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Favorite Garden Books: Our Life in Gardens

February 13, 2010

Cover - 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.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. Barry permalink
    February 13, 2010 8:58 pm

    Interesting to hear of the longevity of your Cyclamen. Some time ago I read in a British garden magazine the results of a write in survey on the long life of Cyclamen , and someone was able to document that theirs was ( I think I remember correctly) 50 years old.

  2. February 13, 2010 11:04 pm

    This sounds like an interesting and informative book. Thanks for your excellent review.

  3. February 14, 2010 5:43 am

    Dear Jean, I have been collecting gardening books over a long period and have never come across this one until now.

    I have much enjoyed reading your comprehensive review and have delighted too in the extracts you have chosen to illustrate your comments. I feel that I should be completely at one with these authors and intend to pursue them in local second hand bookshops.

    Thank you so much for this introduction. I shall look forward to your next ‘good read’.

  4. February 14, 2010 10:04 am


    How delightful it is to have a private reviewer of books at our disposal! Your selections are like the rare and choice gems that I choose to cultivate, and this looks like it might well be my next foray… well, after I finish ‘The Brother Gardeners,’ which will be right after the one I am currently reading! Cyclamen – tried three years running and I don’t usually get a month out of them. How disappointing.

    As for knotweed – oh dear, I believe Persicaria is included beneath this canopy and I could and would never part with it for the life of me. If we are responsible gardeners and educate ourselves prior to purchasing our plants, it should not be a problem. Alas, nly my two cents worth on a very touchy subject. A wonderful post Jean!

  5. gardenerprogress permalink
    February 14, 2010 12:42 pm

    This sounds like an interesting book. Anything I can pick up and read here and there is perfect since I rarely have uninterrupted reading time.

    • Jean permalink*
      February 14, 2010 11:15 pm

      Barry, I remember seeing something about this, too; but I have no idea where. Many of my houseplants are long-lived (either that or they die almost immediately, since I’m a somewhat neglectful houseplant gardener :-~). I have a peperomia that is at least 25 years old and may be more than 30, and a rubber plant of similar age.

      Deb, Edith, and Teza, I hope you enjoy this book.

      Catherine, It is a perfect sort of book for those — like mothers of young children — who have to snatch leisure time in little bits.

      Teza, The Japanese knotweed that’s a serious problem in the northeast US is Polygonum cuspidatum. Like purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), masses of it in bloom can be breathtakingly beautiful but are responsible for the rapid destruction of native ecosystems.

  6. February 15, 2010 6:32 am

    Seems to be a worth buying book. Bottom down your post on Kew gardens UK is very impressive, i loved the blooms.

  7. February 15, 2010 7:55 pm

    Hi Jean – I have been devouring a bunch of garden books lately, some good, some not so good. Its nice to have some that are personally recommended.

  8. February 15, 2010 8:51 pm

    Jean, This a very well rounded beautifully written review! I enjoyed reading J&W’s tales … but you are right about the invasives … it is a very serious problem and as gardeners we should be diligent. Lovely post! Carol

  9. February 16, 2010 5:27 am

    I am so happy you enjoyed this book. I loved the humor in the section about the chicken show, and enjoyed learning of how their garden in Vermont came to be. They have a lovely style of writing – though I understand what you mean about its shortcomings. There were some sections that I wished for more information, such as invasives and vegetable gardening. A wonderfully written review.

  10. February 16, 2010 11:57 am

    What a thoughtful review, Jean. I enjoyed reading it. I have had the very same cyclamen although, mine didn’t survive a full year. I want to try them again and wouldn’t let these authors’ opinions get in my way. I will take from this, and your review, that I probably shouldn’t place them outside on my screened in porch here in VA. That extra heat, though it was shaded, probably didn’t help. ALso, the thoughts on invasives is a tough one. I agree, it would be better for ‘suggestions’ rather than just opinions. But the topic in general is becoming such a nagging one…what to do? Remove, or prune? We have to consider the birds take seed with them…It’s all a dilemma, isn’t it?! But I enjoyed your review, and it sounds fairly straight forward and easy to navigate with short chapters and good organization;-)

    • Jean permalink*
      February 16, 2010 2:58 pm

      Jess, My winter gardening reading has included both some books I loved and some that were a disappointment. It does help that I know what kinds of books I like. I am not much interested in how-to books or in lots of big glossy photos of gardens; my loves are garden narratives and big comprehensive reference books. The ones I’ve been reviewing in this series all fall in the garden narrative category.

