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.

Five Books: Essential Reads for Gardeners

Genevieve at North Coast Gardening wants to know what five books do we think are a must for every gardener. Creating a book list was one of the first things I did when began this blog almost a decade ago. I’ve read hundreds of gardening books since then and yet these few are always at the top of my list.

Karel Capek: The Gardener’s Year

Find out if your favorite gardener has this book, and if not, make a present of it. This has to be the funniest book ever written on gardening, more so because it is all true. To give examples, I’d have to quote long passages. Don’t give this book to a beginning gardener, though. The reader should have gardened through at least one year to really appreciate Karel Capek’s observations.
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The Elements of Organic Gardening

What can you learn from a prince about growing veggies? Quite a lot, actually, even if your suburban lot is nothing like his castles. This looks like it might be just another gorgeous coffee table book (and it is beautiful) but it is also full of information, written intelligently, clearly and compellingly. This is my favorite gardening book of the last couple of years.

Down to Earth: Practical Thoughts for Passionate Gardeners

People have told me that I should write a book. After reading Margot Rochester’s Down to Earth, I don’t feel the need to. I turned page after page and thought, “Hey, that’s exactly what I’m always saying.” I knew I’d found a true kindred spirit. And she’s written my book for me. Of course, the title clued me in. I’m both passionate and practical, a combination which confuses those who think every choice is an either/or choice.
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Passalong Plants

Offbeat, wacky, outrageous…words not normally associated with gardening books. I love these guys! I’m also pretty sure that my Bouldin Creek neighbors take landscape design advice from these two southern plantsmen. An antidote to English gardening books from a couple of good ole boys who garden in the south and understand our weather and our ways. Descriptions of each plant run about a page, accompanied with a memory, and a color photo.
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Tottering in My Garden

If Midge Ellis Keeble lived now, she would have been a garden blogger. She writes delightfully the various gardens she had over her life and the lessons she learned from each. The focus is foremost on the stories: the thrill and the trials that face all gardeners. But like talking with any experienced gardener, there is so much to learn. When I reread it years later, I was amazed to discover that many things I’d done and learned in my own garden were from seeds planted in my mind from this lovely little book.

Week 47: 11/19 – 11/25

Dateline: 2007
When I lived in Japan, the weather was pretty consistent. When summer started cooling off, it just colder and colder each day through winter and then it started warming up until it was spring. Once winter arrived, there was no relief from the cold. I much prefer Austin’s weather pattern. For example, Wednesday (11/21) temperatures hit a record high of 89F ahead of a cold front that dropped temperatures overnight to near freezing. The entire Thanksgiving holiday was gray and cold and windy–perfect for baking and feasting but not much fun for the boys who wanted to spend their time off hiking and biking. Saturday we got our first good rain since October 22nd. You northerners will laugh, but after four days of cold, I’m tired of winter. Luckily next week the sun and temperatures in the 70s return.

Even Austin’s idyllic approach to winter has some drawbacks. I spend a lot of time covering plants up if a freeze threatens only to uncover them the next day when temperatures soar. The potted plants get trotted into the house and then trotted back out again. I watch the roses anxiously wondering if this latest flush of new growth will freeze before it can flower. (‘Ducher’ and ‘Blush Noisette’ are blooming this week; ‘Heritage’ and ‘Prosperity’ have buds.) Our plants don’t go dormant, so they are very vulnerable to the half-dozen or so hard freezes we get each winter. But this is a small price to pay to enjoy a string of warm, sunny days between winter storms.

Looking over the notes from previous years I’m happy to see that I finally DID get my mulching mower–it took almost a year but I finally followed through.

First flower: Helianthus annuus ‘Moulin Rouge’ (11/20).
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The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants

Recently someone asked on Twitter, “Why create hybrid tomatoes that mimic the look and taste of heirloom tomatoes when you can just grow heirlooms?” My answer (despite the fact that I do grow heirloom varieties). Early blight. Late blight. Southern blight. Verticillium wilt. Gray leaf spot. Septoria leaf spot. And improved yields. Even the heirlooms that are currently popular have been selected and saved because they had something special that caught human attention. We are always on the lookout for bigger, better, and more because our population keeps increasing while the amount of land available for food production decreases.

