Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden
An Island Garden
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That they are out of date may only add to their charm, for they are nurturers of fantasy.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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.