The very best books on my shelves suffer scribbles in their margins. Future book sellers will either be amused or dismayed by my vandalism, but I cannot stop myself (and I always use pencil). A good book speaks to you and prompts you to answer back. It is a long and involved conversation over many nights filled with questions, observations, exclamations, counterpoints, wine stains, and opinion. When you finish, you have consumed, and that book is set apart from those you have merely fondled or fiddled with. Windcliff by Daniel Hinkley, plantsman, botanical explorer and one of our newest Ranters, is one such book.
Windcliff is amusing, educational, inspirational, and refreshingly filled with moments of vulnerability and humility. But most importantly, it’s not just a book for plant collectors – which is where my prejudices neatly boxed it when the press release went out last autumn; and which were further compounded by Thomas Christopher’s initial review on GardenRant.
I felt that gardeners deserved another perspective; and with Elizabeth Licata’s recommendation earlier this week for readers truly in search of American gardens, it seemed a good time.
Windcliff is a book for gardeners who love plants; who may, or may not, have design chops; who instinctively connect plants with people and events; and who are inspired by the vigor and beauty of the natural world. It is for gardeners who are not afraid to experiment, and who wish to painlessly expand their knowledge of genera with which they might not otherwise work – and inspire themselves to work with genera they may have avoided up until now.
And of course, it is for those interested in botanical travel and exploration – Hinkley’s undeniable legacy to the horticultural world.
A creation story
Hinkley’s desire to set down the story of his current six-and-a-half-acre garden is his inspiration, and that history is expertly captured and enhanced by the images of Australian photographer Claire Takacs. The garden is two decades in the making and perched on a south facing promontory overlooking the deep and icy cold Puget Sound in Indianola, Washington. It is a Pacific Northwest garden that sits under the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains and forces its inhabitants to maintain working relationships with hoses.
But though Windcliff is the subject of the book, it is not a tour guide taking you from plant to plant, room to room. Instead it is about creation, and of the many lessons learned over time by an experienced gardener who admits there is still much more to discover.
More than anything, I appreciated the willingness of Hinkley to share these lessons. To share the fact that his garden “is not the one captured in these extraordinary photographs at just the right moment, in the precise light, by a talented artist.” That it has “more days dead in a ditch than anyone could imagine.” Such admissions are valuable to all gardeners who at one time or another stare at those corpses themselves, and feel inadequate to the task at hand.
Hinkley is encouraging to those ever-striving to increase their horticultural knowledge and experience, telling us to think of gardening as a set of open spiral stairs. “Wherever we are on the staircase, we can look up to people who know more than us, and we can look back to see those who are now where we once were.” he says. “We are continually climbing and getting better at what we do in this astonishing, maddening craft.”
A practical story
For those who dig deeply, and do not skim the book for the names of collectible gems, the true treasure is found in much of his exceptionally practical gardening advice.
Don’t buy the “mature, meaningless blob of nothing to fill [a] gap.” he admonishes. You will regret it, eventually evict it, and be forced to painfully begin again. He tips us off to use the tools of technology to turn a color snap into black and white, and thereby study textural contrasts without the distraction of color. He reminds us that “vines did not co-evolve with arbors” and that in allowing a vine to clamber horizontally in its search for a scaffold, one is often treated to an unexpected and delightful groundcover.
An amusing story
Humorous garden writing is so often boxed into small books of essays that it is refreshing when one finds it unexpectedly woven into the text of volumes with a larger scope. Hinkley excels at flashes of wry (often self-deprecating) humor. In one instance he likens the outrageously garbled and riotous patches of azalea color in suburban Seattle neighborhoods each spring to “any set of long nails drawn across a fresh blackboard.” He pleads with readers to draw out their season past “three weeks of chromatic discord” even if it means having credit card companies step in and deny purchases.
‘LOL’ figures heavily in my scribbled notes – several times with exclamation marks – and I believe I underlined it when he describes painfully quiet dinners with his architect husband Robert Jones early in the garden’s development. There certainly was cause for concern at the time. Hinkley’s resourceful use of anything and everything to mulch a jumble of plugs and four-inch pots had turned a “scene of green repose” into “that of a midcentury trailer park.”
LOL indeed. I have been there. I still am there.
A plant lover’s story
And of course there are the plants. This is where I departed the margins and headed for a crisp sheet of 8 1/2×11, dreaming of future experiments that are half-fantasy, half-reality. Darmera pelata, Epimedium ‘Windfire’, Yucca rostrata, Erythonium ‘Pagoda’, Campanula lactiflora, Austroderia richardii, Calycanthus x raulstonii, Hydrangea angustipetala ‘Golden Crane’, give Eucomis another try…, Sorbus anything at this point Marianne, etc. etc. etc.
Pacific Northwest and maritime climate gardeners will of course get the most from this book (and stand to lose the most money in pursuit of its temptations), but gardeners in other regions should still take note. Hinkley provides provenance and favored growing conditions for many of his greatest treasures – clues which may allow resourceful gardeners to find the right place for something new and unfamiliar.
Considering Dan Hinkley’s vast experience and well-earned status in the horticultural world, there is remarkably little show of ego in Windcliff, which is another reason why I felt it deserved a more in-depth review on GardenRant.
There are only two moments in this book when the vulnerable heart in this gardener was pricked. One where Hinkley mentions a very specific garden (specific enough to make me realize I’d been to it) and the way it underwhelms him; and another when he allows his editor to cut out the names of travelling companions that the publisher deemed not important enough for inclusion – and mentions the act. Hinkley uses the first example as a fine teaching moment to recognize the dismissiveness that we unconsciously build as we get better at what we do, and to recognize the value of every garden to its gardener when passion is at play.
In his reflection and self-admonition, all is forgiven.
Is Windcliff a book for plant collectors? Certainly. But there is greater depth here that I urge enthusiastic and curious gardeners to explore. If your aim is to get better at what you love to do, Hinkley’s wisdom will help you as you slowly climb a few more steps of that spiral staircase. And hopefully, you, like Hinkley, will take the time to reach down and grab the hand of another mad gardener just below. – MW