Ivington Diaries book cover

December 7th, 2010
The Ivington Diaries

A reader left a comment on my review of another Monty Don book, The Sensuous Garden that the two of us obviously have personality differences and that I should just leave it at that. What? Not me! I really don’t see any point in reading only people I agree with because I learn so much more from people I don’t agree with. If someone shows me a demonstrably better approach, I’m always open to changing my mind. Besides, I don’t think our differences are irreconcilable. Monty Don and I just are reacting to different environments. I live in a land where expertise is a dirty word. He lives in one where pedantry drains the passion from the art of gardening. See how alike we are.

“My second [New Year’s] resolution is to make a point of learning something new…if you have been gardening for awhile it is easy to become fixed in your likes and dislikes and to dismiss things of which you are ignorant. I want to challenge my own ignorance…”

I’m glad I didn’t give up so easily because the third time’s a charm. The Ivington Diaries is just the kind of gardening book I find to be the most readable: a personal adventure in creating a garden. Monty Don moved to a new house in 1991 and the book draws on journal entries written over the subsequent 18 years. There is one entry per day, beginning with January 1st, for almost the entire year. The interesting twist is that the years are not in chronological order. The first entry is January 1, 1998, then January 4, 2004, followed by January 5, 2002.

I really like this layout because it focuses on the gardener’s year rather than on the chronology of building the garden. I received this book as a Christmas present last year and I have read it bit by bit as the seasons changed in my own garden, comparing observations and differences in climate with Monty Don’s. The book has color photos of the garden every few pages which help the reader to visualize the layout and special features of the garden. The photos aren’t glossy printed so they never distract from the text. This is a very readable book, not just a flipping-through-the-pictures book. (That is, it’s meaty not just eye-candy.)

Like a garden blog, the journal entry for each day has a theme and a title. The themes are quite varied. Sometimes Monty Don details some project, problem, or success in the garden. Sometimes, he muses on his observations of the nature and the garden. Often he describes people who have influenced him over the years as he became a gardener. He describes in detail his experiences with many plants, his desires, his trials, his successes and his failures.

I marked scores of passages in this book and will go back and dip into it again and again. Because the entries for each day are fairly short and because chronology is not important, The Ivington Diaries is an ideal book for delving into at odd moments when one wants to be entertained and informed by someone who really thinks about and is passionate about gardening.

book cover Sensuous Garden
Book Review: The Sensuous Garden.
Montague Don. 1997
“…this book is not about plants or plans but about gardeners with feelings and sensations.” (from the introduction)

January 2nd, 2010
The Sensuous Garden

Photographs attracted me to The Sensuous Garden and after buying and reading it, I think the photographs are the best thing about this book. Anyone who knows me at all will recognize that I’m damning with faint praise.

I wanted to like this book. I marked up so many quotes to pull from one page of the introduction, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

As a garden blogger who’s corresponded and visited with other gardeners, I can’t help but agree with the idea that “the most interesting thing in any garden is the person who gardens in it”. Like Monty Don, I’m not in favor of litmus tests to determine who is a real gardener. Don’t grow veggies? Don’t have a compost pile? Don’t grow plants from seed? That’s okay. As long as your garden brings you joy.

So why can’t I like this book more? Where do we part ways? I have two others by Monty Don, My Roots: A Decade in the Garden (2005) and The Ivington Diaries (2009). Something about Monty Don’s narrative voice just rubs me the wrong way; I have to accept that we have basic personality differences. (We had a very civil email discussion after my previous post on him.) He describes himself as a man in touch with his feminine side. I could be described as the opposite. Rather than using gender-specific (or stereotypic) labels, I see our differences via Myers-Briggs; he tilts the scale far to the F (feeling) side and I lean about halfway toward the T (thinking) side. Ultimately my head rules my heart; this is not to say that I am unfeeling. I am a tactile learner and I’m attracted to plants for their scent and texture as much as I am to their color or flowers.

The Sensuous Garden is organized like a buffet table. There are chapters for each sense including the sense of intuition. The chapter on sight is subdivided into essays on light, shade and each color in the garden. The chapter on scent focuses on each of the four seasons and trees. The chapter on touch touches on the topics of soil, tools, feet, foliage, bark, and noli me tangere. All these tidbits don’t add up to much food for thought.

In celebrating sense (and sensuousness) is it necessary to abandon sensibility? My bias is toward focused topical essays whether they are in blogs or in the newspaper columns of Henry Mitchell, or the short essays of Elizabeth Lawrence, Katherine S. White, and Margot Rochester. I drink in the garden with my senses but I digest it with my mind.