“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” — Thomas Jefferson

By Jefferson’s measure, Luther Burbank stands head and shoulders above everyone. Burbank was not a plant explorer, scouring the new continent for plants unknown to European settlers. He was a plant inventor. He created more than 800 plants. Plumcot. Shasta daisy. Spineless prickly pear. Russet potato. Royal walnut. Elephant garlic. Stoneless plum. None of these plants existed 150 years ago and all of them are the results of his efforts.

Jane S. Smith has written a very readable biography–one that provides plenty of specific information and establishes the historical and social environment in which Burbank created.

As a young man, Burbank read Darwin’s Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication which sparked in him the idea that he could accelerate evolution by selection, crossing, grafting, and even changing the environment in which plants grow. And then he just went out and did it.

Burbank was not a scientist in today’s narrow sense of the world. He was not interested in theoretical knowledge, in controlled experiments, in keeping careful documentation in order to ensure reproducible results. He focused on the practical application of Darwin’s theories. Like his friends, Edison and Ford, he was an inventor and a businessman. However, unlike them, his inventions–new plants–could not be patented.

Immensely popular in his day, his name was good business for the seed companies and booksellers. Yet, he did not fit easily into other people’s schemes. The fledgling scientific community was baffled by his–what we’d call these days “New Age”–ideas. In order to protect his business, he was not open about his processes. And he did not keep precise records. He knew what he did and how he did it but he wasn’t anxious to share his methods with others and thus lose his competitive advantage. He also got into trouble with fundamentalist Christians for bold claims of improving on God’s creation and also for suggesting that we not “search the Bible for rules of blind obedience or…frighten children with visions of hell. The meaning of life was to be found in the flow of experience, not in any expectation of heaven.” He was “denounced in pulpits across the country” and received “hate mail, abusive telegrams, and threatening phone calls.”

Burbank’s practices of carefully breeding and ruthlessly selecting only superior plants did not extend to his ideas on improving the human race. He did not approve of eugenics in any of its forms. He lectured, “What we should do is strengthen the weak, cultivate them as we cultivate plants, build them up, and make them the very best they are capable of becoming.” He was an advocate putting off formal education until a child was at least ten, of a national system of non-sectarian relief to provide food and a healthy environment to children whose parents could not afford to provide for them. He believed investing in children was a shared investment in the future of the country, not charity.

In our century, plant invention has moved into what many consider the dark area of genetically-modified organisms. Jane S. Smith makes an insightful contrast to today’s patented monocultures.

“From the Plant Patent Act of 1930 to the contemporary battles over bioengineered crops, the history of modern agriculture is a record of increasing claims of property rights over what once was the common heritage of nature…Burbank and all his man plant-breeding brethren were dedicated to expanding the grower’s options, supplementing known varieties of just about every kind of plant with new ones that looked better, lasted longer, grew more lushly, tasted sweeter, could be shipped farther, and could be afforded by every consumer.”

Today the focus of the large plant breeder seems to be a desire to constrain natural biodiversity in order to give them a monopoly on their patented creations.

I really enjoyed The Garden of Invention. If you are interested in reading it, it’s on sale at Daedalus Books for $4.98. (No, I’m not getting a referral fee. I bought my copy at Half Price Books for $9.99).

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.

Down to Earth: Practical Thoughts for Passionate Gardeners

People have told me that I should write a book. After reading Margot Rochester’s Down to Earth, I don’t feel the need to. I turned page after page and thought, “Hey, that’s exactly what I’m always saying.” I knew I’d found a true kindred spirit. And she’s written my book for me.

Of course, the title clued me in. I’m both passionate and practical, a combination which confuses those who think every choice is an either/or choice.

From the first line in her preface, “Ruth, Henry, and Allen…My Gardening Gurus” Ms. Rochester had me hooked. Ruth Stout. Henry Mitchell. Allen Lacy. They were among the first garden writers I read and are still among my favorites. (I’d add Elizabeth Lawrence.)

Down to Earth is a book of short essays. Like Mitchell, Lacy, and Lawrence, the essays are part informational and part philosophical, all written from personal observation. They could easily have been blog posts. Although arranged by topic and season, the essays can be read in any order whenever you have a moment. Then you can think about the couple of pages you’ve just read as you spend the rest of the day in your own garden. There’s an index. This is not specifically a how-to book although there is a lot of how-to information.

