Book Reviews


A Nation Sown by Gardeners

‘Founding Gardeners’
Reviewed by BEL MILLS

George Washington was an obsessive gardener; Thomas Jefferson, a stealthy seed smuggler; and John Adams, so taken with manure, he once examined a pile of it while on a diplomatic excursion in Europe.

These are just some of the amusing revelations awaiting readers of “Founding Gardeners,” Andrea Wulf’s engrossing follow-up to her award-winning book, The Brother Gardeners. Here Andrea Wulf makes the case that we can’t understand the first four presidents, and the nation they envisioned, unless we understand how these men saw themselves: as gardeners, first and foremost.
Take George Washington, Revolutionary War hero and first U.S. president. When 32,000 British troops prepared to invade New York the summer of 1776, General Washington rallied his men, reminding them they were “Freemen fighting for the blessings of liberty.” Washington knew his men were not only inexperienced but also woefully outnumbered and weakened by smallpox. With these facts no doubt weighing on his mind, Washington made certain, before he slept, to write a long letter to the manager of his Virginia plantation, pondering, Wulf wrote, “’the voluptuous blossom of rhododendron, the sculptural flowers of mountain laurel and the perfect pink of crabapple.’”
On the brink of war, Washington was busy planning two groves to be planted on either side of his home.

While this scene will ring true for any gardener who has obsessed about their hobby at an inopportune moment, Wulf says Washington’s timing was not altogether inappropriate. He was, in fact, planning a garden planted with trees native only to America, with no British trees allowed. At a time when British landscape design was all the rage among colonists—Washington was planning the first all-American ornamental garden.

These overlaps between plants and politics are everywhere in Wulf’s book, and for good reason. For America’s Founders, she writes, politics and plants were a single patriotic endeavor. In fact, even though every one of them, except for Adams, used slaves in their farming operations, they nonetheless believed that self-sufficient farmers were the guardians of liberty and the key to America’s future as an independent agrarian nation.

So it should come as no surprise that Jefferson, during his early trips to Europe, not only assisted Adams in trade negotiations, but also toured British gardens, and risked death to fill his coat pockets with Italian rice grains to distribute to green-thumb friends back home. Indeed, despite having penned the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson insisted that the “greatest service that can be rendered any country, is to add an useful plant to it’s culture.” True to his word, after he retired from the presidency in 1809, Jefferson devoted the crowning glory of his Monticello estate-- his 1,000 foot-long vegetable terrace-- not to feeding his own family, but to experimenting with new crops for American farmers.

By now we shouldn’t be surprised that the Founders were also fascinated with manure.  Jefferson declared a British pamphlet on the topic a “charming treatise,” and Washington went as far as to dream of a farm manager who “Midas like,” could “convert every thing he touches into manure.” Adams mixed his manure with mud, lime, and seaweed, and once --while serving as the American Minister to the court at St. James’s Palace-- even hopped into a  pile on the outskirts of London, “teasing apart the straw from the dung…before announcing with glee that it was ‘not equal to mine.’” Madison’s appreciation of animal waste was perhaps the most advanced of the four. Though soil chemistry was still in its infancy-- and the carbon and nitrogen cycles had yet to be understood-- he argued that vegetable matter that springs from the earth must return there. This, together with his arguments against exploiting nature for our own purposes, Wulf points out, marks him as the first pioneer of the American environmental movement, predating both John Muir and Henry David Thoreau.

Some of Wulf’s claims, to be sure, are overambitious. Her suggestion that a fortuitously timed garden tour helped the delegates of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia overcome a political stalemate, for example, is speculative at best. But her insistence that America’s Founders saw themselves as gardeners at heart has evidence on its side. In no other person is this more poignantly clear than in Washington, who fell ill after spending hours inspecting his farms during an icy storm in 1799. He ventured out again the following day nonetheless, marking trees he wanted removed to improve the appearance of his back lawn. He would die just a few days later, but not before he’d penned one last, nineteen page letter to his estate manager with instructions on crop rotations and manures.

History buffs, for sure, will find bushels of insights in Wulf’s new book. But gardeners, I have no doubt, will be this book’s most grateful audience. For us, Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison will no longer be just Founding Fathers, but kindred spirits as well.

Fast, Fresh Garden Edibles:
Quick Crops for Small Spaces.
By Jane Courtier

I purchased Jane Courtier’s vegetable gardening book from the grocery store. I concede, it was somewhat of an impulse buy (complete with twin five-year-olds tugging on my sleeves). Since our family short on both space and time I thought “quick crops for small spaces” sounded like a great fit.

