March 2005

Colleen Mondor


The Finest Garden Writing in the English Language

One of the most appealing articles I found in the first issue of Slightly Foxed was a discussion of Julia Blackburn’s book, The Emperor’s Last Island: A Journey to Helena. I learned very little about Napoleon Bonaparte in school (even while getting a BA in History), and the picture of the little deposed emperor cultivating a garden in his final years was so far removed from my own distorted image of him that I could scarcely believe it was true. Writer David Wheeler did an outstanding job of examining Blackburn’s text while delighting in his own imagining of Bonaparte’s possible dreams to create, “avenues of tall trees where he could walk in the shade; a summerhouse where he could take tea and a grotto where breakfast could be served.” I immediately added Blackburn’s book to my want list, but more importantly, I discovered at the end of the article that Wheeler edits a gardening quarterly, Hortus, which he founded in 1987.

I have a love/hate relationship with garden writing. I am attracted by the possibilities that most garden books offer. Maybe I too could have an “exuberant tropical back garden” or “woodsy yet sophisticated retreat”! Just buy the coffee table book and subscribe to the magazines and it could happen… yeah, right. I get disappointed a lot, I’m afraid. For writer Ursula Buchan, also a Hortus contributor, this is the new standard for garden writing. She refers to it in Slightly Foxed as, “the highly illustrated, large-format gardening book which is expensive to produce, full of dreamy ‘inspirational’ color photographs and often with a truncated and colorless text…” She longs more for the “chatty gardening book” and considers Charles Elliott, whose Potting Shed Papers was published in 2002, a throwback to that old style of “generally interesting, amusing literary works written by educated cultured people for the edification of an equally educated gardening readership.” Elliott himself has said it isn’t an easy genre to crack, as "It’s pretty difficult for mere prose to match the grandeur of a photograph, in full glowing color, of a perennial border in high summer, say -- especially if the photographer thought to use a sky filter." And he’s right. That’s why I fall for the coffee table books every time. They sell me what I want my yard to look like, what I long for my yard to look like. And although I do have a small collection of dry but necessary how-tos (how to tell if your houseplant has one nasty bug as opposed to another), it is the big glossies in the bookstore that I can not seem to resist. What I’d like, though, is to read more of Buchan’s chatty books, more from people who know what it’s like to face a big boring patch of green and can make some suggestions about what to with it. Most importantly they can do this without being dull, which quite frankly is the hallmark of any good writer, regardless of genre distinctions.

Although Slightly Foxed has managed to include garden writing in all of its issues, the magazine is devoted to books and reading in general, and not gardens in particular. So Hortus was the obvious answer to my quest. It seemed the logical place to look for intelligent and inspiring writing on the subject of gardens. To be honest, I didn’t expect much. I am an amateur in this area after all, and gardeners can be incredibly intimidating when they want to be. But the Bonaparte article gave me reason to hope, and now, after reviewing three lovely issues of the journal, I am delighted to write that I have finally found the elegant gardening stories that Ms. Buchan pined for. In fact, what I have found is a rich resource not only for gardening, but for just flat-out good writing as well.

Hortus proposes to address garden writing as a literary genre, while also including a healthy dose of articles on plant selection and care. This means that you can find everything from a poem about pomegranates, an A-Z of Pacific Northwest gardening (which includes everything from plants to plant hunters to “J is for Junk”), to a seasonal review of plant varieties for all sorts of climates. From there you find all sorts of articles exploring what Wheelers describes as “the beating heart” of gardening. This is garden writing about Nathaniel Hawthorne, the conflicting definitions of prickles and thorns (an article which includes references to everything from The Passion of the Christ to Christina Rossetti) and plant collecting in East Africa. There is science, history, travel and the most poignant of personal essays, such as Rosemary Lindsay’s memorial to her friend Sue, a “haphazard gardener who had a surprising knack for cuttings.” Wheeler actively commissions articles on “the day-to-day people (historical and contemporary) who ‘made’ gardening.” This determination to keep Hortus focused on a “broad sweep” is why he introduced the Gardens in Fiction series, articles that explore the “work of such diverse novelists as Dickens, Jane Austen, Henry James, Flaubert, Virginia Woolf and Colette…” This is the “cross fertilization of ideas” that Wheeler believes Hortus thrives on and it is utterly compelling to readers. It is clear in fact that in each issue that Wheeler has not wavered from his goal of attaining balance. “It has always been our aim in Hortus to link gardening to other human activities,” he wrote in the Winter 2004 issue, “not to isolate it in what the late Bernard Levin once described as 'single-issue fanaticism.'" This means “domestic and foreign pieces, and articles about history, design, ornament, books, plants, gardens themselves and, of course -- never forgetting the human input: the gardeners and garden-makers themselves.” What he’s really looking for, he admits quite frankly, is excellence. The fact that he achieves it in such a unique way is testament to his long love of gardening and even more so, to his dedication in obtaining his goal.

