Favorite Garden Books: Onward and Upward in the Garden
In March 1958, The New Yorker magazine published in its “Books” section an essay by long-time New Yorker editor Katherine S. White with the sub-heading “Onward and Upward in the Garden.” White’s essay was a review of plant and seed catalogs, and it was such a hit that it became the first of 14 such essays written by White between 1958 and 1970. Katherine White hoped to pull all these essays together into a book, with an additional new chapter on the gardens of her childhood, but she was not able to complete this project before her death in 1977. Her husband, E.B. White, brought out the edited collection after her death under the title Onward and Upward in the Garden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1979), and his introduction provides a delightful portrait of Katherine the gardener and Katherine the writer. When Farrar, Straus, and Giroux reprinted the volume in 1997, they added an afterward by Jamaica Kincaid. A paperback edition brought out by Beacon Press in 2002 is still in print, readily available, and well worth reading.
When Katherine S. White reviewed plant and seed catalogs, she approached them on several levels. She read them, as an editor and writer, as written texts, commenting on style of writing, quality of typeface and illustrations, and usefulness of information. She also read them as a gardener, noting the variety and quality of plants and seeds available. In addition, she read them as expressions of the values and goals of plant breeders – values and goals with which she often took exception. Along the way, White related all this to her own gardening experiences. White’s response when Amos Pettingill of White Flower Farm pleaded for customers to get their orders in early will resonate for those who are always resolving to place seed orders earlier next year:
The early order is not as easy for a gardener as Mr. Pettingill assumes. As I write, snow is falling outside my Maine window, and indoors all around me half a hundred garden catalogues are in bloom. I am an addict of this form of literature…. I read for news, for driblets of knowledge, for aesthetic pleasure, and at the same time I am planning the future, and so I read in a dream. Yet the present is naggingly with me, for I am in a state of torturing indecision. Will I, for example, have space in a south window next winter for a pot of Mr. J.N Giridlian’s ‘novelty of the year,’ Habenaria radiata, the Egret Flower, which this grower of rare bulbs is presenting for the first time in this country? Or should I make my new venture of growing an exotic plant one of Mr. Cecil Houdyshel’s group of Haemanthus, the blood lilies of South Africa, ‘so rare that few have seen them’? Whichever I choose, it should be started now…. What I really must figure out at once, before others snatch up all the choice roses, is which varieties to reserve as replacements for the hybrid teas that have been killed by this severe winter. Yet how can I possibly know how many will survive? Then comes the question of where, among scores of excellent nurseries, to place my rose order…. At this rate, White Flower Farm will be lucky if it gets my order by May. (pp. 21-22)
As the years progressed, White expanded the focus of her reviews to include garden books. This gave her more range to interweave her own garden experiences and reminiscences and her own opinions on a variety of subjects. Like most gardeners, Katherine White had strong opinions, and she could sometimes be quite cantankerous in expressing them. On some subjects – like the absence of information about fragrance in nursery and seed catalogs, flower breeders whose efforts destroyed the shape of flowers, and the use of abbreviated names for flowers (e.g., “glads” for gadiolus or “dels” for delphinium) – she could work herself up to a rant worthy of any 21st century blogger. Indeed, many a blogger might envy White the luxury of the space she had to excoriate the objects of her wrath at length. In her November 11, 1967 essay, she was in full spate over one of her particular pet peeves: the flower arranging rules and restrictions of “standard” flower shows under the auspices of the National Council of State Garden Clubs. The resulting diatribe (assuming you are not one of the Garden Club officials at whom it is aimed) is highly entertaining. Here is a sampling, White’s take on the themes around which standard flower shows were organized:
Several years ago, a South Carolina friend sent me some pages clipped from show programs dating back to the late fifties and early sixties. I’ve saved them, because the themes and some of their classes delight me. One show had no general theme, but one of its classes in “artistic arrangement” had … these sub-classes: (a) The Statue of Liberty, (b) The Fourth of July, (c) Athens, Ga., 1891, The First Garden Club, (d) The Free Press, (e) The Declaration of Independence. Challenging, any way you look at it. I have pondered and pondered and haven’t been able to decide what flowers I would choose to represent the Free Press. The Declaration of Independence would be easier: an arrangement of Bugle Weed or Achillea-the-Pearl or any of a number of other rebellious, takeover plants that submit poorly to control in a border would do very well. (p. 284)
As Jamaica Kincaid points out in her afterward, despite the fact that some of them were written more than half a century ago, White’s essays remain fresh and informative. They are beautifully written, and they provide a window on the world of nurseries and seed companies, garden catalogs and garden books from the point of view of a passionate gardener.