In launching his series of gardening classics, Michael Pollan (himself the author of one such classic, Second Nature) explains that he has deliberately excluded reference works and strictly how-to books: “The emphasis is more along the lines of how-to-think-about-it rather than how-to-do-it.” A garden library, if it is to be at all extensive, will have a decent shelf of such volumes. They guide us through the early stages of a craze. They bully or they cajole. They transmit prejudices and enthusiasms, along with their technical know-how, such as it is.
That they are out of date may only add to their charm, for they are nurturers of fantasy. We should like, in a way, to have led something of the life that led their authors to make these observations. Here is Vita Sackville-West on the subject of the herbaceous peony:
Larger than any rose, it has something of the cabbage rose’s voluminous quality; and when it finally drops from the vase, it sheds its vast petticoats with a bump on the table, all in an intact heap, much as a rose will suddenly fall, making us look up from our book or conversation, to notice for one moment the death of what had still appeared to be a living beauty.1
You do not have to covet the tower room in Sissinghurst Castle, you do not have to be wearing jodhpurs, to feel the charm of this thought, that you might be quietly reading or in leisurely conversation, and there might be a vase of peonies nearby, and a flowerhead would fall—and you would notice it, because that’s the kind of beauty-noticing person you would be.
Here is Gertrude Jekyll in a highly influential passage on growing climbing roses into trees:
For spaces between garden and wild, for sloping banks, for broken ground, as of an old gravel pit or other excavation, for all sorts of odds and ends of unclassified places about the home grounds, the rambling and free-growing Roses seem to be offered us by a specially benevolent horticultural providence. A well-prepared hole is all they need at first. About four years after planting, if the best they can do for us is desired, they should be looked to in the way of removing old wood…. When they begin to grow freely among bushes or trees, if it is desired to lead the far-reaching growths one way rather than another, it is easily done with a long forked stick, and a very interesting and pleasant job it is. It is like painting a picture with an immensely long-handled brush, for with a fourteen-foot pole with a forked end one can guide the branches into Yew or Holly or tall Thorn very nearly into such forms of upright spring or downward swag as one pleases.2
Oh give me such a fourteen-foot pole with a forked end and let me loose on this interesting and pleasant work, so that I can catch and guide these freely waving shoots of the old climbing roses, and paint my picture with them—with upright spring! with downward swag!—in the heights of a yew tree, on one of those odds and ends of unclassified places about my home grounds.
Both Jekyll and Sackville-West were serious about their prose, and one is aware that some care has gone into the choice of words and the construction of sentences—in Jekyll’s case the result is inimitable. But many candidates for garden classic status have to be ruled out if all they offer is a somewhat steamy écriture. Others, including the two volumes by Karel Capek and Charles Dudley Warner in Pollan’s new series, interesting though they are to the collector, are really examples of humorous writing of days gone by. Those by Eleanor Perényi and Margery Fish, however, have great interest for the gardener.
Margery Fish, who published eight gardening books in the 1950s and 1960s, was, with Sackville-West and Frances Perry, one of the leading English garden writers of her day. She began late, in her forties, and We Made a Garden tells us how it happened. Horticulturally speaking it is not her most informative work, and the advice given on page 55 for the handling of Iris unguicularis is plain wrong (and contradicted by her elsewhere), but from the point of view of Pollan’s project it is both her best book and an ideal way to start the Modern Library gardening series, for what grips us is not so much the theme (the finding of a nice house in Somerset and the making of a garden from scratch) as the countermelody: How I outlived a brute of a husband and began to find myself and make sense of my garden and my life.
The original mooted title had been Gardening with Walter. A friend of mine who knew Mrs. Fish suggested that We Made a Mess of Our Marriage would have summed up the subject better. I never know, when I turn to this book, whether to be more shocked by the odiousness of Walter Fish or by the cunning artlessness of Margery’s appeal for our sympathy over what she has been through. Walter himself was news editor and later editor of the London Daily Mail. Margery had been secretary to the paper’s proprietor, Lord Northcliffe, so she knew all about living with and working for bullies. She must have been good at rolling with the punches, but when Walter was safely dead and out of the way she wrote this book.
