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Classic Garden Books for Delight and Gifts

Kapek felt the human body was not built efficiently enough to suit the gardener. "Those who have had no experience cannot imagine how one's legs are in the way when there is nothing to stand on; how stupidly long they are if one has to fold them underneath to poke with the finger in the ground; how impossibly short they are if one has to reach the other side of the bed without treading on a clump of pyrethrum or roots of columbine."

Kapek felt the human body was not built efficiently enough to suit the gardener. “Those who have had no experience cannot imagine how one’s legs are in the way when there is nothing to stand on; how stupidly long they are if one has to fold them underneath to poke with the finger in the ground; how impossibly short they are if one has to reach the other side of the bed without treading on a clump of pyrethrum or roots of columbine.”

There are always wonderful new garden books with fabulous photographs, and written by skilled gardeners. However, I cannot help reminding people of some wonderful classic books about gardening. The two books I recommend today are not how-to books. The authors I have chosen were not ‘garden writers” who devoted their talents to writing about how to garden. They were writers who gardened and saw the humor, wonder and amusement to be found in the garden.

Karel Capek and his brother Josef Capek found frustration and humor in the garden

First there is The Gardener’s Year by Karel Capek, born in 1890. He wrote with his brother Josef Capek who provided the humorous line drawings that add a delicious reality to Karel’s garden adventures. Karel Capek was born in what is now the Czech Republic and was known as a playwright, essayist, publisher, literary reviewer and art critic. He was best knows for his science fiction including the 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) and gave Josef the credit for coining the word robot.  Capek was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times, but alas, he never won.

Karel complains about weather predictions and accuses the paper of ‘lies and bluff” and curses that ‘complaints, swearing, snuffling, saying brrrrr and other incantations have no influence on the weather.” In the spring he struggles to find a place in the flower bed where the campanulas have run loose, then the monk’s hood and tradescantias before he finds a spot for his tender seedling. ‘I will make your bed. So, there you are, and now grow in peace.’ But two days later realizes he had planted it on top of the evening primrose.

'Look'' said the proud owner to his guest. 'Isn't it a queer campanula? . . . I am really anxious to see what the flower will be like.'

‘Look” said the proud owner to his guest. ‘Isn’t it a queer campanula? . . . I am really anxious to see what the flower will be like.’

All through the gardener’s year there are challenges, arguing over the proper names of the flowers in the garden and insisting that a Latin name raises the plant to a state of dignity. There are prayers for rain, or for sun, or just on certain plants, that there will be dew, no little wind, no snails and that once a week liquid manure and guano may fall from heaven. Like all really good gardeners Karel talks frequently about the soil, leaf mold, humus, and all the kinds of soil, ‘light as feathers, blond or black  . . . and other diverse and noble kinds of beauty.’

Karel suffered from spinal disease most of his life, and died at the age of 48. It is not hard to think of him musing about his eventual death. ‘A rose in flower is, so to speak, only for dilettanti; the gardener’s pleasure is deeper rooted, right in the womb of the soil. After his death the gardener does not become a butterfly, intoxicated by the perfumes of flowers, but a garden worm tasting all the dark nitrogenous and spicy delights of the soil.’

Beverley Nichols and his garden paths

The witty Beverley Nichols, born in England in 1898, spent his life writing plays, novels, non-fiction, columns for the newspaper and books for children. His prolific writings included the books about his gardens that I have always loved. Down the Garden Path, his first book about life in his first garden was published in 1932. His Forward explains that he ‘believes in doing things ‘too soon’ as did Columbus and Beethoven and Shelley who all created “new born beauty, all flights of the spirit’ that had never existed before. In his book he wants to capture the ecstasy of being in the garden and the humorous memories of all the follies of his beginning.

Like Karel Capek, Nichols felt the pleasure and power of ‘digging one’s own spade into one’s own earth! Has life anything better to offer than this?’ One of his great projects was making a rock garden ‘without any plan, without even an adequate preparation of the soil….When you are making a rock garden. . .  you must be bloody, bold and resolute,’ he writes.

There are unexpected rewards and joys. ’It was not til I experimented with seeds plucked straight from a growing plant that I had my first success – the first thrill of creation – the first taste of blood. This surely must be akin to the pride of paternity.’

One never gardens alone. There are always neighbors and friends who want to tour and weigh in. There is the Professor who thinks beauty makes him sad – and a savage. Mrs. M. has only a tiny garden but it ‘bustles with flowers.’ She also has a greenhouse and tries to explain all his mistakes when Nichols puts up his little greenhouse. The Princess also has many opinions about his gardens but he concedes, ‘ . . .one forgives, because she commits her crimes with such charm and élan. Other women cannot be let off so lightly.’

Nichols first book was followed by A Thatched Roof, A Village in a Valley and How Does Your Garden Grow? A garden must always be shared, and Nichols books always include his life among his neighbors.

I confess to being an anglophile. I read British mysteries, British novels of the 19th century and I began learning about gardening from British garden books, which of course, were not very helpful for a New England garden. Still, I am delighted by the ‘very long and elaborate explanations of very minor events’ that Nichols sets before me.

The gardener in Spring

In these books I see my own garden’s new born beauties and my own failures and follies. And laughter.

Between the Rows   December 1, 2018

4 comments to Classic Garden Books for Delight and Gifts

  • Jeane

    I will really have to look for these. I love garden writing of this type.

  • Lisa at Greenbow

    I love Beverly Nichols. I have several of his books. I reread them from time to time. I haven’t tried K. Capek. I might have to look up some of his books this winter.

  • Winter is the time for reading garden essays and dreaming about spring, so books about gardening are perfect Christmas gifts for cold climate gardeners.

  • Pat

    Jean – I am happy thinking about you reading in your snug corner – while I read in mine.

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