B. B. Mackey Books

Book Reviews by Betty Mackey

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A Gardener's Bookshelf

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 bygone days.

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 inspiring.


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 words.

"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 meadows.

"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 conclusion-drawing.

"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 cultivating."

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.