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Favorite Garden Books: Beautiful Madness

March 10, 2010

Beautiful Madness cover

This task has become a holy thing, a beautiful madness that consumes this learner’s soul.” – from the centuries-old log book of Brother John, an Anglican friar assigned to care for the abbey gardens, as quoted in Beautiful Madness

In February of 2004, James Dodson, golf writer and Maine gardener, was feeling discouraged. Summer drought, followed by a bitterly cold and snowless winter, had devastated his garden, and the Master Gardener course he had been looking forward to had been postponed for a year due to budget cutbacks. Dodson’s friend and gardening guru, Suzy Verrier, suggested that he create an individualized gardening course by visiting gardens and gardeners. This was the impetus for a year-long odyssey, chronicled in Beautiful Madness (Plume Books, 2007), that began with Dodson’s first visit to the Philadelphia Flower Show and culminated in a plant-hunting trip to South Africa led by nurseryman Tony Avent.

In his year of garden travels, Jim Dodson learned a great deal not only about plants and gardens, but also about gardeners. As he tells his story, he is constantly amazed by just how many garden nuts there are out there possessed by the “beautiful madness,” and also by how generous they are with their time, their contacts, their knowledge, and their plants. Suzy Verrier puts him in touch with the president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, who introduces him to two of the Philadelphia Flower Show’s exhibitors and gives him a list of gardens and gardeners he should visit while he’s in the Philadelphia area. Each person he meets connects him with others, and his itinerary keeps expanding. Horticulturalist Richard Lighty not only meets with him, but gives him the name of a student, Denise Magnani, who in turn gives him a personally guided tour of the children’s garden she designed at Winterthur. A gardener he meets at a golf event in North Carolina gives him two beautiful Hemerocallis plants and directions to the nursery of “the daylily king” near the South Carolina border. At White Flower Farm, David Smith not only shows him around the display beds and trial fields, but encourages him to travel to England for the Chelsea Flower Show and gives him the names of several Kew classmates to look up while he’s there. And when he meets Tony Avent at Plant Delights nursery, Avent invites him to join a group of horticulturalists on a trip to South Africa the following winter.

Beautiful Madness is full of delightful character portraits: the Philadelphia Flower Show’s “Botticelli of Bulbs,” Walt Fisher; Sweet Alice, an elderly gardening friend of Dodson’s mother; Massachusetts gardener, politico, and force of nature, Polly Logan; South African plant guide Cameron McMaster; and a somewhat unsavory garden show huckster who tries to sell Dodson expensive (and illegally obtained?) cycads in Philadelphia and expensive hand-made boots at Chelsea.

Part of what makes this book such engaging reading is a thread of self-deprecating humor that runs through it. Early on, for example, Dodson tells us that he likes to think of his garden at the end of a dirt road in Maine as the “Sissinghurst of the North,” but that his Scottish mother-in-law calls it “Slightly Off in the Woods.” While in North Carolina, he has the not-so-bright idea of taking Sweet Alice on an outing from her nursing home to visit her former garden, only to find that the property has become run down and derelict and the garden is gone. He tries to redeem the situation by pointing out some young redbuds in bloom, and she insists that he dig one up and take it home.

What the hell was a grown man on a field trip to try to find the secret garden roots of his boyhood supposed to do? I got out of the truck and did a quick scan of the premises to make sure the owner wasn’t merely sleeping off his date with a case of Colt 45 in the backseat of the Monte Carlo, picked up the shovel, hurried across the yard to the boundary line, and dug up that tiny neglected redbud tree in Olympic record time for hillbilly plant theft. (p. 126)

Dodson writes with a light, breezy style that makes you wish you were travelling with him and makes it easy not to notice just how much you are learning along the way. Reading it at this time of year, when winter has lost its luster and spring is still weeks away, leads me to dream about traveling south to indulge my own garden madness in beautiful blooming spring gardens.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2010 7:34 pm

    Isn’t this book amazing, it makes you want to quit work and go on an adventure.

  2. March 10, 2010 8:26 pm

    I love books like this – a great exploration that’s told in an interesting way and from a new perspective. Thanks for sharing this, Jean.

  3. March 10, 2010 11:04 pm

    Jean, it sounds like a very interesting book. I have a feeling that you could write your own book about gardening. I’ll be the first one in line to buy it. Happy spring to you!

  4. sequoiagardens permalink
    March 11, 2010 12:06 am

    Hmmm. Definitely to go on the wish list, as I’ve also ‘done the garden tour thing’ – six months in mainly the UK – and I’d love to read his observations on coming to South Africa. Esecially as I am exploring the possibility of offering private garden visits to South Africa!

  5. March 11, 2010 1:46 am

    Jean, that one is going on my list, for sure. You write excellent reviews!

    I love the passage you cited. Of course he had to go dig up the redbud. My horror at the field trip gone wrong demanded that he somehow fix it — and that from merely reading your summary.

