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Favorite Garden Books: Onward and Upward in the Garden

January 6, 2010

Cover image: 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.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2010 8:06 pm

    One of my favorites too Jean!

  2. January 6, 2010 8:25 pm

    A beautifully articulated and passionate post! This in and of itself is worth of pontification! Your posts are a joy to read! This is the focus of my attention this year – to create well thought out and constructed ‘ramblings’ as I have dubbed them – and thus it is fitting to have such a shining example as Katherine S White to humbly attempt to emulate! Yours is definitely a blog that shall keep the grey matter stirring this winter! Thank You!

    • Jean permalink*
      January 6, 2010 10:18 pm

      Teza, I’m blushing — but thank you. Did you notice that after several days of reading Katherine White I started using bigger words? 🙂

  3. January 6, 2010 8:29 pm

    Jean, what a wonder tribute. Now I’m wanting to read this book in additon to those already on my list. White sounds like a woman I would have loved to have known.

    • Jean permalink*
      January 6, 2010 10:23 pm

      Joene, I’m not sure how I would have done in person with a personality as strong as White’s (not to mention her chain smoking!). Later in the winter, I hope to review Two Gardeners, a book about Katherine White’s correspondence with Elizabeth Lawrence. The two women exchanged letters and plants for years and counted one another as dear friends — but the one time they actually met in person, it didn’t really work out very well.

  4. January 7, 2010 6:46 am

    Jean, I read this book many years ago, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I think I will bring it aff the book shelf and reread it. I had forgotten how wonderful it was.

  5. January 7, 2010 4:42 pm

    Jean, I read this book last summer (or most of it, before I had to return it to the library — short borrowing times being one of the downsides of choosing a book from the Best Bets shelf). It was as delightful as you say, and worth another few days of library fines at the very least. The other option would be — gasp! — to actually buy it. But by coincidence my latest blog post is all about curbing my book addiction. Rats.

  6. January 8, 2010 2:57 am

    I very much enjoyed this post. I love the garden writers of that time- they had a certain passion for both their writing craft and their gardening.

    Catalogs now have less nuance and more hype, imo, but I remember those that inspired essays worth a books coverage.

    • Jean permalink*
      January 8, 2010 10:53 am

      Ilona, I too mourn the loss of some wonderful catalogs. Two of my local nurseries used to have great catalogs. One was organized by season (but also with an alphabetical index), with lots of useful information about plant requirements, ease of cultivation, etc. and was sprinkled with quotes from garden writers. The other was a very comprehensive alphabetical listing with appendices listing plants in categories like “deer resistant plants,” “tolerates seashore locations,” etc. Neither catalog is being published anymore because they cost too much money to produce. The nurseries were losing money on them even if they charged customers for the catalogs. Most of the information is now available on the nursery websites, but it’s not the same. I still keep my heavily annotated copies of those old catalogs as valuable references, and I never go to the nursery to shop without carrying them with me.

  7. January 8, 2010 8:58 am

    She sounds a very amusing writer. Much better to have strong opinions and appear cantankerous than write in a boring uncritical style that sends the reader to sleep. A review of a seed catalogue is a new idea to me but I can see the appeal. – I write this while looking at a pile of catalogues on my desk 🙂

  8. January 8, 2010 11:04 am

    What an interesting book. I think I need to read this one. I love EB White’s books, and look forward to reading his wife’s writings.

  9. January 8, 2010 3:56 pm

    Hi Jean~~ My sister, a fellow gardener, gave me Katharine White’s book in 1979. I was young, working full time, living in an apartment–no gardening space. I didn’t see the book for the treasure it is and it went by the wayside. About ten years ago, my hunger for solid, meaty, garden writing was piqued. Among other tomes I rediscovered Ms. White’s book and quickly devoured it. How silly I was to lose my first copy. My sister has always been smarter than me. I’ve also read a few of Jamaica Kincaid’s books and enjoy her take on things. Nice post.

  10. January 8, 2010 8:06 pm

    Seed catalogues used to be my passion when I was a boy and sent all over the world for them – I must have been a bit of an odd child! But I got a great deal of information from them. Now they’re much less informative and more centred on hyping the latest varieties that give the seed houses the biggest return.

    • Jean permalink*
      January 8, 2010 10:21 pm

      Noelle and Easy Gardener, I think you might well enjoy this book.

      Twisted Willow, Katherine White is writing about the kinds of catalogues that were such a passion for you at an earlier point in your life. If you haven’t already read her book, you might find that it brings them back to life for you.

      Grace, Isn’t it nice that we can grow into books that we may not have appreciated at an earlier point in our lives. Sometimes, I get gift books that sit on my shelf unread for years; then one day, I suddenly find I am fascinated by a book that I couldn’t get interested in earlier. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed White’s book when I was in my twenties or thirties.

  11. January 9, 2010 4:16 pm

    Yet another book to add to my wish list. A gardening book that is lacking in glossy, color-saturated photos yet can still transport the reader is truly a treasure. I am also intrigued by the book “Two Gardeners,” and look forward to your review. -Liisa

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