February 11th, 2009
Conversations with Very Important Gardeners

I missed the RSVP date over at Veg Plotting but I’ve remained intrigued by the challenge to host an imaginary dinner of famous gardeners. Of course, we’d have to go out to eat. If I were worrying about dinner, I wouldn’t be focused enough to enjoy my guests.

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.

by M Sinclair Stevens

10 Responses to post “Conversations with Very Important Gardeners”

  1. From VP:

    Hello – good to meet you!

    I’m so glad you made an exception and joined in with this meme as your choice is thoughtful and spectacular.

    I had the good fortune to spend an evening at Prince Charles’s home at Highgrove, not far from here. It included a tour round the gardens and we spent 10 minutes talking about how to get rid of slugs!

    Karel Capek’s book’s one of my favourites of
    all time – I posted a series of quotes from The Gardener’s Year at one point. My favourite is:

    April is the gardener’s true, blessed month. Let lovers go hang with their exaltation of May: in May, trees and flowers only blossom and bloom but in April they sprout.

    We were treated to a tour of Thomas Jefferson’s garden last year on the BBC as it was part of a major series on gardens.

    I’m unfamiliar with Helena Rutherford Ely, but after reading this I shall find out more.

    Like you, I longed to invite others, but I do like your solution to the problem – and as a result I’ve reopened my Karel Capek again with its charming illustrations, to spend a little time in his company.

    Highgrove is definitely on my list of gardens I want to visit. How fantastic that you have been there! I put HRH on the list because I am really impressed with his The Elements of Organic Gardening and keep meaning to review it here. As for Capek, whenever I try to quote from his book, I want to quote the whole thing. He really understood the essence of a gardener.

  2. From jodi (bloomingwriter, NS):

    These are wonderful–and very international!–dinner guests. I’d definitely vote for having Michael Pollan at the table, too. What fun it would be.

  3. From Nancy Bond:

    Your guests are intriguing and would make for a most interesting dinner! I hadn’t thought of Prince Charles, but he would, indeed, be a delight!

  4. From Annie in Austin:

    What an eclectic group you’ve put together at one table, MSS! Those would be quite high-level conversations. Helena Rutherford Ely is one I don’t know about but your assurances that she has a sense of humor makes me think she’d be worth reading.

    Your late post is making me consider doing an even later one.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  5. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    I like this group If you are going out to eat, let me know where so I can happen to be there. I’m also not as familiar with Ely, but she sounds like a gardener I’d love to ‘talk to’!

    I wonder if Thomas Jefferson would like sushi? I bet he’d try it; if so, I’d take the party to Uchi.

  6. From Mary Ann:

    how could I have forgotten Henry???Sheeeesh. Will he ever forgive me? Glad you included him!

  7. From Jenny Austin:

    I would also pick Prince Charles. I love everything he has to say about gardening and architecture. His book The Gardens of Highgrove is one of my favorites. He is a hands on gardener although I know he has an army of helpers. Not quite head of state yet and one wonders if he ever will reign-If the queen is anything like her mother she may live to be 102 and Charles may not see the throne. I loved that post and I had to think hard about who I would have invited. Too much gardening to do right now to think about a dinner party.


    I loved your group and the pairing of Jefferson and Prince Charles is inspired. Of course, Jefferson — Virginian that he is, would know how to treat royalty — but I imagine his more republican side would prevail!

  9. From linda:

    What a wonderful group you’ve assembled MSS! I’d love to be a fly on wall at your dinner party!

  10. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter:

    It is hard to narrow down such a great group. I think I need to re-read “A Gardener’s Year.” That was one of the first gardening books I read and I know I was influenced by it. I am not familiar with Helena Rutherford Ely, so I’ll have to track down her book.

    I think every gardener should reread “A Gardener’s Year” once a year. It provides a wonderful perspective. — mss