The more I garden, the more I enjoy
garden books that don't tell me what to do or how to do it. It's not
that I know all about the subject, more that I get plenty of advice
(belonging to a large family as I do) on various matters as it is. So
in winter, my more practical side enjoys seed and plant catalogs,
planning the coming garden and its future winning ways (dream on). But
for reading satisfaction, give me books expressing a unique philosophy
or way of gardening, even when the authors' ideas differ wildly from my
own. These are books I can settle in with when the real garden freezes
over and the imaginary garden rules. Here are some of my old favorites.
Perhaps you too would like to step into some other gardeners' boots and
look around, preferably from a cozy vantage point. If you incidentally
learn some useful gardening techniques as you read, please excuse me.
A Child's Garden: Enchanting Outdoor Spaces for Children and Parents
Enchanting is the right word for Molly Dannenmaier's richly illustrated book, A Child's Garden: Enchanting Outdoor Spaces for Children and Parents (Simon & Schuster, hardcover, $35.00).The author, a mother and the former children's editor of Garden Design magazine, has depicted a wonderful bevy of real children in their outdoor garden spaces. Now, you don't have to be a parent or grandparent to enjoy this book. If you ever were a child, it will bring back that sensual feeling of being small and at one with nature, whether running in an open field, finding treasure in a pumpkin patch, snuggling into a nest of vines, digging in the earth, holding a wriggling earthworm, perching high in a treehouse, or having tea in a playhouse.
In her book, Dannenmaier expresses a distinct philosophy about how children play. She wrote it, she says, because there was so little in print about gardens that are intended to stimulate children's activities and investigations into nature. As she says, "most available children's garden books focused either on simple agricultural science -- how to plant a vegetable patch -- or on architectural construction techniques -- how to build a backyard fort. None offered both insight into the psychology of children's outdoor play and inspiring photographic examples of true children's gardens.A Child's Garden is an attempt to fill this void. It looks at what children really do when they step outside, unlike what we adults think they do (or wish they would do)."
She divides the book into sections called "home territories (including history of children's gardens); how children really play; creatures; refuges; dirt; heights; movement; make-believe; nurture; and learning." She also lists the addresses of the designers featured and provides an unusual list of diverse suppliers.
In this book you will find the
answers to the questions she poses: "How important are the old
childhood pleasures of collecting seed pods, fishing in ditches, making
bowers, picking flowers, and climbing trees? What should yards have
that will be of value to children?" She points out that children need
to move in and interact with their landscape, while adults seek
attractive gardens with spaces for dining or contemplation. She then
offers about sixty family environments that satisfy all age groups.
Just one of the many examples is the "sandscape," her alternative to
the intrusive looking plastic turtle sandbox. Instead, the child's play
area, complete with toy tractors, is a pathlike stretch deeply paved
with sand, adjacent to a terrace with seating for the adults, and
winding through an attractive jungle-like garden bed.
Other designs provide for a fake mountain and waterfall (on a
quarter acre plot in town); a deck with a children's slide built into
it; a small garden pool with a sandy "beach;" a little gravel-paved
hideaway under a bush; an array of bewitching tree homes; a paved area
with built-in bronze "dance chimes" that look like tiles; various
mazes, circles, and crazy paving; fruitful gardens; pickable flowers;
and imaginative, touchable, climbable garden sculptures.
Shaker Medicinal Herbs
Informative is the word for another handsome, illustrated book with an unusual viewpoint, Amy Bess Miller's Shaker Medicinal Herbs (1998,
Storey Books, hardcover, $35.00). We are pretty familiar with Shaker
style and craftsmanship, which are greatly admired in furniture design.
But it was news to me that this primarily Nineteenth Century celibate
religious group made a fortune by collecting, growing, and selling
herbs, including both native and non-native types. The group also made
and sold household goods (brooms and spinning wheels), dairy products,
and packets of seeds. The Shakers came to be important participants in
the trade of patent medicines and elixirs of all types, including
notoriously narcotic ones. Well, there was a lot of pain in those
The Shaker sect originated in Manchester, England in the 1760's and
was brought to New York by Ann Lees and her seven followers in 1774.
