Quick and Quirky Planty Book Reviews


It’s funny how the books I’ve picked for this group work together—but they do. In a funny way this group shows more about me as a plantsperson and horticulturist than many of my posts do.

My garden is a laboratory… where I happen to work and play a lot.

1-Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf (published in 2011)

This book is a favorite. It shows American history from a fresh perspective, and it’s one that makes a lot of sense to me now, connecting the past to the present. It is well researched and I kind of expected it to be after hearing the author speak a few years ago here in Portland about her work The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humbolt’s New World.

Even though I was not yet physically well when I went to hear her speak, her talk truly inspired me to strive harder to do more and to fight to feel better, so I very much have an emotional attachment to the work of this writer. Add to that, a good friend from college was awarded a Humboldt Research Fellowship, and again, my heart spills over a bit for this historian.

Described in this review as a revisionist work, I’m more than ok with that, but it’s by no means a radical interpretation. It just shows another side of men we are familiar with, and as a young country, it’s important to shade them in bit by bit as time passes.

As a horticulturist from the American West—the Pacific Northwest to be precise—a descendent of many original colonists, I know very little about the original colonial states because my family moved westward so long ago. We don’t cling to tradition so much here, although that’s changing more and more. This book helped me to better understand other horticulturists in older parts of the country, ones I interact with online, and am meeting with in person more and more now.

I appreciate this book for giving me a better framework historically. I need this as I will be visiting Monticello and Mount Vernon for the first time this year, and I hope to continue to visit other parts of the country in the years to come. I feel like this book has helped to create a much needed context for me, and I can do more “shading” in as needed as I begin to experience these places more.

2-The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey (published in 2015)

Ahhh, a title that makes me feel awkward, but sex sells. This romp through the stories of many plants by a British naturalist was fun, but it was a wild ride from here to there. Like the other books in the group, it shows yet another facet of how I see the plant world that I work and live in. Honestly, it shows how many of my peers and mentors see things too. One minute we’re talking about this plant, and then the next, we’ve moved on to another from a different continent or region. The key is knowing the places, and keeping up.

This book was entertaining, and to grasp its overall appeal, all I can stress is that is shows you how to see plants maybe in a different and geekier way than you already do. So many folks first get into houseplants and containers they plant when they land in their first cozy home spaces, but their interest often stops there, on the pages of magazines, books, or online sites, with photo they’d like to imitate, idealized aspirations. This book will take you to “the next level” so-to-speak. It transports you up and beyond the pages into the deeper “lives” of plants.

I hate to say that this book anthropomorphizes plants, but it does give them a voice, one which I’m much more familiar with than that of a Garden Expert or Influencer. This book shows you a more professional world of plants, and honestly, one that I live in much more than I’d previously realized as I’m beginning to interact more with more consumers and folks outside of my work circles.

If you want to know more about the enthusiasm I so embrace, and the crazy connections made by my friends and I, then this is a great book for that. I very much enjoyed the writing, and I encourage you to read this great review of the book and its charm in The New York Times.

3-Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown (published in 2018)

Read by the author, I enjoyed this book a lot. Gabe Brown is one of the most important agricultural leaders in the United States, and if you’ve not heard of him, please read more about him online. I’ve heard about people trying forms of regenerative gardening, but regenerative agriculture matters even more and we as consumers should be supporting these growers, and by doing so, hopefully more growers can return to this more natural way of producing crops. If you want to own your own regenerative farm, this is THE book for you.

My childhood garden mentor had studied soil physics. Yes, I was the unusual kid who wanted to learn about soil, and how soil mattered to my interest—which was plants. As a young girl, I spent many hours listening to my mentor talk about the American prairie, about the Dust Bowl, and about how we could fix things. He used to tell me over and over that studying native plants and the native prairies would lead to great things. He was way ahead of his time and very well already knew the destruction we’d caused by continuing to believe in destructive agricultural practices.

These discussion are what eventually led me to wanting to go to Duke University in the 1990s badly because they had an ecology program, and it is also part of what led me to visiting that campus just last year for the first time. (Their program is still one of the best in the world.) It’s kind of fun to write about all of this now and unload it from my heart and mind.

Having just finished this book, and having been prescribed the medication that could have allowed me to follow that path in 1992, I felt that it was only right to show up on the campus at least, and it felt right at the time to feel the feelings (to process them more), and this book thankfully had put me back into that frame-of-mind and I’m grateful for the happy memories and emotional closure. While I didn’t follow that path, I can still talk about and incorporate ecological landscape matrices into my work and writing as a horticulturist. To my very core, I see everything in this way thanks to my early childhood.

