Book Review: A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed (by James Fenton)


A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed by James Fenton, 2001, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 125 pages.

I remember first seeing the slim silhouette of James Fenton‘s A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed at my local library. It was some time ago and back then I was building a city garden from hundreds of packets of seeds here at my house so I just looked beyond its spine to find more encyclopedic picture books.

So yes, because of its size, I didn’t take the book as seriously as I should have, instead I assumed it was a memoir or journal. I’m not throwing shade, it just wasn’t what I thought I was looking for at that exact moment—and I was oh so wrong!

I wish I’d read this book years ago when I first saw it. I’m a seed freak and germination enthusiast after all. Then again, having found it years into my gardening life, it did allow me to sing along with him as he sung the praises of many plants I’m quite familiar with now.

A well-known poet, journalist and literary critic, it just so happens that Fenton is also an avid and accomplished gardener. This book is a collection of columns he was asked to write about the 100 essential plants that he’d pick to populate a garden from seed. Instead of dispassionate know-how and how-to tips, this book is written with great passion—and it’s quite opinionated too. More than anything else, it’s a book that argues for growing plants from packets of seeds. The author doesn’t tell the reader how to use them, or where or when to sow them, but he encourages curiosity and creativity using his own quips and experiences as evidence for their inclusion in any garden.

“The seeds I have chosen are generally speaking ones which have, over several years, given me pleasure in my garden. This is a personal anthology.” (page 12)

Mr. Fenton is not a garden writer. He also does not include himself in the category of “gardening writer” although his book falls into the category of gardening. (Yes, it even says so right there on the back cover.)

I found that he does such a great job of writing about gardening, that he’s sure to upset many readers. There’s nothing I enjoy more as a reader than a well thought out opinion that stirs up some thought on my part:

“Today some makers of gardens are so brow-beaten by color snobbery that they settle for a garden in which all flowers are excluded, or they take nervous care to check which flowers, which colors, are okay. Gardening writers, in the hope of giving the weight of science to their reflections, talk about the combinations of complementary colors, and sometimes even refer to the color wheel. But this is uncandid taste masquerading as high theory.” (page 15)

This book should be on the required reading list of any aspiring garden writer—even if this means that you learn to dislike it because this is a wonderful book to dislike for all of the right reasons—namely the author’s own opinionated voice and the validity of his arguements.

“Among the plants for people who don’t really like plants is the recently popular category called ‘architectural’. What is an architectural plant? It is something big, and possibly expensive and of a bold shape—above all something that promises to make an immediate and permanent impact on the space we are filling—but its resemblance to actual architecture may be minimal. A stand of bamboo does not remind me of any architecture I know, even though I have lived in countries where much of the architecture uses bamboo. And what building looks like a phormium?” (Page 24)

I, for one, enjoyed A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed because it’s not formulaic in any sense. Fenton writes in strong stokes, making an ephemeral and vague list. He’s a poet after all and the book will leave an impression. Not all gardening is scientific or botanic and this book succeeds in quenching the thirst of readers like me—call us whatever you will.

James Fenton has since moved on from the large garden he describes in A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seeds, but it’s clear from this text that the man sees gardens everywhere.

“So my definition—my nondefinition—of a garden must include a spectacular one that I saw last summer in Manhattan, which consisted of nothing but morning glories grown on a fire escape, high up above the street. Mustard and cress sown on a washcloth, Virginia stock in an old crab shell, or a row of hyacinths in glasses—all these count as gardens, in my understanding of the word, along with Great Dixter, Powis Castle, and Versailles.” (pages 6-7)

There is plenty of good in this book and I’m sorry not to include his list of 100 seed packets here because I’d rather you sought the book out yourself. Using it as inspiration, I hope to continue to stock my own garden and seed shop with as many of them as is possible. The list really is a great one—kind of like a much-loved mixed tape from a gardening friend.

The Alaskan Honeymoon: Part One (Anchorage, AK)


We knew we’d landed in Anchorage when we saw this at the airport.

Yes, it was thrilling, but it was sad at the same time.

Rhodochiton vine in a planter outside of a hotel in Anchorage.

We landed late on Friday night and stayed in Anchorage for two nights.

Most people wouldn’t recommend this, but we were exhausted! We stayed downtown at the Hilton and had a great time.

A closeup of the vine.

We had an open air market across the street to walk to and we ate breakfast at the Snow City Cafe.

Then we visited the Anchorage Visitor Information Center.

I can’t say enough about its original “green roof”.

It very much fueled and gave fire to the pioneer blood in my veins.

The Fuchsia baskets are obviously overwintered. Look at those woody stems!

This was the beginning of the floriferousness too.

With all those extra daylight hours, the blooms are a bit different up North. I don’t know how this happens exactly, but I saw it on several occasions and I’ll continue to show you images of these amazing plants.

(Yes, I’m sure that these are well fed too.)

Some Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium).

The native plants were plentiful.

Fireweed is by far the most spectacular of all during September and you’ll be seeing a lot of it as these posts progress.

This amazing shrub was really enchanting. It is native to colder northern regions but I cannot recall what it is right now. Any thoughts? I picked seeds and I know it’s in the pea family.

The Sorbus were plentiful but I’m not completely certain which ones I was seeing.

This was my honeymoon after all so I tried not to go too crazy with the plant ID.

We saw a lot of lilacs but only a few with blooms.

This one is a smaller bush variety.

I’m ashamed that my evergreen tree ID is so shabby. I’ve chosen to show you this amazing tree even though I’m not certain what it is.

Please forgive me. I promise to study.

On the way back from one of the best Japanese dinners I’ve ever had, we found these rhubarb plants being grown in the lawn of a Catholic church. (They are the plants up near the fence. Others were planted in spots on the other side of the sign too—right in the middle of the lawn.)

Makes me happy that they’re thinking about the food or lawn question too.

There was more floriferousness nearby as we walked past the mall on our way back to the hotel.

When I saw the Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) I had to smile. It’s not at all a plant I think of when I think of Alaska but I was so happy to see such a fine specimen.

Then there were the rose hips on the Rugosa roses. I just couldn’t get enough of these plants. They are all over the place and they grow so much better up North than they do down here in Oregon.

It became so clear to me right away that Alaska is not the northernmost edge of our climate, but that we are the southernmost extreme of its climate. I felt a strong kinship with the region right out of the gate.

That last night I tried on my kind of bear fur hat in the hotel gift shop—the totally silly fake kind. I thought a bit about Ms. Palin and wondered what kind of mama bear I could be if I tried. Luckily I lost my taste for politics years ago, but I remain interested at least in what politicians are doing—or NOT doing.

A very large part of me felt at home in Alaska. It reminded me of the Oregon I grew up in and the people I knew as a girl.

This was just the beginning though and so rarely am I so comfortable right away in a new place.

More to come…