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The Beauty of Gardening
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The Beauty of Gardening

By kileyturner
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tagged: gardening, memoir
For some, gardening is a form of religion, a way of literally grounding that no other art or practice can match. Here's a list of beautiful books celebrating the love of earth, plants, and flowers.
There Is A Season

There Is A Season

A Memoir
tagged : literary

Believed by many to be one of the finest poets of his generation, Patrick Lane is also a passionate gardener. He lives on Vancouver Island, a place of uncommon beauty, where the climate is mild, the air is soft, and the growing season lasts nearly all year long.

Lane has gardened for as long as he can remember, and sees his garden’s life as intertwined with his own. And when he gave up drinking, after years of addiction, he found solace and healing in tending to his yard. In this exquisitely wr …

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“If what we know is what resembles us, what we know is a garden.”
I stood alone among yellow glacier lilies and the windflowers of spring, the western anemone, their petals frail disks of trembling clotted cream. I was a boy and the mountain ridge I’d climbed was only a half-hour hike from the back door of my home. In the east the blue peaks of the Monashee Range rose up against the Selkirks and beyond them the far Rockies and the plains. I had wandered that morning among sheltered coulees and rocky hills and, finally resting, stared out at the paling distance.

The high hills and mountains were my solitary land and I hiked the trails year-round. The days were all one to me back then, and the scuffed pad of a cougar’s track in the wet clay of Six-Mile Creek in summer was no less wondrous than the spread toes of a coyote’s paw print in a fringe of January snow on the BX Ranch where he had braced to leap upon a vole or scurrying mouse who had come lucklessly into the thin winter sun.

There were black bears and the occasional cougar or bobcat in those hills, but when I saw one I felt awe, not fear. Even then I knew what a blessing an animal was. Any creature’s appearance was a gift the wilderness gave me. The animals of the backcountry were unused to humans in those days and they stepped around me as much as I did them. Sometimes a cougar would take a lamb or two in the spring from some flock and then the game warden would walk his dogs into the hills to track the big cat down. He hated killing cougars.

Often he would take me along on those trips; why, I don’t know. Perhaps he felt sorry for me or perhaps my father asked him to in the hope it would make me a man. Gazing at a cougar lolling on a high limb of a ponderosa pine above Lumby while the cougar dogs slung their howls from the foot of the tree at the flick of its black-tipped tail was to look at a god. I watched from the back of an old white horse as Mr. Frisbee pulled his Winchester from beside his saddle and brought the cougar down with a single shot. The cougar falling from the sky was my first huge death.

I remember touching the rough blond hair of a dead cat’s nape, the curve of its long yellow incisors, and the dead ball of its eye as it stared sightless through me to the fading sun. These deaths drew me toward a compassion I didn’t fully understand. All I knew was that such sentiments were not spoken of among men or boys. Feeling deeply about something was never shown.

But it is not the cougars or bobcats, the bears or rattlesnakes of that early wilderness I think of now. It is another early memory that stays in my mind. I was up in the Bluebush hills west of Kalamalka and Okanagan Lake. I had hiked back into the hills with a peanut butter and jam sandwich, two apples, and a water bottle in the army satchel my father had brought back from the Second World War. I took it with me whenever I hiked out for a day. I stood on a crest in a frothing meadow of glacier lilies and anemones, and their fragile beauty remains with me. It lives in the blood and muscle of me and I can still call it up and bring it into spirit.

Grasses, their stalks flattened and flung by the winter snow, lay like fallen hair upon the earth, and their new green spears caught the wind with frail hands. A mountain meadow and a boy in the long-ago of the last century. Did I know then it was a garden I looked out upon? Had I been asked I would not have understood the question. Garden? Wilderness? I gave the meadow no thought. Had someone asked me if what I saw was beautiful I would not have known what he meant. A boy is a boy and he is the place he inhabits. He is what surrounds him and the boy I was remains with me in the image of yellow lilies and creamy anemones among the grasses and scattered stones.

What was I, ten years old? A child, a stripling boy, but those mountains and deserts live in me still and when I go back into that country my heart surges with sudden blood. The past hurls itself at me at times. My bones remember the water and the stones. I grew my body from that mountain earth, and my cells remember the cactus and pines, the lilies and grasses. I am as much blessed as burdened by this.