So what have I learned in my perusal of the most recent issues of Hortus? Well, from Helen Pizzi, I know that landscape architect Maurizio Ciarapica has created an “unorthodox Mediterranean miracle” with native plants in the sands of a Roman seaside town. Catherine Nicholson recounts how carver Grinling Gibbons created “luxuriant, naturalistic surface decoration celebrating the succulence and fecundity of the natural world” from 1671 until his death in 1721. One of his flower covered relief panels is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. According to retired microbiologist and historian of science, Peter James, the science of leaf color is a fascinating subject that includes references to art and literature and quotes from physicists to physiologists. He even compares it to the workings of a grand piano in a fascinating passage that states, “The top sixty notes of a grand piano’s eighty-eight consist of three strings each, the next eighteen of two. When these triplets and doublets are struck by the hammer they vibrate in complex ways and at slightly different but overlapping frequencies; because these strings are very close together and attached to the same bridge and sounding board, there is a feedback established through which they transfer and share the energy of their vibrations. The same thing happens with the electrons of chlorophyll and those of its necessary pigments.”

Yeah, you’ll find writing like that on the newsstand.

As a group, what I have enjoyed the most however, are the articles on travel. I was chagrinned to read Noel Kingsbury’s comment that, “In the U.S. garden-making is dominated by the figure of Martha Stewart, as are cooking, interior design, flower arrangement and indeed all the domestic arts.” I have no bone to pick with Martha, but what bothers me about this statement is that Martha can only show us one way to do things: her way. And her way is quite obviously through the eyes of an American gardener. She might craft an Indian or Mediterranean inspired display, but they will never be more than inspired, they can not be the real thing. To see that, to learn about that, you have to actually go to a foreign country and look and study and write, something that does not happen too often in American garden magazines. It is very enjoyable then to read Jo Manby’s piece on "India’s Garden Pantheons," which starts with Edward Lear’s arrival in Bombay in 1872, and Kristina Taylor’s excerpt from her 2004 travel diary, a botanical journey to Sichuan, China. In previous issues there are articles about destinations such as Italy, Spain and Greece, all written by people who visited gardens there and learned about the people who planted them and the plants they chose. It is a different approach to gardening from what we Americans are used to, but something that we sorely need to consider. It’s time not to look for the imitation but the real thing, and see just how they are doing things, “over there.”
Overall, Hortus is the most well-rounded of magazines, a treat both visually and intellectually. It clearly comes from a person who is passionate about both gardening and the craft of writing. As Wheeler writes, “We need more garden writing, in just the same way as we need more writing of all kinds. The full human story -- and gardening has its place there -- remains untold, and will continue to remain untold as long as people go on making gardens and creating in all manner of other ways.”

As it comes from England, like Slightly Foxed, the annual subscription price with overseas postage may seem daunting to North Americans. However about one-third of Hortus subscribers are from the U.S. and the magazine’s consideration of U.S. gardening should not be overlooked by curious American readers. “Certainly no other periodical outside the USA has turned such a spotlight on its own horticultural endeavors,” writes Wheeler. I’ll go one step further and ask if any national glossy has ever carried a thoughtful story on Louis Comfort Tiffany and the gardens of Laurelton Hall or the centenary of the NY Botanical Gardens.

I didn’t think so.

You really have to look at each issue of Hortus as a book purchase and not as something to toss in the recycle bin after a quick turn at page flipping. Hortus is for serious reading, for absorbing, for sitting back with a nice cold drink and putting your feet up and disappearing within. It will not give you easy answers for container planting or quick flower arrangements. It does not make breathy promises that “you too can craft a center for entertaining!” But it will fill your mind with names and places and ideas you have not thought of. It will transport you. And in the end you will put aside your latest issue as a visit from a dear friend who shares your love of both gardening and good writing. And believe me, regardless of your own gardening failures or successes, you will not be disappointed by Hortus.