There are no glossy photographs in this book. There are no pictures at all. The focus is on the writing. And on the gardening. I appreciate this more and more. I grow so weary of books and blogs which are nothing but pretty photographs. Eye-candy is very sweet but you can’t survive on a diet of sugar. I need some meaty thoughts. I need substance. I needed to get Down to Earth. Here are some tidbits.

“A garden is not a matter of space. It is a matter of pleasing yourself with plants that speak to you. Fill your garden with color and texture and mass and, most of all, with memories of people who have given you plants and shared your passion.” p 49 Top Tens

“As your old wood bloomers finish up, make a note to yourself when this happens so you can compare flowering times from one year to the next. With your old-and-new-wood bloomers, make notes to yourself about when they bloomed so that you can think about them over the winter. I am shamefully hit and miss with my own record keeping, but it is a habit that I mean to develop.” p. 62 Queen of the Climbers (clematis)

“When a plan is more trouble than it is worth, get rid of it.” p 141 Knowin’ When to Fold Em

“I know I should think about design before purchasing plants, but that is not my nature. I do not have a design. I have earth to be filled with plants that speak to me.” p 166 Container Gardening (filling in and moving plants around…an intuitive approach to design).

“Ten invasive plants were listed…and six of them are in my garden, invited there by me. An invasive plant, by definition, spreads aggressively and is especially problematic when it spreads into a new habitat and overwhelm the native plants growing there.” p. 180 “Thugs in the Neighborhood

“…I have to be honest. I am a loose gardener.
When I am asked to make suggestions about other people’s gardens, I recommend that we go inside the house an look out from the kitchen sink, the dining areas, the home office, the family room…the places they lie and look out windows. Doing this not only allows us to design pleasant views, but it ties the garden to the house.” p 201 Intimate Spaces

I originally checked this book out of from the library. I fell in love with it and bought my own copy.


In looking for more information about Margot Rochester on the web, I came across this tribute. She died in October, 2008..

The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table

I check out garden books from the library every week. It’s rare that I open a book and just know I have to own it. Such was the case with Amy Goldman’s The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit. I’ve been browsing it for less than a day and I’ve already ordered it from Amazon.

I wish I had read it a couple of months ago when I was In Search of the Perfect Tomato. At the time I was frustrated by my inability to find concrete information on various tomatoes. After awhile the catalog descriptions become mind-numbing in their sameness. How many ways are there to describe a tomato anyway? Besides catalog descriptions are written to sell a product. I wanted direction and objectivity from the garden blogosphere. Hanna @ This Garden is Illegal writes wonderfully detailed review of her tomato tastings but she is in the minority. My frustration is at an end. Now I have Amy Goldman’s The Heirloom Tomato.

In this book, Ms. Goldman evaluates tomatoes the way a wine reviewer writes about wine. She considers size and weight, shape, color, soluble solids (to get an objective measurement of sweetness), flavor, and texture. In looking at the plants themselves, she describes plant habit, leaf type, yield, and date to maturity. She explains her criteria in more detail before launching into the tomato descriptions.

Before I could settle into the text I was distracted by Victor Schrager’s tomato “portraits”. After feasting with my eyes on his photographs, I could understand why one might not stoop to calling them mere photographs. The Heirloom Tomato has page after glossy page of tomatoes arranged by size, shape, or color on milk glassware in the modern equivalent of a Renaissance still life painting. There are single tomato portraits, too, but I really appreciate contrasting the qualities of the many heirlooms featured. A tomato can be so much more than a smooth, round, red globe.

AJM actually picked this book up at the library, honing in on the final chapter “Recipes”. With our mere seven plants, I doubt that we’ll ever have the excess harvest required to think about eating tomatoes any other way than fresh off the vine. So I skipped back a section to the tomato descriptions. Whenever I read any reviews, (travel, wine, movie, books) I always look at things I’m familiar with first in order to calibrate the reviewer’s tastes and biases against my own.

So it was with great pleasure to turn to the very first tomato description and discover that it is of a cherry tomato I picked last week ‘Black Cherry’. Ms. Goldman approves of my choice: “This tomato tastes like plumstone fruit without the stone.; it bests any bigger black plum or beefsteak.” As if to demonstrate these descriptions are not just catalog marketing, on the same page she says of ‘Yellow Pygmy’, “…looks cute, but no one has ever accused it of being palatable.” That’s what I like! A touch of bitter to temper the sweet.