They sought a healthier and happier life in the New World. Large sites
for farming were then easily available. As the group grew (by taking in
new members and orphaned children) they established profitable and
orderly farms. Their own careful records provide the basis for much of
what we know today about their activities. During the 1800's the sect
grew to include many large communities in various states, several of
which concentrated on trade in herbs, and all of which aimed for
health, simple and devout living, communal labor and sharing, and self
sufficiency. However there remains only one very small Shaker community
still active, Sabbathday Lake in Maine.
The author grew up near the Canterbury and Hancock Shaker Villages,
which were then active, eventually serving as President of the Board of
Trustees at Hancock Shaker Village for more than thirty years. An
expert on Shaker herbs and cooking, she has filled her book with Shaker
history plus specific and amazing lore from these careful observers of
nature. The evocative illustrations include drawings and photographs of
Shaker farming communities, labels and bottles from their Nineteenth
Century nostrums and elixirs, and their own graceful botanical drawings.
The last third of the book is an alphabetical herbal compendium,
preserving the Shaker's views or findings about the attributes and
medicinal properties of several hundred herbs that they used or sold.
Each entry includes a detailed line drawing. A strong warning and
disclaimer accompanies this section, as some of these botanicals can be
dangerous or fatal if used in an experimental manner. But it is safe to
read this and be fascinated. This book is not written in a showy manner
and, despite the colorful illustrations throughout, is somewhat
scholarly. But it brings forth lively images of a forgotten style of
"simple life," one that was actually rich, beautiful, complex, and
Hardie Newton's Celebration of Flowers
Self-discovery is an apt term for this book. It was summer when, looking for flower arranging information, I picked up Hardie Newton's Celebration of Flowers
(Storey Publishing, hardcover, $27.95). But that is only a fraction of
what I found as (figuratively speaking) I stepped into the author's
home and life in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Until several
years ago, Hardie Newton lived and worked at her floral design business
in metropolitan Washington, D.C., not in the mountains. Her work has
been commissioned for the National Geographic Society, Airlie House,
Montpelier, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and she is a member of the
Altar Guild of the Washington National Cathedral.
Newly single, she was in her fifties.
She relates, "In the cold of a January morning, I awakened to a booming
voice that said, 'I am going to sell this house and move to the
country!' Though I knew full well the voice was my own, I sat bolt
upright in bed, peering into the darkness for some oracle to verify the
"Having no idea exactly where I would
go or, in fact, what such a move would entail, seemed no obstacle
whatsoever. I had forever dreamed of countrysides crossed by streambeds
located in mountainous terrain with towering shade trees and open
"Friends argued that I would be lonely, but their fears were my
desire. Being alone was not a consideration. I was already alone."
That very weekend, Newton was searching the mountains with a real
estate agent, and in a remarkably short time had found the ideal spot
and designed and built the house where she lives now; a home that is
actually built into one of the foothills of the Blue Ridge and that
has, instead of windows, 29 glass doors that open to the outside world.
There, Newton holds workshops and classes in freeform floral
arranging for children and adults, sharing her floral design expertise
as well as her example of living within nature in ways that resemble
her childhood days in the mountains of Tennessee. Her book offers much
the same experience, plus professional tips and advice on the tools and
techniques of the floral arranging trade. It ends with a gallery
picturing and describing forty of her favorite blossoms for arranging.
How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back
There is no one word to describe my all-time favorite garden book, How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back,
written by the inimitable Ruth Stout in 1952, and published in many
editions and printings. My old paperback copy is dated 1972 and is
priced at $1.45. And I recently found a hardcover first edition Ruth
Stout is the sister of famous mystery writer Rex Stout, but these days
her books may well outsell his. Unselfconsciously brimming with energy,
humor, and charm, she happily tells how she grows food and flowers on a
55 acre farm, first working herself practically into the hospital with
her energetic digging and weeding, and later inventing the no- work,
incredibly rewarding mulching method. But the method is so easy that 90
percent of the book is story telling.