It is such beauty that made me into a gardener. Perhaps by planting flowers and shrubs and trees I am trying to return to that earlier paradise. Yet finally, not. My garden today is another kind of paradise, and I am not the boy wandering in what another might call loneliness but to me was solitude.

What I do remember is squatting and building a small cairn of stones in the middle of the meadow. There was no death to cover over, no occasion to ritualize other than the day itself and the curious busyness of a boy. But, like all animals, I wanted to leave some mark that I had been there so others who followed would know of my passing. Perhaps the mound of stones is still there or perhaps it’s been kicked over by a deer or coyote or some other boy who pillaged the cairn to make his own curious mark. Perhaps the snow, ice, and wind have spilled it. Whether or not the cairn is gone, the stones remain like ghosts in my hands and that is enough.

Today, fifty-two years later, I am not in a mountain meadow in southern British Columbia. I am in my garden on Vancouver Island and it is early January in the first year of the new century. The sky is grey and the small drops of rainwater gathered on moss and fallen leaves glimmer like opals in the winter sun. In the declivities of grass, apples lie where they fell three months ago. Under the scrabbled branches of the apple tree a red-shafted flicker carves white flesh from a fallen fruit. He feeds on the slim bounty of the season and doesn’t fully trust the grass and moss I still call a lawn though each year I starve it, encouraging the mosses to flourish. The flicker’s claws are better suited to the bark of trees where he spends the day climbing patiently up the trunks in search of insects who have buried themselves in slits to sleep out the gloomy winter months.

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The Untamed Garden

The Untamed Garden

A Revealing Look at Our Love Affair with Plants
also available: Paperback

Which suggestive plant caused a queen to faint when it was presented to her at court? What was the original French name for the Great Maiden's Blush rose that had the Victorians blushing? Why are figs and pomegranates thought to be the real forbidden fruit that led Adam and Eve into temptation?

In this delightful gift book, master gardener Sonia Day brings together delicious tidbits from myth, history, botany, and plant lore to reveal how plants have seduced our hearts, minds, and bodies througho …

