January 2nd, 2010
The Sensuous Garden

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)

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.

by M Sinclair Stevens

2 Responses to post “The Sensuous Garden”

  1. From Jenn:

    Such articulate protest encourages folks to go and read the book, you know.

    Well done.

    Excellent! Then I’ve done my job. A critique is only meant to provide the information you need to make your own judgement…not persuade you to side with the reviewer. — mss

  2. From Dennis Briskin, Palo Alto, CA:

    Is it fair to blame an apple for not being an orange? He’s not like you. So what?

    Kudos for going beyond “I don’t like it” to say WHAT about it gave you those reactions.

    I don’t dislike this book because Monty Don is a different personality type than I am. I’m always interested in people who are different than I am because I feel they have something to teach me. I’m currently reading his “The Ivington Diaries” and enjoying it immensely. — mss