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

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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.

He is pruning the privet: the seemingly never-ending saga of change in a garden

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Please read this poem—that is, if you have the time or inclination. I know that poems don’t speak to everyone, so please, give it a try. I’ll understand if you don’t.

I thought for a change of pace I’d share it since it’s about gardening. (But yes, you’re correct, it’s about much more than just pruning.)

He is pruning the privet (a poem by Joanne Kyger)

The poem says everything I’d like to say right now. I could not find the words, they found me. I’m tired, but am still able to seek. That’s reassuring. As I near 40, I’m feeling my age and am waking up from a medical stupor, stupid illness I fell into at the age of 18.

Rip Van Winkle never prepared me for this.

Change and time is growth, and sloppily, wearily, messily, we’ll all keep pruning too.

It’s what we do.

A Letter to Mr Palm (My First Gardening Mentor)

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Mr. & Mrs. Palm’s home and garden.
Mr. Milton Palm: my childhood horticultural mentor.
Dear Mr. Palm,
I miss you a lot and it’s good that we can talk again like this even if you’ve been gone for many years. If you don’t know it already, I think about you a lot. The conversations we had about soil physics and the lives of plants really stuck with me. I guess our meandering conversations about history, observation, and nature really meant a lot to my growing mind. Those are still a residue in my world and they will always be there. I return to our conversations often but you’re not there anymore.
Did you know that I named my retail seed shop after you? I thought for a long time that I should name it after Grandma Virginia but then I realized she wasn’t the seed person. She always bought her annuals in flats.
You taught me about the germination process and how to get seeds to sing and dance for me. (I mean germinate. You know that’s what I mean though, don’t you?) For some reason I still have your seed flats and cold frames in my mind. Maybe next year I’ll finally build a few simple flats and a basic cold frame like the one you had at the base of the rock wall near the stairs from the upper gardens. You’d like to see that, wouldn’t you? I don’t think I can make that seventeenth-century Buddhist temple you had there living amongst the grapes on your arbor though. I still cannot believe you made that for fun one winter. You were tickled by the idea that no one your age was building those things in Milwaukie.
You were a trailblazer.
I remember you telling me again and again about the importance of native grasses. You dreamed of a time when people would plant grass gardens and the grass could grow freely with wildflowers. Whenever I see amazing meadow designs I always think of you. How sad it is that you’re not around to see them, but I am here, and they will always remind me of you—as do the pollinators.
The pollinators are struggling now, but you told me that would happen. I remember it’s why you were so concerned about suburban gardens and the overuse of chemicals. It’s why we spent so much time together in your gardens just looking at insects. I was amazed at how many there were, and that I’d never noticed them before, but that’s because your garden was a safe place for them.
The chair at my desk in my office is your old oak chair. It once held a dictionary you so loved and other books you were reading at that time. I have one of your favorite dictionaries too. Yes, I use the Internet a lot now, but I still need to look randomly at words for fun. The chair is paired with Grandma’s old kitchen table. Do you remember it? She used it as her storage bench in the garage. It was beside the back door. Whenever she was working on something it’s where she’d stage the things she needed to get the job done. For some reason I felt that pairing it with your chair would bring me good luck. The business is growing, but it’s not easy. I suppose life is painful and sometimes we struggle. You taught me that too. While I work and sort seeds I think of you and smile. I know how much you’d like what I’m doing.
You were an amazing neighbor to Grandma. Thank you for bringing the beautiful widow roses and for talking to her about documentaries and National Geographic articles. She was a woman ahead of her time, and you always knew how much I took after her. I might be crusty and grumpy at times, but I still have her heart, the heart of a poet. She liked you too because you respected her and treated her as an intellectual equal. I know that was important to her.
As I think now of gardening I wish you could be here. There are so many things I’d like to ask you. I would ask you about your muses and inspirations and I think that you’d just look at me and say something like, “Annie, now why would I fuss with that sort of thinking? I’ve got plenty of other things to think about and do.” I can close my eyes and see your grin, it was nice and broad, and then you’d show me your pretty teeth as your grin morphed into a big smile. I used to love how much you’d tease me about thinking too much when you were cursed by the same thing.
When you got sick I was so upset that I couldn’t come over to see you. During your funeral and afterwards I cried a lot because I was devastated that I hadn’t been able to say goodbye. I still remember when I saw you last though. It wasn’t like my last conversation with Grandma Virginia, but it wasn’t bad. I think the cancer must have been starting then because you didn’t look well. We still made the most of it though—talking about plants and books.
At your funeral I remember your minister told us about how you were an agnostic but you went to his church just in case. Then he told us about when you’d telephoned him late at night, waking he and his wife up, because your night-blooming cactus was in bloom. I tried growing a Selenicereus grandiflorus from seed this year and it worked. I think I neglected it though so I may need to begin again. You know I will make it eventually. I want to call and wake people up too when it blooms but I’m probably more likely to post pictures of the occurrence on Facebook. Oh, how you would hate Facebook!
My mind is still all over the place and my garden shows a vast array of my green interests. Someday I will have another herb garden too—just like the one you made for me when I was a girl. I was too young to understand all of those plants well, but you gave them to me and that was a gift I’ll never forget. You were the first man to give me a garden of my own—albeit a portable one. It was quite glamourous that summer up on the deck in my treehouse overlooking the creek. That herb garden you gave me changed me and opened up something really important inside of me.
I have new mentors now and I hope you don’t mind—maybe you brought them to me? I think you’d like them a lot. We’re all plant nerds and many are word nerds too. We talk of plant exploration and seed collection. Sometimes—with others—we just go around on nursery tours testing out our botanical Latin. I was doing ok with that but a lot of stress threw me off my game. I hope to get back on that ball again soon so that I can be more comfortable with my green people again. I like that song and dance a lot. You know how often I wanted to get lost in your garden with you. I’m an adult now and I still seek out that exact same kind of pleasure. I am not alone though—not at all.
When it comes to my design style I’m inspired by art and nature. You would probably tell me that’s impractical, but I think it’s because I live in the city and it’s different here. (You’d have to agree with me on that front.) I learned a lot from you though about nature, recreating it, and then embellishing it a bit. Your soil lectures taught me how that was all possible. I remember you taught me about the movement of the sun too. Maybe I’m not that impractical after all. I know that you would have liked to see more food here in my garden. I do have a fig tree at least and I’m not finished yet. (Your dried fruits during our long discussions were the best. Maybe someday I’ll finally get around to making my own dehydrated fruit but I probably won’t make my own industrial-sized dryer with an old engine. I do live in the city. I doubt my neighbors would care for that kind of ingenuity.)
I’m so grateful to have known you Mr. Palm. You made my youth a happier place and you helped me to better understand that I was passionate about something my parents didn’t quite understand. I needed that and you were a good friend to me. Long before I knew about other weird kids with elderly best friends, you were my BFF.
Thank you.
It was sad watching as the developments encroached more and more upon your privacy and garden. 
The hardy Fuchsia and the gate to Grandma Virginia’s are all gone now. I have only this photo and the many happy memories. Thank you again.
(The Grow Write Guild is a creative writing club for people who garden. It’s a series of bi-weekly writing prompts created by garden author and blogger Gayla Trail. I’m starting out late with the series but hope to catch up soon. It’s just what this blogger needed for some summer fun.)




