Saturday, October 31, 2009

BOTD: Growing Pains: Time And Change In The Garden, by Patricia Thorpe

When I pulled this favorite book off the shelf, the flap of the dust jacket was inserted near the middle of the book, serving as a bookmark where I stopped reading it the last time I picked it up.

That's appropriate, because while this is a favorite book, I keep it and re-read it for the first few chapters, seldom consulting the second half.

Those first chapters are a wonderful take on an interesting, exasperating, sometimes funny, and seldom-discussed subject: The aging, and particularly the overcrowded, garden. The names of the first four chapters describe the theme pretty well:

Chapter 1: Discovering the Midlife Crisis in your Garden
Chapter 2: Too Much
Chapter 3: Too Little
Chapter 4: Sins of Omission

I love these chapters.

The lead-in discusses recent history in garden fashions, and how that's led to a frequent, specific set of problems in modern gardens. It also discusses, more generally, garden decisions and their impact after a few years of gardening. It offers advice that looks simple, but is really seldom seen, perhaps because it's too obvious to experienced gardeners.

For example,

"All gardens, even those of experienced horticulturists, need serious reassessment and replanting every seven to ten years. The knowledgeable plantsman accepts this as a matter of course; the beginner discovers this in the course of a nervous breakdown."

How often does a garden writer offer this essential piece of advice? Gardening is often seen as a straight-line process - plan, plant, maybe correct a few problems, and grow in maturity and beauty. The fact that it's really a constant process of experimenting, re-evaluation, and successes that then proceed to age out of existence, is seldom stated. Henry Mitchell said it, too, but he's no longer here to remind us.

Moving on, "Too Much" discusses the problems of success and how to solve them. The author offers advice on dealing with excessive numbers of excessively successful plants - what can be moved, what can't be moved, when to be ruthless, and how to keep it all from happening all over again. This problem is illustrated on the book's cover - it depicts a cartoon gardener climbing into his house through an upstairs window because excessive growth has made all ground-level entrances impassible.

The obvious-but-not-obvious good advice continues. For example, she assures the reader that moving plants "is an integral part of life in a maturing garden", and explains what to do when the advice for moving plants is laughably far from reality. ("... if you had enough space to dig a trench a foot wide around this particular plant, you probably wouldn't need to move it.")

"Too Little" is, of course, about the opposite problem - what's failed, and why. (Plant postmortems, as she puts it.) And how to keep it from happening again, whether by doing it right next time, or giving up on hopeless quests. Here, she also offers courage in getting rid of the "living dead" as she puts it - those plants that refuse to die, but refuse to live.

"Sins of Omission" offers information that, while less unique to this book, still seems related to the theme. Seasonal planting, timing, spatial gaps, making use of the special opportunities of a southern climate, and other interesting discussions.

After that, the book seems to shift away from the topic of "time and change in the garden" to just good, solid gardening advice. Her advice about paths, about trees, about structure and scale, is sound and well-written, but other people have said it. The same for the discussion of perennials, and pesticides and pests, and water conservation, and wildflowers, and soil, and hardiness, and shade. It's good. It's quite good.

But I can get it somewhere else.  I would give up these last chapters for an even fuller discussion of the issue of the aging garden. But even so, the first chapters are well worth the price of admission.

First Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Second Photo: Anguskirk, Wikimedia Commons. Click for Details
Third Photo: Mine

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