books full of words – the collections of essays or the narratives of others’ gardening journeys. These are the books I devour during the winter months; so my winter blog posts will include periodic reviews of such books. Some of these posts will review old favorites, and others will feature books that I hope to discover this winter. (I would be happy for recommendations.)


I begin this series of posts with one of my all-time favorite garden books. Long before Michael Pollan became famous for The Botany of Desire (Random House, 2001) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Books, 2006), he published his first book, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (Dell, 1991). Since I first discovered this book in the early 1990s, I have read and re-read it many times and have given it as a gift to just about any family member or friend with an interest in gardening.

Pollan traces his own development as a gardener from his early childhood excitement at finding a watermelon growing from one of the previous summer’s discarded seeds, through the tension between his father’s resistance to any kind of gardening or outdoor work and his grandfather’s particularly obsessive form of vegetable gardening, to his own trial and error gardening at the first house he and his wife bought in Connecticut. I love his description of learning to think like a carrot; and his rueful account of his escalating war with the woodchuck (which he compares to the stages of the American war in Vietnam) will resonate for anyone who has ever struggled with unwanted four-legged visitors in the garden. I find Pollan’s sense of humor delightful, and his writing often makes me laugh aloud. Here, for example, is his account of a raccoon raid on his corn crop:

The last year I planted corn, I hadn’t harvested more than a half-dozen ears before a gang of raccoons climbed the fence one night and threw a raucous party on my tab. They toppled every single cornstalk, ruining the crop yet not even eating it all – half-chewed ears littered the garden like empties. It looked as though they’d take a bite or two from an ear, fling it over their shoulder, and then reach for another. They stomped through the beds, ripped the tops off the leeks and beets strictly for spite, and then deposited several turds – large, impudent turds – smack in the middle of my beds. Compared to the cat burglaries of deer and woodchucks, this looked like the work of the Manson family.  (p. 167)

But this book is more than just a humorous account of Pollan’s gardening experiences. He deftly weaves this narrative together with bits of horticultural history and with thought-provoking philosophical discussions. One theme that runs through the book concerns the tension between the American apotheosis of wilderness, which constructs nature and culture as opposed, and the idea of gardening, which bridges nature and culture.

Even as this book entertains me and makes me laugh, it nourishes my gardening soul and stimulates my mind.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2009 1:51 pm


    Thanks for the book recommendation, Second Nature, the excerpt was great.

    I’ve just finished reading The Gardener’s Year by Karel Capek which had me laughing out loud.

    It’s part of a series collected by Pollan with the goal of unearthing classic gardening books, the ones I’ve seen all read like wonderful stories.


  2. December 9, 2009 2:23 pm

    Hi Jean~~ This book is safely tucked within a shelf of favorites. I too read it years ago before Pollan’s other more famous works hit the market. Personally I go back and forth. I’ll prefer narrative for awhile, then glossy photos, then back again… Like you I appreciate the well-crafted written word and Pollan has it down.

    • Jean permalink*
      December 9, 2009 5:39 pm

      Grace, I think it’s a little deficiency in my brain that keeps me from looking at pictures in garden books and imagining what it would be like to be in that garden. It’s probably related to my inability to look at those little diagrams next to the knobs on the stove and turn on the right burner! 😦

  3. Nell Jean permalink
    December 9, 2009 2:39 pm

    I like garden books with words, too. Peter Loewer’s chatty manner is delightful to me as he explores the world with which I am familiar.

    Julie Moir Messervy is another winter chat favorite, as we explore both landscapes she’s designed, her mother’s own garden and various places around the world.

    So many books to read and reread!

  4. December 9, 2009 3:09 pm

    Great recommendation, Jean. I really enjoy Michael Pollan’s writing. I did not purchase The Botany of Desire, but I did see his special on PBS, which was wonderful. I am definitely going to add this book to my wish list. If you haven’t read “Our Life In Gardens” by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, I think you may enjoy it. A few illustrations, no pictures, and lots of words. They write beautifully, and there is much humor to be found as well.

    • Jean permalink*
      December 9, 2009 5:37 pm

      Lisa, Nell, and Liisa, Thanks so much for the garden book recommendations; most of these are new to me. I can see that I’m going to have to go on a serious book-buying spree after the holidays. Gee, what a hardship!

  5. Gloria Bonde permalink
    December 9, 2009 3:58 pm

    Hi Jean – thank you for such a nice post. I have read Michael Pollan, but never Second Nature – will have to pick it up – Gloria

  6. December 9, 2009 9:27 pm

    I, too enjoy Polan’s humor … and look forward to curling up with a good gardening book or two or three when the snow flies. I may have to add this book to my wish list.

  7. December 9, 2009 9:38 pm

    Jean, thank you for the recommendation, I too love garden essays. I am currently rereading Bev erley Nichols, one of my favourite writers. I will look for Michael Pollans book, I will need a lot of them to get me through the long winter to come.

  8. December 9, 2009 10:00 pm

    Hi Jean, I love to read garden books. I definitely will add this one to the list.

  9. December 10, 2009 8:31 am

    I need to read Pollans books! Thank you Jean. I should admit that I love garden books with pictures (good pictures of good gardens). I return to several favorite pictures again and again.

  10. December 11, 2009 1:23 am

    The excerpt was hilarious, I am definitely heading to the library to check out Second Nature. Thanks for the book review!

    Christine in Alaska

    • Jean permalink*
      December 11, 2009 7:11 pm

      For those who don’t already know Michael Pollan’s work (Tatyana?), it is appropriate that The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma are the books that made him famous; in each of these, he makes a very compelling case for a creative and thought-provoking thesis. The first two books, including Second Nature are a different kind of writing, more musings than polemic. But, for those who are already fans of his later work and haven’t yet read this one, you will find his later arguments in embryonic form in these musings. Enjoy!

  11. December 12, 2009 10:28 pm

    Love this book! Seems like much of what he’s talking about (try a meadow instead of a lawn) is only now becoming more mainstream.

    • Jean permalink*
      December 13, 2009 9:29 am

      Yes, he does often seem to be ahead of this time. I also love the way he explains things like our unreasoning attachment to lawn by tying them to larger themes of American history and culture.

  12. December 13, 2009 12:19 pm

    Thanks for pointing out this book – I was fascinated by “In Defense of Food”, but wasn’t aware of this book of his. But it figures that he is a gardener!

    • Jean permalink*
      December 13, 2009 7:02 pm

      Barbara, I think that Second Nature shares a certain upbeat, inspirational spirit with In Defense of Food. By the way, if you liked In Defense of Food, you might want to check out The Omnivore’s Dilemma; I think of In Defense of Food as a sequel to this book.

  13. December 24, 2009 7:56 pm

    Hi Jean,
    I love Michael Polland’s work… I do not know this book however. Thanks for the recommendation. I join Liisa in encouraging you to get Joe and Wayne’s new book. Lovely read… great advice and ideas too.

    • Jean permalink*
      December 24, 2009 9:11 pm

      Carol, Thanks for seconding Liisa’s recommendation. I usually get a bunch of bookstore gift certificates for Christmas, and I’m planning to use them to go on a garden book buying spree. This book is at the top of my list.

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