GREEN THOUGHTS, subtitled "A Writer in the Garden," is a delight. Eleanor Perenyi is a serious gardener who is also an experienced and witty author. Her horticultural knowledge, combined with her many observations on life have produced a book that is informative and fine reading.
The book is encyclopedic: "annuals," "artichokes," "asparagus," "asters" and so on, follow each other through the alphabet, but there are surprises in many sequences. A chapter entitled, simply, "Blues" tells much about the many flowers in the favorite of all colors, but it also speaks of Nancy Mitford, Jane Austen, Gladys Cooper and Edith Wharton, weaving them in among the blues in a manner that makes wonderful reading. "Earthworms" and "Endive" lead to "Failures" which starts with an amusing quote from Beverley Nichols' Garden Open Tomorrow. "Ivy leads to "James vs. Benson," which recounts that E. F. Benson leased Henry James' house in Sussex and, while there, wrote of the mad and wonderful, fictional Miss Mapp. Unusual in a garden anthology but a sudden and welcome relief from shugs and poisons.
Many chapters in Green Thoughts could stand on their own as informative, fascinating essays. Particularly enjoyable, to me, is "Two Gardeners": one Lawrence Johnston, the other the better-known Ellen Willmott. Both were interesting people in their own and very different ways. The former left, as his heritage, what the author of Green Thoughts feels is the most remarkable modern garden in England. Poor Miss Willmott, a great horticulturist, left no garden due to tremendous financial reverses. As with so many references in this book one would like to know more about these two people.
"Partly Cloudy" is another gem -- a treatise on inaccurate weather reports and science of forecasting called phenology which uses the signs of nature to show coming events. The growth stages of plants and the emergence of insects are part of this science, but I saw no mention of the groundhog or the hoarding schedule of the squirrels. These are old hat, perhaps, but part of my childhood teachings, which included the information that when the shad bush blooms, shad come to the rivers, and when the lilac blooms look for the weakfish to bite.
There are many chapters in this book that are wonderfully helpful to the gardener, so it makes little difference that, here and there, some of the knowledge imparted will be used by few, if any growers. "Three Houses," for instance, is a nice bit of the history of "adult houses" high in the foliage and of the philosophy of "the gift of privacy." However, I fear, this is but a dream to most in the days of dwindling help and mounting costs.
here are, also many apt and succinct descriptions that are sown throughout the pages. A good tomato, for example, should look like "an archipelago broken up with lakes of seed," All of these are interspersed with knowledgable hints on how to sow parsley and grow Belgian endive.
Green Thoughts ends not with zinnias but with "Woman's Place," not a happy one in the history of gardening, according to the author. Unheralded and unsung and pushed into the background, Equal Rights have yet to find their place in the garden.
Just as Perenyi's book contains useful and practical information as well as delightful writing, so too does The Essential Earthman, which brings together many of Henry Mitchell's newspaper columns on gardening.
Mitchell has a healthy and pragmatic approach to the many difficulties and frustrations that come with trying to grow almost anything. He starts, right off, telling the gardener to be defiant, expect the worst and stick to the essentials. He is quoted as having said, "It is not nice to garden anywhere." Somehow, I don't believe that he truly means this. If he did, he could not have written a book so full of thoughts, information and the sheer joy of being gardener.
The Earthman is a bit of a flower snob; zinnias and marigold received short shrift from him. One he relates to cousins, nice unless too many; the other, he says should be used as sparingly as ultimatums.
The chapter entitled "Bad Trees and Good Tress" should be required reading for anyone contemplating the planting of trees. In a rather rare burst of frankness he points out that while some trees can be introduced into a garden, there are many more that should be, quite ruthlessly, cut down. This strikes a chord in me, as I was intimaded for years by a large elm. When it finally died, much to my secret delight, my house, suddenly, glowed with sun and light.
The author is perceptive, and he knows that often the little things in gardening can be the most rewarding. Because of his awesome knowledge he realizes the enormous work that goes into the growing of almost any plant. So he points out the simple pleasure of watching a squirrel select a leaf and tells us that there are many gifts of nature more satisfying than showy blooms.
Henry Mitchell is a man of strong opinions: Japanese gardens, lawn and garden sculpture are not for him. However, he writes eloquently of minor bulbs, and his love and knowledge of camellias make me want to try again. He tells of the joy of the lowly nasturtium and his description of what he grows among his rose bushes is, indeed, unorthodox. Forget-me-nots and rue vie with dusty miller and tuberoses, and his answer to those who question his methods is "Life is not just a bed of roses." One feels that his is, probably, one of the lovelier and more unusual beds of roses.
The last chapter of The Essential Earthman reveals a dedicated man of the soil, a charming picture of a gardner who loves his trade. He tells of a day in his life, during which time the sole accomplishment is the planting of three tomato plants, but a day of happy involvement with his plot of land. Henry Mitchell seems, always, to have his two feet planted as firmly in the ground as his tomatoes. In this chapter the reader is carefully instructed in the care and feeding of the plants and there is, also, a paragraph or two devoted to roses. Basically, the day is one of deep pleasure and fullfillment, no matter what, if anything, was accomplished.
The Essential Earthman is a practical, down-to-earth book and should be most helpful to any new gardener with bare ground and big ideas. These ideas will be, wisely, pared down to the essentials, but along with the warnings there is constructive help on all phases of gardening from one who has been there and knows. The pitfalls are there, clearly stated, but with them are the joys and delights. This joy shines out from Henry Mitchell and illuminates his book.