FOUR OF THESE BOOKS relate directly to the gardener gardening. The other two have a no less valid reason for being - they are involved with telling you about plants and plant life, but therefore must be viewed in a different way.
First, what should we expect of a gardening book? A rather useful question, since gardening and gardening books seem to be very good business indeed. It seems to me that a gardening book should contain the experience of a person who gardens and who has come to some conclusions as a result. I want to know what happened when someone tried to grow different varieties of plants in various situations and combinations; how an undesirable effect was avioded. I have no interest in the watered down consensus of 37 eminent authorities on, for example, the Peace rose.
V. Sackville-West's A Joy of Gardening tells me what I want to know. Subtitled A Section for Americans and edited by Hermine I. Popper, this book was first published in 1958 and is now, with this reprint, if both American and British Books in Print are to be trusted, the only Sackville-West gardening book available either here or in Britain. A Joy of Gardening consists of articles originally written for the London Observer.
Poper includes only those essays about plants that can be found in the United States. I myself believe that Sackville-West on gardening is worth reading even if you lived in the Sahara and could only grow cactus. She is a wonderful gardening writer for a number of reasons. She was deeply involved in making a garden (Sissinghurst, the Making of the Garden is Anne Scott-James's admirable biography of the garden Sackville-West made with her husband Harold Nicolson. It has unfortunately not yet been published in this country.)
She has tried for and not always achieved certain effects and is willing to tell about successes and failures. She writes so that you see in your own mind what it is she has tried to achieve. And she has not always followed the rules and says how it worked out. Thus, while a great authority says that Iris pumila ought to be divided and transplanted every second year, she has "grown a patch of them in a stone trough for some ten years and they have never flowered better than this year." And then she adds what every gardener learns sooner rather than later: "The behavior of plants is indeed inexplicable. It breaks all the rules, and that is what makes gardening so endlessly various and interesting." She is grateful for an inquiry about bamboo (which she loathes) "since it sent me to a consideration of this plant with the queerest peculiarities." And the climbing rose Zephyrine Drouhin , described as having only one fault: the deplorable "crude pink of her complexion," she calls a "full-bosomed, generous trollop of a rose." Good Things in Leather
Don't be put off the Old Wives' Lore for Gardeners. First published in Britain, this is not the usual made-up book which started as an editor's brainchild to cash in on the all-thing-natural-and-wonderful fad and ended as a hack list of lifted bits of chewed over quasi-folk wisdom. Rather it is a sensible and useful book by screenwriter Bridget Boland and the late Maureen, two literate sisters, who know what they are talking about and say it with charm. This is the work of lifelong gardeners who never stopped learning, including from old wives; who tried what they learned; and who set down their conclusions with a nice unsentimental authority. Of the many potentially invaluable entries in this compilation of not-so-conventional wisdom, I am particularly fond of BOOTS: "Never throw old boots and shoes in the dustbin, but bury them in the garden. Leather is full of good things, and they will rot down eventually, except for loathsome rubber and plastic soles which can then be retrieved. The salts in human sweat are not without their uses, either." And had I only known earlier that the "mixing of bonfire ash with the soil, often recommended when planting other herbs, can be fatal to mint, and should not be used even as a mulch." My mint, which I had thought to be indestructible, is having a dreadful time of it - and now I know why. Orientalis: Pro and Con
The second edition of Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia does not render the first edition obsolete. According to the foreward to the revised edition, many plant names have been changed to conform to a newly published reference for nomenclature changes have been made in recommendations regarding pesticides and herbicides, and a table of contents has been added. While it does not meet my criteria for a gardening book, Wyman's seems to be able to fulfill my and many other gardeners' need for a security blanket - a "definitive" reference for those terrible times when an answer is needed and fast. In my case, I referred to Wyman's when my spring orders were arriving and for the most part found it told me more or less what I wanted to know about cultural needs of the plants. However, a friend consulted it about a problem in pruning and found it too sparse and uninformative. But that is the trouble with one-volume encyclopedias generally. Another is that the compiler, however experienced and/or erudite (Wyman is horticulturist emeritus of the Arnold Arboretum) seems to try oh so hard to be even-minded and unopinionated. And when you do find an opinion (as Clematis tangutica is "certainly better than C. orientalis " but there is no listing for orientalis ), you are not told why. (Margery Fish, that delightful English garden writer, considers orientalis to be a splendid clematis with flowers as thick as an orange peel. Yum.) A Priceless Catalogue
The fourth of these. The White-Flower-Farm Garden Book, is not a garden book at all. It is an overblown, self-serving nursery catalogue with the prices left out and therfore less useful than the catalogue which it pretends not to be. Written by the pseudonymous Amos Pettingill, the owner of a nursery, it has the authority of the peddler of (his own) wares and is written is rather repulsive cutesy-pie language (a dwarf variety is called a "little fellow"). Among its greatest sins is listing the most limited number of varieties of a plant with the implication that they are the most desirable (and sometimes they are called the "best"), when in fact they are simply the ones that the nursery stocks and sells. Under anemones there is no listing for Japanese anemone, that glorious plant. Under japonica we learn that this means Japanese. We are told that phlox is pronounced "flocks." But we are not told that Mertensia virginica dies down and disappears after blooming, a vital bit of information for those unfamiliar with the plant. Certain plants are touted as being rare and difficult to come by except that they can be found . . . guess! at Litchfield (where the nursery is) and sometimes blatantly at White Flower Farm. This doesn't even have the pretty color pictures that Wayside Garden's catalogue gives you for less money.
Our Friend, the Weed
A City Herbal, one the two books about plant life, is subtitled, A Guide to the Lore, Legend, and Usefulness of Thirty-Four Plants That Grow Wild in the City. With recipes for breads, salads, seasonings, teas, dyes, cosmetics, potpouris, etc., etc. It is a book about weeds and it is terrific. Maida Silverman wrote it and did the lovely line drawings and she did the whole thing beautifully, seriously, without condescension. She tells you what you want to know and what you never thought you wanted to know but do. Each entry is a well-researched, interesting, straightforward essay. She tells where the plants are found. She gives their botanical descriptions. She loves them and she forces the gardener to look at an old enemy like the platain with wonder and appreciation. And she is no tourist, looking in from the outside. When she tells you that Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris ) was considered by old herbalists to "comfort the braine," she adds, "I believe this to be true. On a hot summer day, when the noxious fumes and stagnant air in the city seem even more oppressive than usual, it really is a 'comfort' to crush a few leaves of the plant in one's hand and inhale the clean, pungent aroma." I had thought that this was to be a fine book if you lived in New York and found yourself on a spring day desperate for some focus to get yourself out of the apartment on a Sunday after you had finished the crossword puzzle. It is, and a whole lot more. Why Not Plumierias?
History of Popular Garden Plants From A To Z is the kind of book you wish you would find on the gardening shelf when you want to buy a book and don't know quite why or what for and then wished it told you more than it does. In addition to containing brief biographies of those wild adventurers, the great plant hunters, there are brief histories of plants, but sometimes too brief. Why, for example, if begonias were discovered in Mexico by a monk called Plumier are they named after Michel Begon, a French botanist who was also governor of Santo Domingo? Why aer bego ias not plumierias? Section three is a useful breakdown of generic names of the families in the plant world, specific epithets of plants in a family (what the author calls the Christain names - nanus is dwarf, scandens is a climbing, etc.) and the common names of plants (very useful since to find out about Bouncing Bet you would need to know to look under saponaria ). I also learned that St. Fiacre, who is thought to be the patron saint of gardeners, doesn't even have a tree, shrub or flower which carries his name. How sad.