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The Madonna Lily
The purest flower in the world
Ever wondered where the expression that a virgin has been “deflowered” comes from?
The answer lies in prudish attitudes to the facts of life, which persisted—amazingly—for thousands of years.
It may sound laughable today, but people actually once clung to the belief that plants were somehow different from the rest of us. That is, they didn’t have sex in order to reproduce themselves. Instead, the botanical world was a totally pure and innocent place, a sort of fantasy land, in fact. Thus a girl who lost her virginity was said to have been deflowered because she no longer possessed the sexless quality of a flower. Yes, pretty weird stuff. Yet plants were imbued with this strange ideal for a surprisingly long time—well into the twentieth century—and by a surprisingly diverse group of experts. Over the years, not one philosopher, doctor, botanist, or naturalist saw fit to challenge this belief—which seems odd, when you think about it. Although their lives were dedicated to the pursuit of science, these learned gents didn’t ever bother to ask themselves a couple of basic questions. One: if plants don’t have sex with each other, then how do they go about producing more plants? And two: what are their seeds for?
The flower that best sums up this cockeyed attitude to nature is the Madonna lily. Look closely at almost any early ecclesiastical art that features the Virgin Mary—there’s lots in churches and art galleries throughout Italy and Spain—and this lily, whose Latin name is Lilium candidum, is likely to be included somewhere. Early Christians regarded the flower as sacred because the pristine white petals symbolized Mary’s spotless body, while its clusters of golden stamens represented a soul gleaming with heavenly light. In one famous painting, called the Annunciation, which hangs in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, master artist Leonardo da Vinci has even positioned a big spray of Madonna lilies smack next to the nose of an angel, who is shown in profile. And they are huge, these blooms. Suspended apparently in mid-air, they jump out at you. In choosing to depict the lilies so prominently, Leonardo clearly wanted us to notice their symbolism.
This painting shows the moment when the angel announces to Mary that she will give birth to the son of God—and his message is obvious. She is pure. But so is the white flower beside her.
Flowers Finally Get a Sex Life
Pity Monsieur M. Pouyanne. This belief in the purity of plants got him into deep trouble. He was a Frenchman toiling as a judge advocate in steamy Algeria at the beginning of the twentieth century. But his passion was the study of nature, and one day he noticed something extraordinary happening to an orchid in his collection, called Ophrys speculum. A wasp landed on it, clung to one of its petals, and performed some energetic jerky movements—an act that looked suspiciously as if the wasp was trying to mate with the flower. Then he noticed that the centre of this orchid looked remarkably like the female version of the same wasp. So in 1916, he wrote an article for the Journal of the National Horticultural Society of France suggesting that this activity indeed might be mating and that the orchid actually mimicked the appearance of the female wasp in order to “achieve some goal.”
Pouyanne’s prose was mild, the typical dry fodder of horticultural journals. Mindful of the prevailing attitudes of the day (and that, as an amateur naturalist, he wouldn’t be regarded as an expert), he did not go so far as to propose that the orchid was trying to trick the wasp into collecting pollen on its body so that when it flew away to another orchid, the grains would get carried along too and be transferred to the sexual apparatus of the second orchid, thereby helping pollination to take place. No, he was much more cautious than that. Even so, the French judge’s words provoked a firestorm. Dirty old man! howled the academic establishment. What a ridiculous suggestion, shrieked botanists. How could a learned journal print such rubbish, because plants don’t—repeat, don’t—have sexual organs. Even Charles Darwin, granddaddy of evolution, huffed that he “could not possibly conjecture” what the bee’s frantic jigging up and down on the orchid was all about.
Yet the critics couldn’t really be written off as silly, self-important fools. They were only doing what had been done for centuries. Over and over again. Ad nauseam. Long before Pouyanne’s controversial opinion piece, luminaries were getting their knuckles rapped for theorizing that plants required a sexual act to reproduce themselves. One expert who took a lot of heat in this regard was Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. After studying stamens (which he concluded were the male part of the flower) and pistils (their female counterpart), he devised a new system of classifying plants according to the number and arrangement of their reproductive organs. In his manuscripts, Linnaeus also, in a very daring move, often attributed human attitudes and behaviour to plants’ sexual characteristics. One group he described, for instance, as “openly celebrating marriage in a way that is obvious to all” (in other words, their sexual organs were noticeably prominent in their flowers). In his mania to classify everything, Linnaeus even categorized his comely young wife, Sara, as his “monandrian lily”—because the flower signified virginity and “monandrian” meant “having only one man.”
But Linnaeus wasn’t taken seriously either. Although this eminently sensible botanist came up with a satisfactory system of naming and classifying plants that (despite a few quibbles) is still in use today, he went to his grave (at the age of seventy in 1778) worried sick about the “divine retaliation” that was in store for him. The reason? The critics called his theories about plant sex “obscene” and “offensive to public decency.”

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Sheridan Nurseries

Sheridan Nurseries

One Hundred Years of People, Plans, and Plants
also available: Hardcover eBook

In 1913, Howard Dunington-Grubb and his wife, Lorrie, bought a small plot of land near Sheridan, Ontario, for the cultivation of ornamental plants. Local farmers thought they were crazy. But Howard and Lorrie, landscape architects recently arrived from England, were visionaries who dreamed of creating magnificent gardens in the colonial wasteland. Realizing that Canada had no nurseries that produced the plants they needed, they started one of their own. To manage it they hired Herman Stensson, a …

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A Year at Killara Farm

A Year at Killara Farm


Christine Allen and Michael Kluckner's portrayal of life on Killara Farm moves thoughtfully through a year of gardening with a rich, detailed narrative that evokes the many pleasures of life in rural Southwestern BC.

Allen, a master gardener, is also a lyrical writer, expressing the tiny details of life on the farm--the "winter jasmine, doggedly flowering on the fence by the chicken house," the excitement of snowdrops opening at the end of January and strategies for ensuring a balance of colour i …

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A New Leaf

A New Leaf

Growing with My Garden
tagged :

A graceful and sharply observed book of inspiration that uses the garden as its central muse

A New Leaf traces a year of growing seasons at The Leaf, Merilyn Simonds' acreage in eastern Ontario. A lifelong gardener, Simonds works the soil and the soul for wide-ranging revelations about everything from flowers that keep time, to the strange gift of compost, to great gardens of the world, to things lost and found underground.