So getting back to the book, it shows step-by-step how one family took their ranch from “traditional” farming practices, to regenerative ones. I loved how it explained generational changes, and even farm inheritance issues. Many of us have quickly forgotten our own families that farmed, and yet this tradition is part of the subsidized core of the culture of this nation. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed thinking about during the last few years as I’ve listened to several of these texts at work.

It may not be a literary gem, and it can repeat itself a lot, but it’s meant more to teach the reader about something absolutely mind-shattering to some. I too often forget how stuck people become in how to to do things, or “this is how we do this”.

Gabe Brown is part of the soil-health movement, and when I read this book, in turn, I had discussions with others about soil. Horticulturists who are trained by science are more than aware about dirt to soil. Be one of those gardeners in your community, and support the soil-health movement. We talk about grassroots movements and it doesn’t get more “from the ground up” than this.

Soil matters.

4-Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy (published in 2007)

Ever the reader who will at first resist anyone right away who has a fervent fan base, well, Tallamy is one of those guys in this batch of books. I’ve only read this book, and look forward to reading his text on oaks, but overall, I don’t get the appeal so much. There is a lot of information in this book that does not apply to my region, and I don’t own 3 acres (or however many it was and which is not a sustainable idea to encourage people to believe that they ever will in the world that we currently live in). Most people I know don’t, and I think it says a lot.

He is a scientist though, and he’s done a lot of field research. What I agree with 100% is his core belief of planting native for the insects. Where there are insects, there are birds, and as we all know, bird populations are shrinking. Why do I care about the insects? It’s not just the birds, fish eat them too. It’s all part of a complicated web.

While some folks (who likely don’t read this blog) would say, “Who cares?”, this just returns back to the book above, to ecology, to science, and the matrix. (If you’d like a nice video on this, click here. To be honest, I could have watched this video and learned everything I needed to know and skipped this book.)

Planting for the good insects means allowing plants to be eaten, and in some cases, gardeners I know won’t like this because it’s unattractive to their mind’s eye. I do not care if the style of your architecture does not match the native plant palatte #colonialism.

This is a goofy stretch as to how I see the world, but I want life to thrive, I want life to dine, and I want to help. So yeah, this means sometimes not trying to control nature (something humans LOVE to do in the gardening realm and which makes me sometimes hear nails on a chalkboard). It means planting to keep a balance of all kinds of life species in your garden. It also means taking the time to better understand insects. I can hear the squealing now and I can see people running for bottles of sprays to kill things. Just chill out.

This book sort of addresses these idea, but in a way that I found dull. It’s very rigid and I found myself thinking constantly about the opposite arguments to his ideas. To my mind, that means the writer is not being fair and balanced and I don’t enjoy reading texts like that. It feels like prothletising or preaching. I feel like he’s about 20 years behind, and there were so many exceptions. I’m not a member of that particular choir.

Residential gardens and gardeners are sadly not all that important in the big scheme of things and to focus so much importance on our privileged lives and realms (land that we own) seems potentially too self-righteous and self-congratulatory for my taste. Virtue signaling irks me, and damn! does this guy sell a lot of books.

And in the blink of an eye, I’ve come to the end of another of these book review posts. I hope you’ve had fun. Oddly, I really enjoyed this one and look forward to do the next one in a few months.

Quick and Quirky Book Reviews


So—just for funsies—I’m reviewing books again. The bad news is that I have quite a backlog. For many years I barely read at all, but during the last two years, I’ve become a fan of Audible.

Most of what I read is plant-related writing, but you’ll notice there are literary additions. Writers from the South have long held my interest, and as I continue to foster my own relationship with that region, I still savor the graphic and dramatic writing of the region’s best writers as I did when I was young.

As for what’s going to make this fun, I’m going to be honest—brutally honest! I could look up and read long summaries and analyses of each book, rehashing them to sound clever as I would have in a literature class, but this is a blog post. I hope to share more with you about the impressions I’m left with long after listening.

1-The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (written during the 1940s, published in 1977)

This is some of the best writing I’ve read in years. It’s written in a poetic prose by a woman who can be considered a modernist writing about nature in the Highlands of Scotland. When pressed to compare it to another, the first name that popped into my head (one I have not uttered in decades since I included it on my surrealist literature syllabus) is: Djuna Barnes. Most readers tend to dislike modernism and often refer to it as not being accessible—but I’m not one of those people.