I have a couple of quibbles about the book design. The tomato descriptions begin with the data for each tomato followed by Ms. Goldman’s more subjective evaluation or some historical tidbits. The data section has headings in small caps but the data itself is in italics…of a very small size. Her description is in a standard font face. Those italics are very difficult to read. In some instances, the italicized part of the tomato entry is more lengthy than Ms. Goldman’s notes on it. All those italics make painful reading–they obscure the fascinating information. One thing I gleaned, though. Heirloom does not seem to be restricted to old varieties, just open-pollinated (that is, not hybrid) varieties.

Two other book design quibbles. In the section table of contents, the most important information is black small caps and italics against a dull green background. And it’s centered-space. This must look nice as design but it is unusable as a table of contents. The main text of the book could use a lot more subheading. Even I, who am very text-oriented, found the unbroken text a bit much. Ms. Goldman’s writing is well-organized into paragraphs and sections, but the book layout doesn’t reinforce this.

I continued reading “The Heirloom Tomato” backwards. In the early chapters Ms. Goldman explains how she grew 1000 tomato plant (two of each variety) for two years in order to write this book. The chapter on how to grow tomatoes, from seed, to seedling, to hardening off, to care and feeding, pruning and picking, and finally gathering seed for next year is a wonderful resource for new and longtime tomato growers alike.

Bottom line: Highly Recommended
This is a book that I not only just bought for myself but that I see myself buying as a gift for others in the years ahead. Now to check out Ms. Goldman’s books on melons and squashes.

An Aside
In the description of ‘Black Cherry’ Ms. Goldman indirectly references a quote thus, “If one of the greatest services a man can render his country is to add a useful plant to its agriculture…” Do you know who said that? I do. But only because I had read it somewhere else just last week. Is this such a common quote in garden writing that it requires no further explanation…that all of you just naturally know the reference? Or would you just assume that it was a phrase of the author?

Conversations with Very Important Gardeners

After several days of pondering, I came up with my wish list.

Thomas Jefferson

Any longtime reader would have guessed that Thomas Jefferson would top my V.I.G. (Very Important Gardener) list. In his day America was truly a New World, a seemingly unbounded world filled with more unknown plants than a science fiction novel. Jefferson’s enthusiasm for exploring the novel was bounded only by his sense of the practical. He was a pragmatist who wanted to know the best varieties, the best methods of cultivation, and the best tools for improving yields. He envisioned a nation of small independent farmers who would be educated in schools dedicated to agriculture. Curiosity tempered with extensive record-keeping and a desire to share knowledge (as well as learn from others) makes Jefferson a person I’d want to listen to, in any type of gathering, whatever the focus of conversation.

HRH Prince Charles

Prince Charles seems a perfect foil for Thomas Jefferson. Both, heads of state. Both, avid gardeners. Evidently environment shapes the gardener and the contrasts in their times and environment are stark. Rather than Jefferson’s unexplored unknown (and its accompanying air of expectation), Prince Charles reigns in a small, island nation in a time where population growth has paved over farmland and gardens with subdivisions, highways, and malls, where (in terms of space and species) the world seems to be contracting. His focus is on conservation in all its myriad definitions, a desire to preserve the diversity of life on this planet before it is irretrievably lost. Whatever the differences, I think both men share a certain weariness with being “head of state”. At the end of the day, in their writings, both have expressed a strong desire to just step away from the public spotlight and get back to the garden.

Karel Capek

Some people speak in thin volumes but their every word is a treasure. I think Karel Capek belongs in this tribe. In 1931 he wrote a little book, The Gardener’s Year. It seems like a light read but, if you are a gardener, every sentence is so, so true. Whenever I see a pile of leaves lying by the side of the road being wasted, I think of Capek and how he longed for the strength to ignore public ridicule and sweep up after the horses in the street rather than let the precious manure go to waste. Nor do I ever struggle and curse a hose or breathe deeply the scent of the good earth (eschewing the showy flowers) without feeling that his ghost is in the garden, nodding his head and saying, “This is the way it is with us gardeners.”