She opens with mutterings at what other garden writers had written, which she suspects has nothing to do with reality.
"My ambition," she says, "is to write this book without a single
statement which can be muttered at. I will try to accomplish this by
relating my own experiences, letting the reader do the
"This does not mean, however, that my mind isn't crowded with
opinions and convictions. It is. For instance, eleven years ago I put
into practice a revolutionary method of gardening, and if I were put in
charge of the world I would make it compulsory for every gardener to
give it a three-year trial. After three years I don't think anyone
would go back to the old, cumbersome procedure. If someone did, if
someone deliberately chose to work ten times as long and hard as he
needed, chose to spend more money and have more headaches than
necessary with less satisfactory results, I wouldn't interfere. I doubt
if there would be enough of them in the whole world to fill a medium
sized mental institution."
Born in Kansas, she was a confirmed New Yorker when she married Fred
at age 45, in the June of 1929. They were weekending with friends in
then-rural Connecticut. One thing led to another and by 2:00 PM the
first day they had agreed to buy a huge, run-down farm. She became so
busy trying to take care of it that she took no time for acquiring
knowledge about it. She has a lot of fun recounting her many early
mistakes and few unexpected successes.
Fourteen years later, her results were still mixed but she talked
only of gardening. She says, "As Fred put it, Ruth may not have a green
thumb, but she has a green tongue."
But now comes the change to no-dig, all-over mulch gardening. She
has begun to cover the garden with a six to eight inch layer of spoiled
hay. At this point she says, "When the farmers around here take leave
of you their parting words are almost never 'Goodby' or 'So Long,' but
'Take it easy.' Several years passed before I learned to follow this
sensible advice; I hope you will be more open to it than I was."
Now a confirmed mulcher, she crows, "I wouldn't be afraid to
broadcast dandelion seeds all over my garden. The poor things would die
of old age before they had a chance to reproduce their kind."
Year by year the ground becomes richer and fluffier, and Stout's
vegetables are sensational. "I simply spread mulch where I want the
compost to be eventually. It rots and becomes rich dirt, with the
valuable by-products of keeping down weeds, keeping the earth soft,
holding moisture and eliminating plowing and spading, hoeing and
Well, the mulch method is popular today, no longer a radical
breakthrough, but Ruth Stout's book is just as fresh and amazing as
ever, seamlessly bringing her friends, family, neighbors, and rural
surroundings into the reader's own interior life, where they amiably
stay for a very long time.
Great Garden Formulas: The Ultimate Book of Mix-It-Yourself Concoctions for Your Garden. Joan Benjamin and Deborah L Martin, Editors. Rodale Press, hardcover, $27.95. Here
are hundreds of special formulas for organic living, collected from
many home and garden experts and writers (including me, page 69 with my
"earthworm playground" next to the compost pile). This book is full of
fun tips on the following topics: compost , fertilizer, soil
improvement and soil mixes, pest control, disease control, weed
control, birds, butterflies and beneficial insects, herbs for cooking
and crafts, salves, balms, and home remedies, yard and garden design,
and recommended reading.
Deer Proofing Your Yard and Garden. Rhonda Massingham Hart. Storey Publishing, paperback, $12.95 (and worth every penny). Imagine,
a whole book devoted to telling you how to keep deer away from your
garden, and which plants to use to discourage their predations. Hart
(is that her real name?) also covers the deer's lifestyle and habits,
landscape features that deter them, sounds, smells, and sights that
deer find offensive, fencing tips, and community efforts to manage deer
population. It you have the fortitude, you can even make the author's
mixture of blenderized garlic, water, and eggs, let it ferment for
several days until the smell ripens fully, and then apply it generously
over the more vulnerable parts of your garden. You'll be glad you did.