I like it when different parts of my life converge, even in small ways. Since spring finally arrived, I have, of course, been busy in the gardens and the beeyard, and I’ve let the house go. (If you are curious what I’ve been doing in the gardens, check out my other blog, What’s the Buzz.) But one cool and cloudy day I decided to pick up where I’d left off with my decluttering project, and I found to my delight that the next shelf of books contains mostly garden books. It was like reconnecting with old friends. Most of the books were published in the 1990s, but a few were published in the mid 1970s. These I remember having had when I first left home and was trying to grow my own vegetable gardens.
One year, not long after graduating from college, we rented a large garden plot—about 25 x 50 feet, as I recall—where I grew tomatoes, green beans, corn, cucumbers, watermelons, and squash, space-hungry plants I couldn’t grow at the apartment where we lived. That first garden must have been fairly successful, because about that time I also bought a pressure canner and other canning supplies. I vaguely remember feelings of pride as I looked at a pantry shelf filled with colorful jars of tomatoes, bread and butter pickles, and green beans.
I liked canning vegetables because it reminded me of my paternal grandmother, who lived in the foothills of Appalachia and who regularly put up hundreds of jars of green beans and tomatoes in the summertime. Even when she lived in town and ran a restaurant or worked at her husband’s grocery store, she would still put up vegetables, buying them fresh at the farmers market during the summer and canning them for the winter. Gardening makes me feel connected with something important, a whole way of living that could too easily be lost if we don’t pay attention. My maternal grandfather was also an avid gardener, who taught economics during the school year and then had his summers off to garden. When I go back to my hometown these days and look at the parking lot that once held his house and gardens and fruit trees, not to mention my swing set and sand box, the space seems unbelievably small compared to the lush gardens I remember once occupied this land.
On this shelf of garden books, there is a noticeable absence of books published during the 1980s, the years when I was raising young children and going to graduate school and teaching part-time. During those years, the best I could do was plant a few bulbs in front of the porch in the fall and then, after the tulips had bloomed and faded, sow cosmos or zinnia seeds in the same place, which would bloom until frost. We did rent a community garden space through the city parks department for a couple of years during that time, and my sons got to share my amazement at how such small seeds can grow into such large plants, and I got to tell them a few stories about their great grandparents, but the community plots did not have a ready source of water, the summers were often hot and dry, and the swings and slides at the nearby playground beckoned.
You could probably guess by the number of gardening books from the 1990s that we bought our house in 1989. Although it was not the small farm I dreamed of owning someday, I finally had a piece of land where I could grow something besides annuals and a few bulbs. Still, a traditional single-row vegetable garden was out of the question, as the back yard was wooded and the front yard was partly shaded by a Bradford pear and the neighbor’s huge sycamore tree. Furthermore, the soil was typical construction fill and heavy clay, with little topsoil. I decided to start by growing native perennials and herbs, especially those that do well in poor to average soil and don’t need constant pampering, as my children were still young.
The books collected from this time period include general gardening reference books that covered everything from designing your garden to planting and maintaining to solving common problems. Some of these reference books are arranged topically, some alphabetically, and some by seasons. There are several books focusing specifically on herbs; of these my favorite is The Country Diary Herbal by Sarah Hollis, which includes delicate watercolor illustrations that remind me of old botanical books and paintings.
Not having given up completely on my dream of someday owning a larger piece of property, I also have a book on solar gardening and one called Country Life: A Handbook for Realists and Dreamers by Paul Heiney, published by DK, which has numerous photos on home farming and includes sections on fencing, farm machinery, animal husbandry, orchards, harvesting, and processing foods. The shelf also holds several books on native landscaping. These books show how to use nature’s designs to plan your yard, and they are typically organized by growing conditions (e.g., the sunny garden, the dry sunny garden, the moist sunny garden, the shady garden) or by regions (e.g., Eastern woodland, alpine desert, California native garden) or by themes (e.g., Japanese stroll garden, bird and butterfly garden, scent garden). Some include charts that show what month each plant blooms; others include charts arranged by color of bloom. They almost always address ways to attract wildlife to the garden (meaning, apparently, birds and butterflies, not groundhogs and deer) and sometimes draw a connection between gardening and spirituality, as is most apparent in Cultivating Sacred Space: Gardening for the Soul by Elizabeth Murray.
But the books that really capture my imagination are literary reflections on gardening, two of which I rediscovered on my shelf. One is called Second Nature by Michael Pollan, which I had been meaning to reread, especially for what he has to say in his chapter “Weeds Are Us.” The other is An Island Garden, which is a reproduction of a book first published in 1894, illustrated with Impressionist paintings by Childe Hassam. The cloth binding is decorated with gold leaf in the Art Nouveau style that was common in the late nineteenth century, and the text brings back the joy and wonder I felt as a child wandering through my grandfather’s vegetable patch or picking flowers from his cutting beds or climbing up into the fruit trees to read. The author of this book, which I bought many years ago, is Celia Thaxter. Who knew I would eventually meet and marry a man named Thaxter? Perhaps someday we will make a trip to see her island garden ourselves.