By Michael Pollan
The New York Times Book Review, December 7, 1997
What is a garden for? “Pleasure” is the obvious answer, though you’d never know it from reading Americans on the subject. We have an old habit in this country of weighing down our gardening—indeed, all our commerce with nature—with barrowfuls of moral and political significance, an inheritance, no doubt, from the Puritans and probably also the Transcendentalists. When Allen Lacy was combing American garden writing for his anthology a few years back, he reported he was unable to find a single discussion of scent or color until the turn of this century. Historically we gardened for many reasons—nutrition, health and even moral betterment—but not often for the sheer sensual and esthetic delight of it.
Moral gardeners are still very much with us—just look at the countless tracts on “natural gardening” or the continuing battle over whether Americans should welcome “alien species” to our horticultural shores—but to judge by this season’s harvest of garden books, the party of pure gardening pleasure appears finally to be finding its voice. (Though perhaps I should say image, for most of these books rely as heavily on pictures as on words to tell their stories.) Could this be a sign of a new maturity in American gardening, an indication that we’re finally getting over our moral queasiness about altering the landscape for no loftier purpose than to please ourselves?
As it happens, this season’s most compelling case for the pleasures of the garden comes from England, though I can’t think of a garden book much less English than THE SENSUOUS GARDEN (Simon & Schuster, $32.50). Montagu Don is a rising star in English horticultural circles (he contributes a gardening column to The Observer and frequently appears on television), part of a generation of English gardeners who are willing to declare in public that Gertrude Jekyll is not God, that the Chelsea Flower Show is a bore, and that—most shocking of all—the rest of the world might actually have something to teach the English about gardening.
Indeed, “The Sensuous Garden” is the sort of exuberant, Emersonian book an American gardener might have written—if, that is, American gardeners had the perfect horticultural confidence of the British. “Have faith in your own responses and garden for your own private pleasure,” Don urges his readers. He can sound like Martin Luther nailing his theses to the High Church of English Gardening: “Throw away the gardening manuals and trust yourself,” he writes. “There is no examiner, no moral worth cast over your horticultural efforts. Gardening is like sex: if everyone involved is happy, then you are doing it right.”
This is a message we very much need to hear now, and Don packages it with exactly the sort of images to make converts of his readers: paging through “The Sensuous Garden” is itself a sensuous experience. The photographs are stunning, as they’d better be in such a book, but Don has put up more than the usual gorgeous garden wallpaper: most of these images are highly specific and factual, the kind that repay multiple looks. Fittingly, the book is organized according to the five senses (plus a sixth he calls “intuition”), and each section does an admirable job of evoking the faculty in question in words as well as images. You might expect the text of a book like this to be either vapid or gooey, but Don is a precise, observant and knowledgeable writer who keeps his metaphors and facts nicely poised. I learned things—that bees perceive red as black, that orange roses are doomed to fail because they “make an unhappy combination of brashness and sophistication”—but mostly I was reminded of things, such as the excellent fact that “stones smell, and gravel releases its own bony scent as it is raked.” Montagu Don wakes us up to the sensuous possibilities of our gardens, to the point where one begins seriously to entertain the possibility that the moralism and didacticism of so much garden writing may represent nothing more than repression.
Speaking of horticultural sex, there are now entire books devoted to this highly worthwhile area. NAKED: Flowers Exposed (HarperCollins, $60) is a frequently prurient exploration of “the secret thoughts that flowers can conjure up in our psyches,” as the jacket puts it. Walter Hubert, a floral designer, asked a hundred photographers and celebrities to create expressionistic portraits of flowers; proceeds from sales of the book will go to charity. The work is, predictably, a very mixed bag, ranging from the urban lyricism of Jack Pierson’s “Magnolias, Morton Street”—as winning an icon of a New York spring as I have seen—to the (far too many) effortful stabs at fashion-world decadence that aim to shock but wind up merely annoying. For all the nude models festooned with blossoms (and there are plenty), the sexiest shots turn out to be the ones that really are about flowers—Alison Duke’s tumescent amaryllis, Raymond Meier’s fleshy bisexual orchid and Ross Bleckner’s gritty Gothic close-up of a lily’s private parts. The text, thankfully, is limited to a line or two from the contributing artists (“Garden roses floating in a pool of water. / Hypodermic needles for sale on the street. / About 6 minutes apart”), and the book has been beautifully produced, but you close this volume with a sinking appreciation for just how hard it is for photographers (or celebrities) to see a symbol as freighted as the flower truly afresh.
The other new book devoted to sex in the garden focuses strictly on the entomological variety. John Alcock is a professor of zoology who decided one day to rip out his suburban lawn in Tempe, Ariz., and replace it with a rough approximation of desert habitat. IN A DESERT GARDEN: Love and Death Among the Insects (Norton, $27.50), with line drawings by Turid Forsyth, recapitulates what has become something of a convention in contemporary American garden writing—the exodus from the Lawn and return to the Garden—but Alcock has put a new spin on it. Making no claims to biocentric virtue, Alcock makes clear he’s in it for the voyeuristic pleasure of watching bugs court, mate and, when he’s lucky, bite each other’s heads off postcoitally. Alcock is a fine stylist, deftly joining the keen observation and scientific insight one expects from a nature writer to the lighter (and, let’s admit it, much funnier) voice of a garden writer. The result is a wonderful and informative narrative in which even the compost pile becomes a vibrant stage. Alcock has some of J. Henri Fabre’s gift for bringing insect life to life on the page, and a curiosity about “the frontiers that exist just outside the front door” that proves catching.