    And I can definitely understand the urge to go south this time of year. I even had it for a while there, watching the Floridian and coastal blogs unfold their glories…

  6. March 11, 2010 7:00 am

    It sounds an interesting book. I think humour can draw the reader in and encourage more empathy with the writer. Add a few distinctive characters as a bonus and it sounds a winner.

    • Jean permalink*
      March 12, 2010 4:14 pm

      Tatyana, Jack, Meredith, and Easy Gardner, I’m glad you enjoyed the review, and I encourage you to enjoy the book; it really is a winner.

      Tatyana, I do sometimes fantasize about using some of my blog posts as the foundation some day for a book of garden essays. If it ever comes to pass, I’ll let you know!

      Meredith, Maybe my talent is more as a reviewer than as a garden writer. Of course, it’s easier to write an engaging review when you can hand-pick books that you love! I may still go south to visit some gardens, but spring is coming amazingly early here this year. Although there are still patches of snow in the north-facing parts of the garden, There are lots of green shoots coming up in the protected south-facing areas by the foundation of the house.

  7. March 11, 2010 8:46 am

    This sounds like a wonderful book, and I would love to see Dodson’s garden. I am sure it is quite a sight to see, and contains some amazing plants acquired along his journey. What I would do for even a few months spent visiting gardens around the world at my leisure. 🙂 Well, we can start with Montreal… do you have a time you would like to visit? Spring, early summer, mid-summer…?

    • Jean permalink*
      March 12, 2010 4:05 pm

      Liisa, I love the idea of visiting Dodson’s garden. If/when you get to Maine, we should try to do it. Really; he’s only about 20 miles away from me, and we ought to be able to contact him via his website. BTW, if you decide to go to Acadia National Park in late-June, you can also see the Asticou Azalea Gardens (practically within the park boundaries) when they are at their peak.

  8. thevioletfern permalink
    March 11, 2010 10:48 am

    This looks like a wonderful book and I’ll have to add it to my wish list. Who knows what will transpire after reading it? Thanks Jean and happy day!

  9. March 11, 2010 11:12 am

    Dear Jean, One is always on the look out to add to one’s library of garden books and your review of James Dodson’s ‘Beautiful Madness’ has inspired me to place an order with my bookseller. Not only is the title so very imaginative, and appealing, but the way in which you describe him as self deprecating suggests someone one will be instantly at home with.

    I have just noticed that today is your birthday. I send you my warmest wishes for a happy day with many happy returns.

  10. March 11, 2010 12:05 pm

    I am sure that I would love this book. Traveling, meeting other gardeners, viewing other gardens, sharing notes…my idea of heaven :^)

  11. March 12, 2010 9:38 am

    Thanks Jean, that was a great review and adds another book to my ‘must read’ book. If I ever get enough time to write my own, I’ll make sure you get a review copy!!!

  12. March 12, 2010 12:24 pm

    This sounds like a really great read. I love reading about other gardeners and their stories of how they became the type of gardener they are. I love the story of the Redbud tree! 🙂

    • Jean permalink*
      March 12, 2010 4:22 pm

      IG, I would like nothing more than the opportunity to review a book of your garden memoirs, so I hope that you are at least semi-seriously considering writing one!

      Catherine, The story of the redbud tree is actually much better in the book. I really couldn’t do justice in a short description and extract to the complications and nuances of the situation.

  13. March 12, 2010 8:19 pm

    You really do some well thought out book reviews. I’m adding this one to my list. I am trying to do the 100+ reading challenge this year, so the more good recommendations I can get the better.

    • Jean permalink*
      March 14, 2010 10:37 pm

      Wow! More than 100 books in a year is an ambitious challenge. I basically read for a living and I’m not sure I read many more than that. But I do love garden memoirs as quick pleasure reads. Happy reading!

      • April 25, 2010 10:32 pm

        Jean – I just finished this. Loved it. Thank you!

        • Jean permalink*
          April 27, 2010 3:04 pm

          Jess, I’m pleased that you enjoyed this; I’m always happy to contribute to your completing your book challenge. (Is it 100 books in a year?) Are you a Barbara Kingsolver fan? I loved Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and I’ve just finished reading her new novel, The Lacuna, which I found riveting.

  14. March 12, 2010 10:46 pm

    Yes, I loved this book as well. Such a fun read – each chapter was a new adventure. But I decided that I’m much too wimpy for a plant hunting expedition after reading about theirs. Better to read about it from the comfort of my plush couch!

    • Jean permalink*
      March 14, 2010 10:36 pm

      I don’t know if I would be up for the plant hunting expedition; it’s been more than 10 years since I did any really serious hiking, and I’d definitely have to train for it. I think I just want to emulate the going south to visit gardens in warmer climates part of Dodson’s adventure.

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