Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Passion for Gardening - September Book Review

For my birthday, my husband got me a garden coffee-table book called "The Passion for Gardening: Inspiration for a Lifetime."  The book is by Ken Druse who also wrote one of my top 5 favorite garden books (Planthropology).  I asked for it for Christmas but for some reason Santa didn't come through.  I looked for it in the local libraries (I actually have library cards for 5 different cities within the disorganized metropolitan area of Hampton Roads) with no luck.  But on my birthday, I got it and have been enjoying it in small bites (like a box of chocolates) ever since.

The Passion for Gardening is really a book for coffee-table garden book lovers.  It has a few pages of practical matters (some information on propagating plants and source lists) but it is mostly just what the title suggests, an ode to gardening and gardeners.  In fact, it's a little hard to say just what this book is about, so I will quote Druse from his foreword:
I know at once if I like a garden, and my reaction has nothing to do with whether there are meticulously maintained beds and borders or a flock of pink flamingos guarding the gate.  It isn't the style, the plants used, the location, or the size.  What matters to me is the passion of the garden's tender, which comes through loud and clear over anything else.  Such gardeners love plants not just for their color or form, but because they are alive.  These gardeners are not afraid of change; on the contrary, it is a crucial part of their fascination with gardening.  More than simply tilling the soil, these people are the guiding spirits whose devotion makes a garden more than a backyard, or the back forty.
Funny he should mention a flock of flamingos
For example, there is the elderly gardener whose garden is mostly wonderful specimen trees.  At one point, her friends and family tried to dissuade her from planting a young tree - why plant something she won't get to enjoy?  Years later, she's sitting in the shade of this tree when Druse goes to interview her.

The book is organized around a series of interviews of people whose gardens Druse admires, with lots of photos of the beautiful gardens.  Some of the sections cover most of a chapter, and some are just a page.  The book is loosely organized into chapters, but the overall feel is of having a long, satisfying conversation with a good conversationalist in a series of lovely places. 

Most of the gardens are private, but not all.  Druse also visits Chanticleer on the Main Line outside Philadelphia and interviews the chief horticulturalist and executive director there.  Druse's descriptions and photos make it clear that this is not at all a typical public garden or historic garden, and makes me very much want to visit there on some future trip to Philadelphia when I am visiting family.  Interestingly, there are no signs at Chanticleer (or rather, as Druse says, only the most basic signs, like "Restroom").  The vision behind this is so that visitors will focus on the beauty of plants.  Druse says it can be frustrating for plant lovers because there are many unusual plants there, but I can see the reasoning.  I think it is surprisingly easy to get drawn into signs and labels and I see how it might help people to make more direct, personal contact with a garden without any official interpretation getting in the way. 
Do it your way

My favorite story from the Chanticleer section is the story of the "ruin."  The executive director thought it would be interesting to partially demolish a house on the property to make a "ruin" that would be a focal point.  This is a lot like the story of a "ruin" on an English estate I visited on vacation last year, that was intentionally formed by tearing down part of the original house.  But at Chanticleer, it turned out that the house could not safely or aesthetically be turned into a ruin, so they razed it and constructed a "spanking-new 'ruin'" on the spot.  The part that really made me laugh though was that when Druse asked the director about his plan to age the ruin, and the answer was "wait 300 years."
The constructed ruin at Scotney Castle in England

Threaded throughout the book is the theme that gardeners should be stewards of ecosystems by planting native plants and avoiding contributing to the ecological disaster that invasive plants cause.  Many of the gardens featured in the book use at least some native plants, but one of the most colorful - perhaps surprisingly - is a garden that contains exclusively plants locally native to a single locality, eastern Long Island.  This was perhaps my favorite garden in the book.  I love those plants that are native to the eastern U.S. and I love them in gardens, but I've never seen such a well-made garden with just locally native plants.  Franklin Salasky's garden is obviously a garden, not in the least a wilderness or natural area.  It's got varied heights and textures with trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, grasses, and perennials.  And it's remarkably colorful and varied in the photos. 
June color from native plants in my garden - believe me, Franklin Salasky's is better

The conversational feel of the book is supported by Druse's excellent writing and nuanced viewpoints.  While I didn't find any comprehensive treatments of any particular topics, I was frequently pleasantly surprised to read something that made me stop and think again about something familiar in a different way.  A comment by one of the gardeners being interviewed resonated strongly with me.  Geoffrey Kaiser says, "We've climbed the Tree of Botanical Knowledge and learned to love and learned to hate.  So we have to deal with our hatred of things like multiflora rose."  I've learned a great deal about both gardening and nature in the past 10 years or so and while this knowledge enriches my experiences in the garden and nature beyond measure, sometimes I wish I didn't know quite so much about the threats to native ecosystems.  Sometimes I wish I didn't recognize invasive plants, since to me they look like scars in an otherwise beautiful landscape.  The gardener who says this in "The Passion for Gardening" makes a point with his partner to take a day a week off from "hating" and force themselves not to see weeds and invasive species and instead just enjoy what they have accomplished.
Classic love/hate relationship: Asian Wisteria

If you like pretty garden photos, good garden writing, or native plants, or if you sometimes need a reminder of just why you spend so much time and effort on this avocation, you would probably like this book.  Ken Druse's podcast is also worth checking out.  But first, please check out Roses and Other Gardening Joys, where garden book reviews are hosted every month.