William Bryant Logan offers a very different take on the pleasures of nature in THE TOOL BOOK (Smith & Hawken/Workman, $40), an unexpectedly voluptuous garden book that has scarcely a blossom or bug in it. I have to admit I approached this Smith & Hawken production with skepticism. Smith & Hawken sells garden tools after all, so there was every reason to expect that “The Tool Book” would turn out to be little more than a 300-page infomercial—or, even worse, a catalogue we were expected to pay for. It is in fact much more than that. Logan, who is one of our best garden writers, has produced not only a real book but a scrupulously researched, handsomely designed and highly enjoyable one to boot. In pictures and prose, “The Tool Book” is eloquent testimony to the fact that the greatest part of the pleasure of gardening is the work itself, and nothing can deepen that pleasure quite like a well-conceived tool. Among other things, a good tool is a medium for the transmission of cultural knowledge across the generations, and when we use it properly—to dig, to prune, to cultivate—we avail ourselves of the wisdom it embodies. Logan is also very good on the precise physical qualities of different hand tools, able to distinguish the snick-snick of his edging shears from the deeper tock-tock of the hedge shears. The studio photographs of the tools, by Sean Sullivan, are almost anatomical in their precision but somehow manage also to evoke the specific heft and sheer rightness of a good tool in the hand. (The book’s other fine photographs, by Georgia Glynn Smith, show the tools in use in the garden, digging, clipping and chopping.) Sure, there may be more here about tools than anyone really needs to know, but I found myself happily wandering down such seemingly unpromising byways as the history of digging. (The design of different spades and shovels, it seems, closely reflects the genius of the place in which they originated.) By the end of “The Tool Book” I felt inspired to throw out all my discount tools, scrape clean and oil the few good ones that remain and regard them in a whole new light: not just as means to a gardening end but as satisfactions in themselves.
Another commercial force in the renaissance of American gardening has come forward this fall with an ambitious and handsome volume of its own: THE GARDEN DESIGN BOOK (Regan Books/HarperCollins, $50), by Cheryl Merser and the editors of Garden Design magazine. More than any other magazine, Garden Design has raised the level of sophistication of American gardening in the last few years, by showcasing the work of emerging regional designers, teaching gardeners how to apply the basic principles of landscape architecture and, it must be said, by shrewdly changing the image of the American gardener from something out of the pages of the Talbots catalogue to, say, J. Crew. The book is as useful and intelligent as the magazine, and just as calculated. Most of the photography is spectacular—the kind of pictures that are as instructive as they are beautiful—but there are just a few too many shots of the sort of well-heeled yupsters who look rather less like gardeners than targets of demographic opportunity. Occasionally, too, the text lapses into the self-congratulatory second-person platitudes of the catalogue copywriter (“You view the world differently when you’re looking at it with a gardener’s eye.”)
These are minor annoyances in a valuable and potentially important book that manages to demystify and democratize the esthetics of garden design. “The Garden Design Book” brims with inventive solutions and inspiring case studies that, taken together, go a long way toward proposing a specifically American vision of the garden. But what is perhaps most striking about “The Garden Design Book” is that it exists at all—for who could have imagined just a few years ago that a genuinely sophisticated book about American garden design could even court the charge of trendiness?
Still more encouraging news about the state of American garden design will be found in Page Dickey’s BREAKING GROUND: Portraits of Ten Garden Designers (Artisan, $45). Lo and behold, six of the profilees are Americans, and their work—as photographed by Erica Lennard—suggests that ground is indeed being broken, particularly out West. Most of these designers have triumphantly declared their independence from the English perennial border, turning in many cases to local species, but local species deployed in striking ways. It’s often assumed that native plants imply a demurely naturalistic design, but the best of the designers in “Breaking Ground”—Nancy Goslee Power in California, Patrick Chasse in Maine and Nancy McCabe in Connecticut—have found ways of going native without sacrificing a strong sense of form or personal expression. McCabe does it with her distinctive stonework and timber fences, Chasse with his brilliant tapestries of ground cover and Power with her weird and boldly sculptural plants, which prove a fair match for even Frank Gehry’s raucous architecture.
The work here is playful, undaunted by the classical tradition and far more concerned with sensory experience than academic correctness. Though most of these projects look decidedly deep-pocket, the excellent text and pictures—both of them journalistic, and not the least bit gushy—manage to extract from these gardens valuable lessons for those of us who will never be able to afford a Nancy McCabe. I came away convinced of just how much more can be accomplished by planting less, and confirmed in the view that subtlety in the garden is highly overrated. But perhaps the happiest lesson to take away from “Breaking Ground” is that there is no good reason that sensitivity to the environment need check exuberance in our dealings with nature.