Helena Rutherford Ely

In 1903, Helena Rutherford Ely published one of the first books on the small informal cottage-style garden which is now so popular, a hundred years later, it’s hard to imagine it was once controversial. She was definitely one of my early influences. I love her sense of humor. I often chide myself with her opening line, “It has not been all success.” Although she did not originate the “First have your men dig a trench…” line, she had a similar philosophy. “I have but one rule: stake out the bed, and then dig out the entire space two feet in depth. Often stones will be found requiring the labor of several men, with crowbars and levers, to remove them; often there will be rocks that require blasting.” No she didn’t garden in my yard but she did understand my struggles. I just wish I could find those elusive men. She had to fight with her farmer-husband over their supply of manure and reports that he looks “upon [her] gardening as a mild form of insanity.” I know we would be instant friends.


There were so many others I longed to invite: Emily Whaley, Louise Beebe Wilder, Elizabeth Von Arnim, Vita Sackville-West (but only if she brought her husband Harold Nicolson…I have his diaries), Tasha Tudor, Henry Mitchell, Allen Lacy, Midge Ellis Keeble, Felder Rushing (I have actually had lunch with him), Michael Pollan, Elizabeth Lawrence, Katherine S. White.

In short, there are scores of garden writers I’d love to talk with. I’m fortunate that I can commune with them anytime. Just by opening a book.

Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home

Update: 2008-07-04

Jill Nokes’s wonderful Yard Art and Handmade Places has proven so popular that a second printing is out reports Carolyn Lindell in the Austin American-Statesman. I missed the June 14th article but about the same time Jill emailed me to say that she had updated her website to tell what became of the some of the gardens featured in her book and it’s taken me this long to pass the message along. The most depressing story, for me, because it’s happened just around the corner, is Paul Schleising’s garden. Yes, this is what’s becoming of my beloved neighborhood.

Jill’s book makes good Independence Day reading. Every person featured displays a unique vision.

Dateline: 2007-12-09

For years the highlight of a stroll through my south Austin neighborhood was a visit to the stone sculpture garden on South 3rd Street. Paul Schleising stacked rocks, not into simple cairns but into evocative sculptures. They were not glued or held together with a rod. The rocks were perfectly balanced and frequently tumbled at the touch of a curious stranger, wily squirrels, or a strong wind. Thus the garden was always evolving as old pieces fell and new found objects were worked into the design.

Paul's Stone Sculptures
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Thomas Jefferson: The Garden and Farm Books

Robin Chotzinoff flattered me in her story on garden blogging, comparing my compulsion for note-taking and record-keeping to Thomas Jefferson’s. I mentioned he was one of my garden heroes and inspirations. I wish I were even half as thorough in my records as he.

Thomas Jefferson Garden and Farm Books

Luckily for us, he did not ever fulfill his resolution to entirely abolish pen and paper from his farm. Quite the contrary. He wrote in his garden and farm books whenever he was at home. I’m betting that if Thomas Jefferson were alive today he would be a garden blogger. He was curious about everything, passionate about gardening, and loved sharing what he knew and learning from others.

New varieties of plants thrilled him; his garden motto seems to be “Discovery”. The Americas were, after all, a whole new world of plants. Before sending Meriwether Lewis on the famous expedition he sent him to Philadelphia for nine months to study botany. In contrast to our century, where we keep lists of plants that have gone extinct under our stewardship, Jefferson was adding plants through discovery or hybridization. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,” writes our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence.

Using the technology of his time, he wrote a copious number letters swapping knowledge and always begging seeds, bulbs and plants to try. “Your favor of the 7th came duly to hand and the plant you are so good as to propose to send me will be thankfully recd. The little Mimosa Julibrisin you were so kind to send me last year is flourishing.” he writes William Hamilton from Washington in 1806. In this same letter he lays out his plans for farm improvements when his term as president is over. “…my views and attentions are all turned homewards.” he prefaces several long paragraphs on his plans for farms when he gets home, concluding with, “…the subject runs away with me whenever I get on it.”

He is aware of the social obligation of his written connections. Correspondence, like blogging, establishes a relationship, one that must be kept up by both writer and reader. “In matters of correspondence as well as money, you must never be in debt.”

Doesn’t it humanize these great historical figures to know that in 1796 Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington saying, “I put away this disgusting dish of old fragments & talk to you of my peas & clover.” He then goes on in great detail talking about how many tons per acre of wheat he has grown, how tall the stalks are, how his older fields are exhausted, his plans for crop rotation, and how he’s built a Scotch threshing machine from a model someone sent him. He modified the plan to more easily move it from field to field.

