Favorite Garden Books: Time and the Gardener
Recently, I was looking for some pleasure reading that could be enjoyed in short snatches and found myself drawn to re-read Time and the Gardener: Writings on a Lifelong Passion by Elisabeth Sheldon (Beacon Press, 2003).
Sheldon, a garden writer, former teacher, former nursery owner, and upstate New York gardener, wrote this book as an octogenarian, culling from essays written over the course of her career. The essays are organized into three groups, each of which takes a different perspective on time. The first part of the book focuses on gardening lessons learned over time, the second part on favorite “timeless plants,” and the third on a series of biographical sketches of “Gardeners of Other Times.”
Reading Sheldon’s essays feels like spending a week visiting a friend who shares my passion for gardening and who is knowledgeable and wise without making me feel stupid. Sheldon is generous in sharing the lessons she has learned over the years, but she is also clear that she is still learning new lessons all the time. What’s more, she is quite willing to poke fun at herself. Take, for example, this passage about plant combinations in Sheldon’s garden:
Across a mat of pink pussytoes is Geranium ‘Ballerina’, whose blossoms (lilac, veined wine red) are hanging beguilingly over a clump of that best of all sedums, S. cauticola, the grey of whose rosettes is suffused with purply rose tints. If I had combined the two plants on purpose I’d be proud. (p. 49)
Or this one:
It seems to me that I am always having to recant, as I go through phases of hating, then loving, certain plants or categories of plants. For years I’ve disliked trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals with purple foliage, and now their aspect fills me with admiration and a fierce desire to possess them. (p. 170)
Sheldon is not intent on presenting either herself or her garden as perfect. Similarly, her biographical sketches of other gardeners include both their exceptional talents and their human faults and foibles. She tells us not only about Gertrude Jekyll’s extraordinary talents, but that her nieces and nephews called her “Auntie Bumps.” In reading Sheldon’s sketch of Jane Webb Loudon, you can feel both her admiration for all her subject accomplished and her exasperation with the heedless selfishness of Loudon’s husband. While she admires Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s sharp-tongued wit, she also wonders if her later years might have been both easier and richer if she had made a friend rather than an enemy of her horticultural son-in-law.
I find Sheldon’s enthusiasms infectious. Before reading this book, I had no particular interest in having a rock garden; but as I read her essay “A New Home for Rock Plants,” I found myself wanting to try them all. I had the same reaction to the middle section of the book on her favorite plants. There was relatively little overlap between her list of favorites and my own; and yet, before I got to the end of each essay, I found myself wanting to add many of these plants to my own garden.
Elizabeth Sheldon’s “writings on a lifelong passion” leave me feeling simultaneously humbled at how much I still don’t know about garden design and plants and exhilarated at the prospect of gardening as a life-long learning project. I can only hope that, like Elisabeth Sheldon, I am still gardening and learning well into my eighties.