She is joined on her journey by a host of companions — including her Bel …

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All winter the garden was like a closed-up resort, rooms echoing and vacant, white fabric draped over the furnishings. Now the sheets have been yanked off—the snow melted that fast—and already the regulars are coming back.

The crows arrive first. They come as a couple, though they don’t stick together. One pokes along the edge of the woods, nosing in the verge, while the other struts across the grass like a maître d’ inspecting the premises. Maybe they take turns, one strutting, one checking out the woods for nesting sites: I don’t pretend to be able to tell them apart. Both are big as ravens, and glossy, their beaks held haughtily in the air.

The vultures aren’t far behind. They skim the canopy, circling our yard, sniffing for the bodies of winter-killed rodents uncovered by the shrinking snow. The bare-skulled birds often land in the trees at the rim of the woods, but never close to the house. “We aren’t that old yet,” my Beloved declares.

Then suddenly, the rest are here. Red-winged blackbirds from the field across the road swarm the feeder on icy mornings and on those days when March sends a sleeting white reminder that winter’s not over yet. Flickers bob under the apple trees, pecking for crumbs in the grass. The goldfinches begin a slow striptease, throwing off their dowdy winter duds for summer bling. But it’s the Canada geese we wait for, the ones that spell spring with lines in the sky. They flock by the thousands to the Farmer’s cornfield across the way, exhausted from their journey north across the lake. All night they honk and chatter as if they can’t wait until morning to share stories of their travels.

For days, sometimes weeks, the geese are the soundtrack to my garden cleanup, a discordant, percussive jazz that goes on into dusk, with themes that recur, cadences that rise and fall as if there might be an intent to it after all. In the foreground, the chickadees and song sparrows, finches and blue jays and cardinals slip into their courting songs, and before long, the phoebe is back, screaming, “Phoebe! Phoebe!” and the wrens are whistling their sweet melodies and the catbird is imitating everybody, even the scrape of the saw as my Beloved prunes the apple trees. Chipmunks scoot along the stone wall, scooping up the dangling seed heads before I cut down last year’s stems and bury them in the compost. Squirrels chase one another in a mating marathon under the drooping dogwood and up the ornamental cherry, leaping to the locust, then to the sugarplum trees, racing pell-mell into lust.

It’s a party out there and I’m not invited. No one is. We’re all crashers on this first day of spring. I lather my wintersoftened hands with Bag Balm, pull on my rose-covered shirt and my new green garden gloves, and step out to join the rave.