As far as Chapter Two she retains her pose of deference (“I think Walter was very wise in being so firm with me. The only way to get jobs done is to be ruthless and definite”), but that pose is wobbling by page 20:
I cannot stress too much the importance of well-cut grass, good paths and well-trimmed hedges. With wifely stubbornness I am afraid I used to argue the point in my husband’s lifetime, resenting his oft-repeated assertion that my part of the garden—the flowers—didn’t really matter. I know now that he was right when he said that the four essentials of a good garden are….
Right, perhaps, but dead. Walter Fish is, at the time of writing, dead, and Margery, by contrast, is alive. So, to be perfectly brutal about it (as Walter would have been), it doesn’t really matter what he thought. Margery is in charge and free to develop her own style of gardening (for which she is still celebrated in England), which was all to do with flowers, and very little to do with Walter’s four essentials of “perfect lawns, paths, hedges and walls.” Walter calls Margery’s habit of tucking alpine plants into dry-stone walls “poking belly-crawlers into rat-holes,” and he will not allow her to try the same trick (one of her future signature methods) with her paths:
I should have preferred to fill our cracks with a mixture of sand and fine soil so that tiny green plants would creep along the stones but this was one of the things that Walter would not have at any price. I was allowed a very few small holes, in which I planted thymes and Dresden China daisies, and the effect was far too neat and tidy. Time has improved things and a lot of Somerset cement has become loosened, some of it helped, I admit, by a crowbar, and now I have little plants crawling in and out of nearly every crevice.
In other words, her husband died, and she went at his perfect path with a crowbar—a brutality picked up from Walter who, we learn on page 44 (and this is where we come to detest him), had methods of getting his own way:
Another of his [previous] gardeners had my sympathy, and I think there was a moral for me in the tale of his undoing. This man had one joy in life and that was to grow wonderful chrysanthemums in pots to bring into the house in the winter. According to Walter he used to stroke and fondle his chrysanthemums so much that he was neglecting the rest of the garden. Remonstrances had no effect so one day Walter took a knife and slashed off all those pampered darlings at ground level. It was by remembering this episode that I learnt to have a sense of proportion and fairness in my gardening, and not to devote too much time to things I like best at the expense of the rest of the garden.
This is what shocks me about Margery Fish: I am meek, she says, and I have learned the lesson my husband taught me. But she is by no means meek, and she is describing a husband over whom she has triumphed. She reminds me very much of characters in Agatha Christie, and there are many handy murder weapons littering this narrative (the crowbar has already been mentioned). Could she have put one of them to good use?
The kind of gardening Walter represents is associated with Agatha Christie mansions in stockbroker Tudor: freshly raked gravel which must not be sullied by weed or soil, paths edged with rope-topped tiles, geometric beds cut in lawns holding hybrid tea roses above bare earth scattered with clumps of old manure, shrubberies, bedding plants, dahlias. The Fishes are conventional. They dress every evening for dinner as a matter of course. Long gowns and satin shoes are mentioned. Even in a Somerset village, there is frosted glass in the pantry window, to shield the visitor from the unsightly vision of the maid washing the dishes.
But Walter’s style is classic Edwardian Thames Valley: wherever there is a body in the library, there will be a garden like his outside. What Margery is working toward, if only Walter will let her, is an interpretation of the cottage garden style, a style which is itself something of a representation of a fictional past, but which involves a pretty profusion of flowers, natural materials (local stone rough-hewn) for the paths, tiny plants living happily with giants, perennials given preference to annuals (or at least to the traditional bedding plants), attention paid to self-seeders, and allowance given to natural spreading habits—a garden in which not only is there no bare earth, there is no bare crack in the paths or in the all-important walls, both the boundary walls and the retaining terraces.
It is a style that goes well with plantsmanship, a word which to detractors means only a kind of one-upmanship and obscurantism (indeed a kind of snobbery, the besetting sin of the gardener), but which in its positive sense connotes a delight in diversity and a desire to explore genus and species to the fullest. Rarity and curiousness are more at a premium in the plantswoman’s garden than showiness. Colors are “subtle.” A premium is put on handsome foliage, and it is not enough (at the most rarefied heights of plantsmanship) to have an example of an interesting species—one should have a particularly fine form of that species, preferably one either collected from the wild or acquired from a celebrated plant-hunter or gardener.