But mostly, to be honest, I was mesmerized by the photos in the book. Standing in the store aisle, I had just enough time to take in the gorgeous pictures, read a few blurbs of text, and drop the book in my cart. I figured with this book as a guide, my veggie patch would be as beautiful as it is productive. Here are a few of the photos that drew me in:

Published by Creative Homeowner in 2011, Courtier's guide didn’t disappoint-- at first. I appreciated the organization and layout. Courtier includes sections on watering, weeding, harvesting and preserving, as well as pages dedicated to 33 different types of kitchen crops.  A wide variety of vegetables, herbs, and berries are covered, from arugula all the way to zucchini with strawberries and pole beans in between. The author also offers interesting facts about specific vegetables, like the fact that wrinkled pea seeds produce sweeter peas than smooth seeds. Or the fact that tomatoes shouldn’t be watered much until flowers appear, to encourage more fruit and less leafy growth.

But in the end, the gorgeous photographs that enticed me in were the most intensely frustrating aspect of the book.  In her section on planting a garden in courtyards or paved areas, for example, she includes this gorgeous photo of cherry tomatoes tumbling over the rim of a straw hanging basket.

I decided I absolutely had to have some of these marvelous hanging-basket tomatoes in my own yard. But when I read the text under the photo, I found Courtier had left me out to dry. She says “there are a lot of tomato types specially bred for basket growing.” Does she tell us which ones? No, sir.

So I flipped to the section dedicated to tomatoes. Surely she would cover this important point there, I thought. Bingo! Another beautiful photo of hanging-basket tomatoes!

Also, another maddeningly evasive caption. This one read: “For the best sweet, juicy tomatoes in a hanging basket, look for varieties that have been especially developed to grow in them.”

It wasn’t until the last section, under her list of tomato “Favorites” that the mystery is solved. Out of 16 varieties she lists, two, ‘Red Robin’ and ‘Tumbler’ are both described as appropriate for hanging.

But by the time I happened upon this information, I had already started to look elsewhere for answers. Searching online, I, discovering an article from the British online newspaper The Telegraph listing the best tomato varieties to hang in baskets including: ‘Hundreds and Thousands,’ ‘Tumbler,’ ‘Garden Pearl,’ ‘Tumbling Tom Yellow,’ and ‘Tumbling Tom Red.’ The article gives a great example of a helpful relationship between photos and text. At the top is this fantastic photo:

 Under the photo is a caption stating: "Tomato 'Hundreds and Thousands' is ideal for a hanging basket." Thank you, The Telegraph.

In another photo in Courtier’s guide, giant, succulent bell peppers growing happily in diminutive pots.

Seeing the picture made me reconsider my recent rant against the Magic Plant company, and their claim that a fruiting Ghost Chile plant can be raised in a beverage-sized can.

After finding the photo caption useless for identifying the plants, I rushed to the section on growing peppers for more information. I had to know which peppers could be raised in such cramped quarters.  Again, Courtier’s text left me cold. “The size of the container required,” she says, “depends on the variety of pepper because some plants are far more compact than others.” Only after combing through her “Favorites” list again could I find two or three with the word “compact” in their description. 

In the end, the awkward relationship between the photos and the content is by far the weakest part of the book. It left me with the unsatisfying impression-- accurate or not-- that the author had no familiarity with the gardens or photos in the book, and that the photos were selected from an image gallery by someone else after the fact.

If you buy the book with the intention of recreating some of the beautiful gardens pictured, then this drawback is a deal breaker. You won't be able to look at the pictures and find information close by to help you recreate what you see. You will have to comb the text to find out which varieties produce results similar to the images. In many cases, you'll never know exactly which variety of vegetables are pictured in the book.

On the other hand, if you are an information-driven gardener who starts with the text, rather than the photos, then Courtier's work may serve as a perfectly adequate beginner's guide and reference book.

The Earth Day Reading Project is  a  little idea cooked up by fellow garden blogger, The Sage Butterfly.

So I’ll use this space to share three books that have moved me to care more about Earth and the creatures and plants living here.

You may notice these books aren’t necessarily about Green Living.

They are also some of the best books I’ve ever read.

Here they are:

The Cosmic Serpent  by Jeremy Narby

 Anthropologist Jeremy Narby has written an account of Shamanic communication between plants and people that reads like the best mystery or thriller. It also humbled this reader with its perspective on the “intelligence” of non-human life forms, especially plants.

Siddhartha  by Herman Hesse

This account of how Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha is inspiring throughout, but ends with an unforgettable description of the interconnectedness of all things. “This is a stone,” says Siddhartha at the end “and within a certain length of time it will perhaps be soil and from the soil it will become plant, animal, or man… [But] I do not respect and love it because it was one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything.” This book also comforts me when I fear that the world is falling apart. Siddhartha says to his friend, Govinda, “The world, Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people—eternal life…Therefore it seems to me that everything that exists is good—death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly.”

Ishmael  by Daniel Quinn

 This book, published as a global wake-up call in 1992, is probably more relevant today than ever. It was the first book I’d ever read that detailed exactly how humans violate the natural laws of competition between species, and what has happened as a result.