Favorite Garden Books: Our Life in Gardens
When I first announced that I would be reviewing garden books during the winter months, several readers recommended Our Life in Gardens by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) as a favorite of theirs.
This is the kind of garden book I love to have on my bedside table or beside my favorite chair, because it is meant to be dipped into and savored a little bit at a time. Our Life in Gardens is organized as a series of short essays (average length 6 pages), arranged alphabetically (from “Agapanthus” to “Xanthorrhoea Quadrangulata”).
Eck and Winterrowd are well-published garden designers and writers who have been gardening together for more than 30 years. Thus they bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to these essays. My favorite parts of Our Life in Gardens are the authors’ memories of their early gardening years. The following, for example, is their account of what happened after they fell in love with chickens at a poultry show and brought three home to their apartment on Boston’s Beacon Street (for those not familiar with the city, a pretty fancy neighborhood!):
Even then it was probably quite illegal to keep poultry in a Boston apartment. At first, we wondered how our landlord would react, and so we quickly fashioned a pen for our chickens in keeping – we felt – with the grand circumstances to which they had been elevated. It was a large cage, roughly six feet long and four feet wide, made of dark-stained wood and expanded brass wire, with a deep tray in the bottom for sweet-smelling cedar shavings. Tucked behind the Kentia palm at the sunny end of the great ballroom, it also had Chinese export-ware feed and water bowls, and was of course kept immaculately clean. Our landlord seemed, if anything, amused. We gave him some fresh-laid eggs. (p. 4)
There’s also a great deal of good solid information in this book. The very first essay, “Agapanthus,” probably saved me from the mistake of choosing this plant for my first foray into container gardening. Once I read Eck and Winterrowd’s account of what it takes to keep an agapanthus growing in a pot in a northern garden, I realized I should probably begin with something less demanding.
Like all gardeners, Eck and Winterrowd have strong opinions about plants and about garden design, and they often come across as less than tolerant of dissenting opinions. This can be irritating if you don’t happen to share their point of view. Take, for example, this passage from their essay on “Cyclamen”:
It is the cyclamen you see in supermarkets, fattened with chemicals and swathed in tinsel, fleshy, out-of-shape, and destined for a very short life on a Christmas holiday table, or as an emergency hostess gift. Often these plants are as big as a potted azalea, and in colors far from the natural range of the genus, including ice white, brassy scarlet, sugary pink, and deep purple…. In our early years as gardeners, we often brought one home at Christmas, which we generally managed to keep blooming until spring by removing spent blossoms, fertilizing regularly, and growing it in a cold sunny window. Quite cool, for no cyclamen on earth, even the overbred florist’s sort, will last for long in temperatures that exceed 60 degrees in the daytime and 10 degrees less at night. (pp. 84-5)
To understand why this irritated me, you have to know that I was reading it while seated by a cool, light-filled window ledge on which were blooming four pots of these very supermarket cyclamen, including one with (horrors!) scarlet flowers that cheer my winter days. All of these cyclamen are more than 10 years old and most are still growing in the pots they came home from the market in. They have been watered once a week, never fertilized, have endured temperatures somewhat warmer than Eck and Winterrowd say they can survive, and have been blooming reliably for more than a decade. Perhaps the authors exaggerated a bit?
I was also disappointed in Eck and Winterrowd’s treatment of invasive plants, which they discuss in an essay entitled “Rampant Plants.” Because they frame the chapter by describing an occasion on which a visitor to their garden (portrayed as ungracious and ridiculous) expressed concern about their use of invasive plants and then mount their defense against the charge, they never really address the issues that so many of us face in this area. Suppose a gardener grows a plant (for example, Japanese Knotweed) that is later found to be such a threat to native ecosystems that it is legally quarantined by the gardener’s state government; what should the gardener do? Is the ethical course to tear the plant out and destroy it? Are there techniques the gardener can use to keep the plant from propagating? Where can gardeners get information about which plants are invasive in their area? I would love to see these knowledgeable gardeners provide a serious discussion of these issues (perhaps in the next book?).
Despite some shortcomings, Our Life in Gardens is a valuable book and enjoyable reading. The combination of garden narrative and garden reference works well. The essays are well-written and engaging, while the alphabetical organization of the book makes it easy to go back and find information when you need it. When I feel ready to try growing a container of agapanthus, I’ll know just where to look for detailed instructions about how to do so successfully.