This was the direction in which Margery Fish was moving, and from this and her other writings it is clear that she thought of all these plants she acquired, propagated, and distributed to visitors and friends as her “babies.” But in this book it is also clear that Walter has sensed this baby symbolism and that he resents it:
Plants are like babies, they know when an amateur is handling them. My plants knew, but I didn’t. Walter would not tolerate an unhealthy or badly grown plant and if he saw anything that wasn’t looking happy he pulled it up. Often I would go out and find a row of sick-looking plants laid out like a lot of dead rats. It became something like a game. If I knew I had an ailing child I was trying to bring round I’d do my utmost to steer him away from that spot. It didn’t often work and now I know he was right….
Of course Walter was not right. We have a picture of him, pages later, slicing the top off a Delphinium nudicaule because he thinks the buds are seed pods. He is quite unrepentant. Margery comments:
One thing I never discovered and that was whether he was deliberately trying to teach me to leave experimental gardening alone until I had learnt to grow the ordinary things properly. I assumed that these regrettable incidents were not intentional, but they may have been part of a campaign.
Yes, they were part of a campaign, and the purpose of the campaign was not to teach her to garden properly (which was not in his gift) but to prevent her from doing so and thereby leaving him behind.
When Eleanor Perényi published Green Thoughts in 1981 she was already a very experienced amateur gardener who, like Elizabeth von Arnim, the author of that somewhat unpleasant Elizabeth and Her German Garden, had tried to run the garden of her noble husband’s castle in Hungary, before the Second World War put a stop to her efforts. For a while, she tells us, the loss of that garden—it was a park in the grand old style of a jardin anglais—left her grieving and unwilling to create a replacement. Eventually she did so, on a suitably intimate scale, in Stonington, Connecticut, and she had been working at it for thirty years when she published this collection of thoughts, arranged by subject in alphabetical order.
Although some of her observations are of course a little out of date by now, the book has worn well because her attitude wears well. So, for instance, although I rather strongly disagree with her conclusions on the subject of annuals, the first item in the book, I can perfectly well see why she said what she said, when she said it. My belief is that the cultivation of annuals is the most neglected side of flower-gardening today, and that the campaign against bedding plants, won long ago (at least among people of good spirit), has lost its point. I am also under the illusion that, although this is not the way Perényi sees things in this book, I could possibly win her around to my point of view.
But then I have to recognize that what I grandly call my point of view is made up, in part, from numerous observations first read in this book a dozen or so years ago.
Michael Pollan’s subject, both in his first book and in this his third (I have not read his second, A Place of My Own, which deals with the building of some kind of shed or hut or cabin, because I feared it might be a tad too manly), is “What is an intelligent well-read fellow like me doing spending time in the garden, and, come to that, what is my proper relationship to the natural world in general?” Pollan has an appetite for fact and argument, and a light touch with the pen. He is a very good journalist in this genre, and his latest book, The Botany of Desire, published last year, offers four essays, on the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato.
The conceit, taken from popular evolutionary theory, is that plants which we think we have adapted for our use may be seen, per contra, as having manipulated us for their benefit. The apple is using man’s agency to ensure its survival and widespread distribution. “We give ourselves too much credit,” says Pollan,
in our relationship with other species. Even the power over nature that domestication supposedly represents is overstated. It takes two to perform that particular dance, after all, and plenty of plants and animals have elected to sit it out.
But he goes on to make what seems to me a surprising mistake (since after all it was he who chose to raise the subject):
Try as they might, people have never been able to domesticate the oak tree, whose highly nutritious acorns remain far too bitter for humans to eat. Evidently the oak has such a satisfactory arrangement with the squirrel—which obligingly forgets where it has buried every fourth acorn or so (admittedly, the estimate is Beatrix Potter’s)—that the tree has never needed to enter into any kind of formal arrangement with us.
But had Pollan needed a fifth subject for an essay, the “arrangement” between man and the oak tree would have been perfect for his purposes, for the oak is indeed a thoroughly domesticated, economic plant. It produces three “fruits” that I can think of. The true fruit, the acorn, was perhaps only eaten by humans in time of famine, but it was always, in Europe, eaten by pigs, and the ancient right to graze one’s pigs on acorns is called pannage or pawnage. The oak gall, or oak-apple, was the source of the ink in many an old master drawing that is now falling to pieces (the ink gradually eats the paper). The third fruit of the oak is of course the truffle, with whose spores the roots of oak and hazel can be inoculated.
