Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Gem of a Book

I just discovered this wonderful garden book by Katherine S. White.   It is a complilation of columns on gardening that she wrote for the New Yorker between the 1950s and 1970s.  The book is a  combination of  gardening advice, grammar and language policing, and strong opinions, all written  with a writer's appreciation for words.   I found myself trying to pace my reading to make it last. 

 Mrs. White reviewed garden catalogs  and gardening books with a critical eye for every detail - photography or art work (she much preferred carefully drawn sketches to poor color photographs), the quality of the paper used to print the catalog, the font,  and of course, the actual seeds and plants for sale.  How could I not love this book?  Here is a woman with opinions about everything and it was fun to recognize how many opinions we share;  font matters, enough with the bigger and bigger blossoms,  and that some flowers , like gladiolas, are just plain hideous :   "The sad truth is that I have never been able to really like these showy, impersonal, unfragrant blooms" . "Hideous" is my more succinct opinion!  And this gem " Last summer I grew a packet of mixed seed of some of Park's California Giant Zinnias ....soft harmonizing colors with all the jarring oranges, purples, and magentas screened out".    Amen!

I love her digressions on the writing in garden catalogs.  In discussing the variety of snapdragons listed in the Burpee's catalog, she has this little rant: " 'Snaps" is Burpee's word, not mine.  I detest the cozy flower abbreviations. "Mums"  is probably the most repellent of the lot, unless it is "Glads", but 1959 gave us "Dels" for the lordly delphinium".  Guess she might agree with one on my "detest" list - "veggies" for the perfectly acceptable, grown-up word it replaces.
The columns written in the 50s show that the gardening world was not immune from the frenzy to "modernize" everything.  She laments not being able to find "earthenware" flower pots as all plants came potted in ugly plastic pots- many decorated with pink stripes.  Thankfully we can easily find terra cotta pots so we can rescue our nursery plants from their sad plastic cases.  And we're spared the pink stripes.

Her winter routine for caring for houseplants by checking them several times a day for water or  to move them to better lighting or temperature or humidity made me rethink my delusion that moving one Peace Lily to catch some sun qualifies me as a plant-whisperer!

I love her review of old garden books and now I'm on the search for one she  recommended,  Gardening on Main Street, by  Mrs. Buckner Hollingsworth (it was the 50s after all - no informal FIRST names !).    Hope it's another gem.

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