Book Review: On Gardening, by Henry Mitchell

Once upon a time newspapers had garden writers. Such a one was Henry Mitchell, who wrote a gardening column for the Washington Post from 1973 to 1991. Mitchell was an avid gardener, but he started writing about gardens only in the latter part of his career in journalism. His love of both gardens and the English language shines through in his finely honed and entertaining columns.

On Gardening is a collection of the best of Mitchell’s garden writing. He writes about favorite plants; about the seasons and insects; about gardeners’ obsessions and their reversals.

Occasionally he sounds a bit cantankerous, as when he derides common,  “low maintenance” plants like Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ in favor of those more delicate creatures in need of a bit of pampering:

“… it is better to have rejoiced in sweet peas (which are extremely chancy beasts here) and delphiniums and tuberoses and oleanders and jasmines and much more, than to have settled for the hardiest toughest dullest plants of the Western world.”

More often, though, his is a voice of tolerance, equanimity, and wry experience. Here are a few samples:

On gardening manias: “Once a gardener has some plant he once longed for, he takes it for granted.  It is somewhat like sex – the mad excitement cannot be expected to last forever.”

On the joy of gardening in an uncertain world: “Still, as I went about my potting on a glorious afternoon, one small treasure after another, the world of nature that is so terrible and so beautiful appeared only in its sweetest aspect.”

On his personal gardening philosophy: “I well know I have neither the time nor the energy nor even the desire to have a garden that people admire. It is not for them but for me.”

On growing two large plants where there is room for only one: “Often when people see such things they think the gardener does not know how big plants get. Ha. The gardener knows quite well, but he is greedy and wants both. Greed in this case is not far from love, both of which exact a price in this world.”

On insects in the garden: “If gardeners stopped thinking of insects as enemies they would find some pleasure in them. Butterflies alone are reason to forget poison sprays … Every garden should have a weed patch of nettles, dock, thistles, and milkweed for the benefit of these epicurean beasts, and even a quite small garden should have a Buddleia, as no plant attracts them better.”

Henry Mitchell

On Gardening is a pleasure to read, a fine book for anyone who loves gardens and enjoys good writing.

On Gardening, by Henry Mitchell, First Mariner Books 1999, New York, NY.

27 Comments on “Book Review: On Gardening, by Henry Mitchell

  1. Ha I love those quotes…so very true…I AM greedy! I have to admit, I’m annoyed by anyone who can dismiss a plant simply because it’s not unusual or rare…that’s the sort of myopic elitism gardening can do without.

    • I agree that just because a plant is common doesn’t make it a bad plant. I have lots of purple coneflowers and Rudbeckias, yes they are common but to me they are like the bread and wine of Midwestern gardens. As for Henry Mitchell, his disdain for ‘Goldsturm’ is atypical, his writings are generally tolerant and good natured in spirit.

  2. I have heard of Henry Mitchell but have never read his writings. His comments had me chuckling and nodding in agreement. Your post has left me wanting to read the whole book!

  3. I have one or two Henry Mitchell books, but not this one. I see I will have to add to my collection! The quotes are wonderful – I could especially relate to the ones on mania, and greed. Love his gardening philosophy, too. There is nothing better than a gardening book written by a true gardener. Thanks so much for the review, and for joining in!

  4. Sounds a good read, even if you don’t agree with all he says. I like rudbeckia and echinacea, they are wonderful for the butterflies, I would have thought he would like them for that alone. He sounds a bit like our Christopher Lloyd who could be a bit cantankerous at times as well as being a fantastic gardener!

  5. This man shares some of my gardening sensibilities and I am sure I would love his book. I like his take no punches attitude too. To many tell you what you want to hear and not what you should hear.

    I too question his thought on Rudbeckia. My garden has quite a bit, but also has Sweet Peas and Delphinium. I guess I have to read the book to know in what context he is writing his critiques.

    • He was just decrying plants that are grown simply because they are easy. I think he is wrong headed on this, as Rudbeckia has other positives.

  6. He sounds like a gardener of my own heart, I am going to have to read this book. Funny how so many of his sayings are practical, but still maintain the fancifulness of gardening.


  7. I guess that I’ve mainly been aware of Henry Mitchell’s philosophies like his attitude towards Rudbeckia, so I haven’t read much of work. Given the quotes you’ve highlighted, I think I’ve been missing a treasure. This is book #5 I’ve added to my “Must Read” list this morning. My morning’s computer time has been dangerous today!

  8. Henry Mitchell is one of my all time favorites! I liked the older cover jacket of this book that showed him holding a cigarette in one hand. Twas a different time. Thanks for posting about This book.

  9. I had almost forgotten the glory days of gardening columns. The writing was superb. Perhaps their time has come again?

    • Actually, his writing sort of presages a lot of the good garden blogs out there now. The style and subjects are similar I think. But with the decline of newspapers it’s hard to imagine a resurgence in garden columnists.

  10. I have read this book by Henry Mitchell and it is one of my favorite gardening books. I love to read books by avid gardeners. I have always wanted to read another of his books, ‘The Essential Earthman’, but it is not available at the library. I think I just might buy it! Thanks for reviewing this book!

  11. I like some of those quotes! I find the cover art very amusing as I don’t know how many pairs of gardening gloves I have but I’m usually given a set for Christmas. Most of them have a hole in the finger, just like in the picture.

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