Modernists didn’t always want to leave you with a narrative story. Frequently, there’s no instructive lesson, or clever twist. Through words, through literary devices, they left readers with feelings, experiences, showing us that words matter and can be used in novel ways. This book does that with hiking in the mountains. I’m left with beautiful impressions more than anything else. It literally felt like I was there too. My skin felt the wind, my eyes saw as she did.

It has inspired a cult of Nan, and I recommend listening to the version of it I heard, as read by Tilda Swinton. Who doesn’t want Tilda reading to them and she of all people can mouth the names of Scottish places much better than I.

2-The Violent Bare it Away by Flannery O’Connor (1960)

Writing sometimes needs to be dramatic. Or at least for me, sometimes I enjoy drama and action in a story. If there needs to be a moral twist, and something real to fill you with disgust and rage, then Flannery O’Connor might be the writer for you. She reminded me of Truman Capote when I was younger, but less so now. For this reason, to see how her work felt to me as an older woman, I wanted to return to her novels decades later to better understand her realism. She has deeply influenced my own interest in writing for years, but I’ve never been able to explain exactly how or why. (I’m still working on that.)

I first read her famous short story “A Good Man in Hard to Find” as a student around 1995. To this day, it is still one of the best short stories I think I’ve ever read. This story, as well at the work of Capote, led me deeper into the connection I’ve long had to the Southern Gothic genre. Don’t get me wrong though, O’Conner was a devout Catholic, and her writing is religious, but NOT AT ALL in the way that you’d think. That’s kind of the twisted bit.

For me, as I’m returning to being a reader (and more of a writer) after two decades, I’m seeing both activities completely differently than I did beforehand. I don’t want to give too many details of this story away. I only want to say that it goes awry, showing the worst ways in which religious beliefs can change the lives of ignorant people, infecting them, leading them to violent acts, ruining everything that could have been good about them, while destroying the lives of others.

Like her short story that I love so much—with one of the best lines in American literature that to this day has left me haunted since it concerns gun violence—this novel too will leave you with questions for a long time to come, and for me, it’s a window not only into the culture of the American South, but into who we are as animals with speech, memory, and opposable thumbs.

3-Second Nature by Michael Pollan (1991)

My mind is nearly always in contrarian mode so when a large number of people like anything or anyone, I question why. I always begin with the same question, “What is it about this writer’s voice, or this style of thought (or design) that’s made it so popular right now?” While this may sound like a dull way to spend one’s time, I’ve found that it’s created conversations worth listening to, and still, to this day, I’ve learned a lot by thinking about this, and bringing it up as a discussion with others.

There is likely no need for me to introduce any of you to Michael Pollan. He’s written many successful books, on a wide range of topics. I didn’t want to like him. I didn’t automatically enjoy his own narration of his book. His assured tone bothered me at first, it felt very cocky and privileged, but as I continued listening, I very much enjoyed the way in which it was crafted and the stories about himself that he’d chosen to tell. He’s good at this game.

His studio in the woods of the NE was sort of a sensitive and yet manly version of Thoreau. What he tied into this though was an introduction to some basic practices (and frustrations) in gardening that he’d learned over the years, combined with chunks of memories, tied up with facts, a lot of cultural history, and honestly, some amusing anecdotes about his family and childhood.

He is a contemporary voice and his garden writing is interesting when he does it. I hope his work inspires others, and I hope it can encourage new voices.

4-The Well-Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith (2020)

My first purchase on Audible was this title so I read it not long after it came out. I immediately identified with the author on several points. Having also had a member of my family damaged by war who spent his life dealing with his PTSD by gardening, combined with the fact that I worked in social work, helping many people in crisis, always trying to encourage anyone I saw suffering to be in the green world, to spend time quietly engaging in fostering life, this book spoke to me and I remember thinking if I’d held it in hand, I would’ve been underlining lots of ideas.

Sometimes the book was a bit choppy though, and it felt a bit like reading case studies. Passages felt more like summaries in scientific papers—but so it goes when the author is more of a physician. The medicalization was sometimes difficult for me, but that’s only because at the time I read this book, I was still in the midst of my own seemingly never-ending illness narrative that went on for decades. It just wasn’t a great time for me to listen to it.

I don’t blame anyone (including myself) for not having the patience at times to empathize well with the suffering of others. The pandemic has really given us all thin skin in this department. Recently I learned about compassion fatigue and while this book was wonderful, I felt a bit drained by the end of it. As I continue to walk away from the medicalization of my own life experience now, I think this book might feel a bit less heavy to me.

So maybe this little review is not completely fair, but I do think that you need to be in the right frame of mind to really enjoy this one. There is a lot to value in it, and I very much agree with what the author has to share.