Standing with my back to the old split-rail fence that defines the western edge of our property, I can make out four rows of apple trees—not the deliberately stunted specimens that have taken over modern orchards, but big old apples, with trunks too thick to embrace. The limbs start low and spread generously, inviting a shinny up to sit splay-legged over a branch, gazing down on the blossoms and birds. Trees as open-hearted and sheltering as great-aunts.
It was spring when we moved to The Leaf, a parcel of forest and meadow along a stretch of country road in eastern Ontario where squat stone houses declare a fiercely humble intention to stay. We knew no one here—that was part of the appeal. The snow was just retreating from around the stumps of the trees felled by the big ice storm two years earlier. Half a dozen of the old apple trees were cleaved down their centres, branches torn off by the weight of water, exposing heartwood the colour of wounded flesh.
We had a vision of sinking our teeth into midwinter apples, crisp from the cellar. Of toasting each other with cider pressed from culls raked off the grass. And so the day after a mighty flock of Bohemian waxwings stripped the last of the thawing, fermenting fruit from the limbs, we set about restoring what remained of the orchard.
My Beloved and I assembled ladders, chainsaws, pruning shears of various sizes and enlisted the help of our friends, the Carpenter and the Garden Guru, who had done this before.
“A bird should be able to fly freely through the tree when we’re done,” they said.
We started with the apple tree closest to the house, the one I could see from the kitchen window. The Garden Guru walked around it slowly, eyeing it like a piece of marble she planned to chisel. My Beloved and the Carpenter positioned the ladders and revved the chainsaws.
“That one,” she said, and the Carpenter squinted to find an outside bud, then trimmed the limb close, so the next branch would grow outward instead of toward the trunk.
Bring the height down, open the centre to the light, balance the spread of limbs, she recited as she circled the tree. Before she called out each cut, I tried to guess which branch she’d choose, and why. Wrong. Wrong. And then, suddenly, I got it right.
We did four trees that afternoon, carrying armloads of pruned branches into the house, where they burst into blossom by the fireplace, a foretaste of true spring. My Beloved and I pruned three more trees on our own, uncertain in our cuts, anxious not to remove more than the 25 percent per year the trees could withstand without going into an arboreal version of cardiac arrest.
It wasn’t until early May that we realized the extent of the original orchard at The Leaf. Only sixteen trees remained, but if we followed one burst of white bloom to the next, as if in a game of connect-the-dots, we could see where rows of apples had once run the entire width of the property, interrupted only by the house. The row closest to the road bore fruit early in August; the third produced later that month. The fourth, all but lost in the fringe of sumac and saplings at the edge of the woods, were Russets, we could tell by the brown mottled skin. The trees in the second row, the ones I could see from the kitchen, produced apples that we swore were McIntosh.
And they were. One summer afternoon in our third year at The Leaf, an elderly couple stopped their car at our mailbox. There’s little traffic on this road except for the school bus, the milk truck, the snow plow, and an occasional commuter or lost tourist. We weren’t used to company.
“I’m Apple Annie,” the woman said. She was born in our house, seventy years before. Her father planted the orchard in 1923, ninety trees set in four neat rows.
“Jonathan, McIntosh, Scarlet Pippin, Russet,” she said, naming the rows. Her parents stored the apples in barrels and shipped them off to local hotels and grocery stores. As a girl, she sat by the road and sold them to passersby. “That’s how I got my nickname,” she laughed. When she grew up, she went to university to become a teacher, then lived at home, riding her pony through the woods to a one-room schoolhouse up on Washburn Road.
I ran to the stone wall to retrieve a horseshoe my Beloved had unearthed as he dug another garden, and handed it to her.
“In the fall,” she said, turning the shoe upright to hold in the luck, “the whole place smelled of apples.”
It’s the same in the summer, when the young, green fruit give off a spicy scent that fills the West Yard. Sometimes, my Beloved and I position a small table under an arching apple branch and linger there after our lunch, books in hand.
Once, the Farmer who works all the land that we can see from The Leaf stopped his tractor beyond the hedge that separates our yard from the road. The afternoon was wearing on, the sun already sliding down the sky, and we were still sitting with our books, stirring briefly whenever the hay wagons passed, feeling vaguely guilty in our indolence. I couldn’t help but recall what our nearest neighbours, the Rosarian and the Humanist, had told us—that the Farmer had once interrupted their long afternoon of reading to climb down off his tractor and ask, “What are you doing anyway, sitting there all this time?”
Now the Farmer was striding through a break in our hedge. Small and wiry, he still works dawn to dusk beside his sons, though he is well over eighty. “Never tasted a drop of alcohol,” he said the day he stopped to welcome us to The Leaf. When we offered him a cup of tea, he added: “Never took a hot drink, neither.”
We could see his lips moving as he strode across the grass, and we expected the worst. Then we heard him, a clear, true tenor, Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me . . .
“I’ve been watching you all afternoon, and singing this song. I just wanted to thank you for that,” he said, beaming broadly. Then he turned and left.
Every March since, we pull out the chainsaw, the pole pruner, and the secateurs and give the old trees a trim. As I haul away the last armload of this year’s trimmings, a robin glides through the branches with outstretched wings. I think of Apple Annie and her father, who set out the tender scions; of our friends, who made the first cuts; of the Rosarian and the Humanist, and the Farmer who sang to us. We bought this place with notions of solitude, but already, there is a gathering on the lawn under the old apple tree, and I feel at home.

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The Gin and Tonic Gardener

The Gin and Tonic Gardener

Confessions of a Reformed Compulsive Gardener
also available: Paperback
tagged : reference

The Gin and Tonic Gardener is designed for those of us who would rather enjoy our gardens than find ourselves enslaved by them. Weeds? Janice Wells exhorts us to have another gin and tonic: a stiff drink can actually help obscure, or at the very least, help you forget, those usurpers of the garden.
Janice Wells, a well-known writer and journalist, uses her own garden as a laboratory for the gardening column she writes for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. Though filled with humour, The Gin and To …

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