Rather than the photographs illustrating the ideas of the text, the text seems to get in the way of the photographs. The words don’t draw me in. They don’t leave me with anything to think about. They are strangely sterile. They hold me at arm’s length. I feel like I’m listening to a docent at a public garden rather than chatting with an avid gardener who’s invited me to see his private garden.

Even the layout of the text irritated me. Each chapter begins with a one page introduction that is one column wide set entirely in double-spaced italic. Italic! Double-spaced! I can appreciate type used as an element for graphic design but in a book where the user is reading page after page, designing for readability should be paramount. It’s not enough to look pretty. The rest of the book alternates between a 2-column and 3-column layout which have shorter, more readable line lengths.

Monty Don ends with the words that there are no rules to gardening. Then the prevarication “at least, the rules that do exist are merely guidelines.” (Did Pirates of the Caribbean steal this line from Monty Don? “…the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”) And this is followed by a page of “non-rules”. So I close the book with a snap because I believe that there are rules. Break them if you will but be prepared to pay the price in money, time, and frustration.

I do realize that Monty Don is trying to encourage beginning gardeners who are intimidated by the “experts” to just go out and have fun in their gardens. Do what makes you happy in the garden. Take chances. Don’t let other people sit in judgment on your garden. Have fun. I believe in all those things. I take them for granted. I’m lucky enough to live in Austin where people make garden art out of old bicycles and make garden beds out of rusty wrought iron ones and park cars on what would be their lawns if they hadn’t let the grass die. I don’t hang around with snobbish garden professionals at the Chelsea Garden show. I don’t have the English gardening establishment to react against.

I’m reacting against the other side of the spectrum: against an establishment that think teaching specific techniques somehow crushes the creative spirit, against people who think that studying something somehow diminishes our ability to marvel over it. I believe that anyone taught basic skills will enjoy some measure of success and that when left to their own devices only the naturally gifted succeed. The rest of us give up thinking that you either can do it or you can’t.

Despite starting from opposite ends of the earth and fighting all the way, both Monty Don and I reach the same conclusion: observe. Use your eyes, your ears, your nose, your skin and your mouth. Get past the flowers and experience the dirt, the foliage, the bark, and the bugs. Zoom in for the micro view. Stand back for the macro view. Get on you roof. Get down on your knees. Watch the light. Notice how the garden changes from hour to hour and from season to season.

Pay attention.

Science is infused with poetry.

February 16th, 2007
Two Modes of Experience

I was reading Monty Don’s My Roots: A Decade in the Garden last night and I came across a couple of passages that irked me.

“This is why I have little time for gardens that are merely a collection of plants…A culture of technique–almost always male-dominated–where the garden almost became a laboratory superseded the true spirit of gardens which is feminine, intuitive and full of guile. Gardening is no more a science than cooking is.” — p. 105

As someone who loves science both in the garden and in the kitchen, I’m impatient with these gender stereotypes. I do believe that there are two types of people but the division here is not between men and women but between those whose hearts rule their heads (F-types) and whose heads rule their hearts (T-types). Monty Don is obviously an F-type, even though he is male and I’m decidedly a T-type.

A couple of pages later, Monty Don traces his aversion to science to his childhood walks.

“I never really really articulated it, but I think I thought that studying [flowers] would break the magic and reduce this intense, private world to the foolishness of rational intelligence. It was the difference between watching the butterfly bob and float until it disappeared and scrutinizing the same specimen pinned to a block” — p. 108

If that’s how he wants to see the world, fine. But I resent the dig against the “foolishness” of rational intelligence. The underlying message is “Let’s all revel in ignorance.” The hippies said it in the 1960s and forty years later the religious fundamentalists have picked up the cry. And he continues.

“…I am still wary of those who categorize and measure with botanical fervour…The poetry slips through these cracks, and without poetry gardens and plants are reduced to something between a specimen and another chore to measure the day. The light does not get in.”

I find it difficult to comprehend how anyone could be blind to the poetry in science. Science teaches us how to observe, how to really look at the world, to distinguish the differences between one butterfly an another, to wonder at the living processes within each organism and delve into interrelationships among them. Whether taking a micro or a macro view, science forces us to see the world with new eyes. F-types don’t have a monopoly on poetry. Science is infused with poetry. I think my experience of the world is all the richer for trying to understand it.

I might as well say to an F-type, “Stop cluttering the joy of pure thought with sensual distractions.” I wouldn’t, though, because I know that people experience the world in different ways. That’s part of the wonder of the range of human experience. One mode is not superior to the other. Remember, it takes the separate vantage points of two different eyes to experience the world in three dimensions.