In his travels to Europe, Jefferson is fascinated by farm methods and plant choices. He stops to ask a man why he is gathering ferns in the forest. When he hears the reply (he uses dry ferns to pack apples for market, as they don’t give off a scent as hay does), Jefferson can hardly wait to get home to try it himself. Americans have just recently gotten on the olive oil bandwagon, but Jefferson was promoting the olive in 1787.

“The Olive tree is the least known in America, and yet the most worthy of being known. Of all the gifts of heaven to man, it is next to the most precious, if it be not the most precious. Perhaps it may claim a preference even to bread; because there is such an infinitude of vegetables which it renders a proper and comfortable nourishment. In passing the Alps at the Col de Tende, where they are mere masses of rock, wherever there happens to be a little soil, there are a number of olive trees and a village supported by them. Take away these trees and the same ground in corn would not support a single family.”

Thomas Jefferson kept a garden book, primarily a calendar, from 1766 to 1824. Over the years his garden book became more detailed and exacting: records on the weather, on what he planted, on when he harvested, drawings laying out the garden beds. He noted the migration of birds and the dates of first flowers. Some of his notes read like tweets.

1811 Mar 16. planted 5. Tuckahoe grey cherries in the rows e-1-2-+1.4.5 from Enniscorthy
1811 Mar 18. planted Asparagus seed in beds 5.6.7. & replanted 3.4
1811 Apr 13. Quarantine corn from Thouin in the old Nursery.
1811 May 16. strawberries come to table.
1821 May 28. artichokes come to table. The last dish is July 28.

Jefferson had one of those minds that is never satisfied, a mind that is never still but constantly reaching for a more efficient way to do things. His farm books are filled with ideas and advice that he’s collected over the years and organized by topic as well as detailed farm management records. He records the progress on grading roads, writing down the number of people working and how much road they make each day and figuring the yards per day per hand progress. (Much slower going in the woods and uphill.)

And he is not content to read about an idea. He experiments, observes and records. Is it more efficient to use candles or oil lamps, he wonders and sets an experiment burning both a lamp and candles for 16 1/2 hours to see how much fuel is used.

…it appears that 1. gallon of oil will burn 402. hours, and that it requires 10 3/5 lb of candle to burn the same time so supposing oil to be .75 per gallon, it will be equal to mould candles at 7. cents per lb which shews the advantage of oil.

In 1793, when Eli Whitney writes to Jefferson about his little invention, the cotton gin, Jefferson immediately wants to know how he can employ it on his farm.

“…I feel considerable interest in the success of your invention for family use. Permit me therefore to ask information from you on these points. Has the machine been thoroughly tried in the ginning of cotton or is it as yet but a machine of theory? What quantity of cotton has it cleaned on an average of several days, & worked by hand, & by how many hands? What will be the cost of one of them made to be worked by hand?”

I love that phrase, “as yet but a machine of theory.” Apparently they had problems with vaporware even in Jefferson’s day.

One of my favorite letters is to Jacob Bigelow in 1818. Here Jefferson summarizes seven years of his observations that characterize the climate of Virginia. He includes average temperature and rainfall for each month, date of first frost (Oct 7-26), when the peach trees blossom (Mar 9-Apr 4), when the house martins appear, and the ticks! (both mid-Mar), when the lilacs bloom (Apr 1-28) and the fireflies appear (May 8). He also records that it is necessary to have fires at all times for four months in winter, and in the mornings and evening for another month before and after.

Do I know how many days of the year I run my heater, all day long versus only at night? How about the AC? How many nights did we have a hard freeze this last winter? Was that typical or less than average? Have I tried different fertilizers on my tomatoes to compare them and see which is the most efficient? How about different methods for tying and staking tomatoes? Is there a good reason that Austinites shouldn’t set out tomatoes before March 15th? What if they are in protected site? What if we use row covers?

How much advice do we take on faith without testing it ourselves? And how rigorous are our tests? Do we just follow advice without also growing a control to use as a comparison? Do we write down our observations and then compare our notes over several years and with others? How much practical and useful information are we collecting and sharing? How much of what we’ve learned through experience will be lost if we don’t pool our knowledge? Jefferson is an inspiration for seeking continual/continuous improvement.

Time to update my In Bloom Calendar for April.