Just as it is often said that every bit of the pig can be used for something (the blood for sausages, the guts for sausage-casings, and so on), so it is with the oak. If you fell an oak for its timber, the best plan is to cut from the trunk the largest pieces you are going to need, then the next largest, and so on. The smallest pieces are used to make pegs, which you will need for your oak construction since, as the carpenters are wont to say, “Oak eats iron.” (Nails are eventually corroded by the tannic acid.) The bark of the oak was used in the tanning process, and the spent bark, known in the seventeenth-century garden as “tan,” was valued as a heat provider in hotbeds (the alternative was fermenting dung). Even the oak twigs and the sweepings of the carpenter’s shop could be used to good effect in the oak-smoking of ham. To sum up: the pig eats the acorn; the oak smokes the pig; man eats the ham. That is the arrangement.
It is an arrangement that George Herbert would have attributed to providence:
Bees work for man; and yet they never bruise
Their master’s flower, but leave it, having done,
As fair as ever, and as fit to use;
So both the flower doth stay, and honey run.
Sheep eat the grass, and dung the ground for more:
Trees after bearing drop their leaves for soil:
Springs vent their stream, and by expense get store:
Clouds cool by heat, and baths by cooling boil.
Here is Herbert on the subject of the coconut:
Sometimes thou dost divide thy gifts to man,
Sometimes unite. The Indian nut alone
Is clothing, meat and trencher, drink and can,
Boat, cable, sail and needle, all in one.
Herbert means that palm fiber makes cloth, the fruit of the coconut gives food and drink, the leaf is used as a plate, the timber for boats (maybe for a raft at best), the fiber again for ropes and sails (improbable), and then comes the mysterious needle. He might mean scaffolding, or he might conceivably mean a compass point: the sight of the palm tree informs the navigator of the direction of the land. At all events what was once thought of as a complex and satisfying set of arrangements by providence is now considered under the rubric of evolution and genetic theory. Pollan draws a moral from nature, much in the tradition of Charles Dudley Warner in his My Summer in a Garden and Celia Thaxter in her Island Garden (they’ve all been reading Thoreau and Emerson), but much, much more interestingly.
I always like what Pollan writes but I don’t always agree with it:
In 1999 a freak December windstorm, more powerful than any Europeans could remember, laid waste to many of André Le Nôtre’s centuries-old plantings at Versailles, crumpling in a matter of seconds that garden’s perfect geometries—perhaps as potent an image of human mastery as we have. When I saw the pictures of the wrecked allées, the straight lines scrabbled, the painterly perspectives ruined, it occurred to me that a less emphatically ordered garden would have been better to withstand the storm’s fury and repair itself afterwards.
As it happens, I was in France the night of that storm, and took a train from Rouen to Paris the next day. Really there was no advantage in being, say, an informal clump of trees, or a patch of woodland. A storm like that has a way of seeing to everything in its path.
And there is another point about natural woodland or forest. If I were to be told in advance that a great storm was on its way, and I was given a choice either to spend the night in Versailles or to try my luck in a patch of virgin forest, I would choose Versailles any day. I would hope that the trees in the park had for the most part received the attention of tree surgeons, whereas I would know very well that those in the virgin forest had not. The effect of a typhoon on jungle is terrifying, and one is well advised to seek any sort of open ground rather than shelter under the trees. In Versailles I might perhaps be unlucky, but it would be more of a fluke if I was.
And so I do not wholeheartedly follow the homily at this point. Pollan praises the Andean potato farm, in which monoculture is eschewed in favor of a cultivation system that suits local varieties to very precise local conditions, so that the farmer is placing a great many bets—at least one, says Pollan, for every ecological niche. He goes on:
To Western eyes, the resulting farms look patchy and chaotic; the plots are discontinuous (a little of this growing here, a little of that over there), offering none of the familiar, Apollonian satisfactions of an explicitly ordered landscape. Yet the Andean potato farm represented an intricate ordering of nature that, unlike Versailles in 1999, say, or Ireland in 1845, could withstand virtually everything nature is apt to throw at it.
Are we really saying that the individual Andean terraced farm was better designed and executed than Versailles? It seems improbable, and it seems rather to overlook the careful engineering that went into the construction of the great French gardens. On the other hand, if the point is being made that the Inca potato gardens, as a system, were brilliantly designed because if disaster (blight, flood, earthquake) struck in one place, there were other terraces to turn to, this might well be true. But it would be a different point.
August 15, 2002