Books

Being Anna Pavord

Here's the post that appeared on Kirkus last Thursday. Tune in here for Susan's thoughts on The New American Landscape.

9781408808887

There can be great pleasure in reading gardening advice that has little or no practical relevance for you. That’s why we cherish the British garden writers. From Christopher Lloyd’s tropicals and perennials to Graham Thomas’s roses to Anna Pavord’s tulips, these titles remain the backbone of the literary gardening library. The fact that only a tiny area in the Pacific Northwest comes even vaguely close to equaling British conditions matters not a whit. American gardening anglophilia continues unabated.

Why? It’s simple—the love of gardening seems so much more a part of the British national psyche than it is here. At least it looks that way to us. From the smallest allotment to the most formidably manicured estate, gardening is a widely beloved pastime as well as a refined art form in the UK.

Anna Pavord has been one of British gardening’s voices for well over forty years, as gardening correspondent for the Independent and author of such books as Foliage, The Flowering Year, The Tulip, Bulb, and The Naming of Names.  She remains most famous for The Tulip, which is one of the most thrilling botanical nonfiction titles available to date. Its subject (in part) is flower obsession, which explains its continuing popularity. A good gardener is almost invariably an obsessive gardener.

Pavord reveals more of her floral obsessions as well as some fascinating observations that have nothing to do with gardening in The Curious Gardener (Bloomsbury, 2010), which has 12 chapters, one for each month of the year. Each chapter contains 6 essays previously published in the Independent, with a list of tasks for that month at the end.

This is vicarious gardening at its most carefree. According to Pavord, in February I should be feeding herbaceous borders, winter-pruning wisteria, mulching between certain perennials and performing a host of other (mostly) unpleasant sounding tasks. That won’t be happening. I’ll be enjoying Pavord’s strictures by the fire, as my February garden rests under its billows of white.

Although the lists of tasks are interesting, the essays are the satisfying meat of the book. Sadly few newspapers in the U.S. even bother with garden correspondents now, much less anyone this good. Not since Henry Mitchell’s death anyway.  I would love to open my newspaper and read statements like:

“Only fools view their gardens in monetary terms, supposing that any amount spent on hard landscaping must automatically be grappled back into the asking price of their houses. The real point of a garden is to increase the value of our lives.”

Or

“There’s hope in daffodils. That’s a dangerously fragile commodity at the best of times, but now is the season to indulge it.”

As I read these observations, drawn from a garden 4,000 miles away, I am not taking notes or worrying that my results will never fulfill my expectations, no matter how hard I work and how much money I spend. I am recognizing another gardener and affirming—once again— gardening’s importance.

Posted by on September 8, 2011 at 5:11 am, in the category Books.
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5 Responses to “Being Anna Pavord”

  1. “There’s hope in daffodils. That’s a dangerously fragile commodity at the best of times, but now is the season to indulge it.”

    This is a wonderful sentiment! This spring, after over a hundred daffs, as well as a large number of crocus, tulips, narcissus (and there must be another I’m forgetting), there was the joy of discovery, every day for weeks, of what had been planted the autumn before. I’d forgotten what all was planted, you see, so it was all a marvel to me.

    There is a lovely and slim gardening book called The Gardener’s Year, by Karel Capek (yes, the author of RUR/Rossum’s Universal Robots), illustrated by his brother. Mishaps abound, hilarity ensues.

    Gardeners will laugh often, and non-gardeners will get the humor as well, unlike non-linguists who attempt to grok why linguists are hurting themselves laughing over the various essays in Studies Out in Left Field, which is an homage to a well-known (among linguists & polyglots) linguistician who teaches in the field.

  2. eliz says:

    Thanks A. Marina,

    I have and really like the Capek book–it is part of a re-released series of classic gardening books that I have been collecting. Michael Pollan is the editor, I THINK. (Don’t have it here)

  3. Susan says:

    It is a shame that we no longer have Henry Mitchell around, and especially that American newspapers don’t seem interested in finding the next Henry Mitchell. I get so tired of reading canned, syndicated gardening columns in my paper that come from other parts of the country which may not be relevant to me (and that frequently have incorrect information!). As far as gardening authors, some of my other favorites include Elizabeth Lawrence, Eleanor Perenyi, Allen Lacey and Beverley Nichols. There’s also a very snarky and funny book called “The Anxious Gardener”. It’s written by a Brit (name escapes me just now) – really droll and a lot of fun!

  4. Astra says:

    Yes, I love reading her cultivation notes in Bulbs. She says that allium christophii is hard to keep going, when I have to spend time every spring weeding out its endless offspring!

  5. Kath says:

    I did once commit Henry Mitchell’s ulitmate sin. I deliberately killed a camellia. Even though I still think I did the right thing every time I re-read his books I feel quilty. Katherine S. White is also a good garden read. Gardening books abound every year and yet it gets harder and harder to find any books about the experience of gardening.

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