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.”
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.