      Muhammad, I guess that means that whether or not this book would be worth purchasing for you depends on what you are looking for. I don’t think much in here would be directly relevant to your garden since these authors are gardening in Vermont, a cold northern US climate. But if you like reading tales of gardeners’ experiences even if they’re not growing plants that you could grow, then this book would be a good choice.

      Carol and Liisa, Thank you both for recommending this book to me. I don’t think I ever would have come across it on my own, and that would have been my loss.

      Jan, I think my cyclamen have survived this long in part because I take them to Maine with me in the summer. If you’ve got an indoor spot for them that is light-filled but cool, that would probably work best. When I’m in Gettysburg, I keep them on a north-facing window ledge and water them a little more often if they start to wilt.

      Carol, Liisa, and Jan, I think the question of invasive plants is a big dilemma for so many of us. I would love to see someone knowledgeable write a serious treatise on this subject, including an exploration of the ethical dilemmas (e.g., feeding birds vs. stopping propagation), serious suggestions for how to handle various types of invasives, and a list of resources for learning more.

  11. February 16, 2010 5:53 pm

    Hi, Jean! What a wonderful review you’ve written. Now I’m planning to go back and see if you’ve written any others.

    I had to laugh about the cyclamen being delicate and not surviving. My ex-husband gave me a lovely bright pink one during our marriage, and I kept wishing it would just die during our divorce — yet I found myself incapable of throwing it out. All I did was water it, and that not too enthusiastically, and it survived and bloomed quite reliably for me every winter for over a decade thereafter — despite my ambivalence toward it.

    I’ve never bought one since, although I quite admire the form of the blossom. 😉

  12. February 17, 2010 12:46 am

    Jean, I appreciate your views on this book. Opinionated and occasionally wrong or wrongheaded often makes for interesting and amusing reading. And as long as you don’t accept what’s on the printed page as the absolute truth it works out. As far as agapanthus being difficult, it must be a regional thing. I’m warm enough so that it grows almost wherever you drop it. Truly a rampant plant.

    • Jean permalink*
      February 17, 2010 9:00 am

      Meredith, LOL, I have an ex-husband so I appreciated the story of the cyclamen that refused to die. I assume you could take care of it using a variant on Jodi’s advice for dealing with the leftover Christmas pointsettia — in this case, put it out on the deck to bask in the sun for the months of July and August. I’m beginning to wonder if Eck and Winterrowd couldn’t keep theirs alive because they killed them with kindness!

      James, Yes, I agree; the key is to enjoy others’ opinions without necessarily adopting them. Regarding the agapanthus, I gather that it’s rampant growth habit is precisely the problem for growing it in a container in a region where it is not winter hardy. Apparently, in order to keep it in a pot small enough to be moved seasonally, you need to yank it out of the pot for a severe root pruning every couple of years.

  13. February 20, 2010 7:23 am

    Oh dear,

    what a nifty blog. Drat! (slow reader). The latitude post brought me – through google alerts – and the more pages I visit the more I want to see and the farther I get from meeting a pressing deadline.

    Did want to say hello, though, and thanks. Between the Amaryllis and Our Life in Gardens a big dose of how wavelength trumps latitude.

    • Jean permalink*
      February 20, 2010 10:38 am

      Leslie, How delightful to have you visit my blog (and also to learn about yours). Another way that we are on the same wavelength is in being slow readers; I don’t even want to think about how negligent about deadlines in other parts of my life I’ve become since I started blogging and reading garden blogs!

  14. February 20, 2010 5:18 pm

    Will have to look out for this one Jean. I always like to have a book for dipping in and out of on the go. I read their ‘A Year At North Hill’ a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.

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