My Garden (An Exercise in Garden Writing)

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Back of the house as seen from the back corner of my garden. The willow arbor is floating there to the left.

After having seen many residential gardens over the last few years I think it’s safe to say that mine is rather small, a regular city lot, with areas more or less here and there in strips along the north, south, and west sides of the home. The backyard is probably more of what would be traditionally called a garden, but even it is quite small when compared to larger gardens seen in this city. It is square, roughly 30′ x 30′, and in its heart is my 10′ x 10′ living willow arbor. For me, this is the shaggy, ragged and often messy heart of my garden. It’s my outdoor living room. It’s cozy and a bit wild—probably a bit like me.

This area looks sort of finished but if I’d pulled the camera out a bit the illusion of order would disappear. (That’s Cryptomeria japonica ‘Spiraliter Falcata‘ there on the right and an Impatiens tinctoria on the far left. Still cannot find the tag for the really hardy evergreen fern there but I’m working on it. The grassy bunch is a lovely Carex.)

Then there is the rest. The bits and pieces. I see swipes and swatches as I wander around watering in the heat. I see finished areas followed by piles of trash that I’ve not yet picked up from old ideas for projects. There are the overgrown run-on sentences of the garden—mostly vines. My garden is one that’s a work-in-progress, it’s an artist’s studio. This place really is my mad plant scientist’s laboratory. 

Antirrhinum majus ‘Oriental Lanterns (TM)’ grown from seed I bought from Park Seed. The color is amazing and the plant is a great plant.

My house faces west. The front yard is not really coherent. There is the tiny hell strip, cut up into three uneven pieces. There is a central area, with a privacy planting, meant to keep the eyes of those on the sidewalk away from my large front window. The parking area is there too but it’s currently filled with racks and pots and is more of a staging area this summer. An edible garden once ran along the southern side of the house. It is overgrown now and a mass of tangled plants. It was created initially to be the domain of my ex, but I’ve not yet fully reclaimed it. I hope to soon. 

Life in the hammock on a summer evening as I dream of better times ahead.

I see the memories of each and every plant and space. I see the ghosts of plants who’ve come before and which are gone now. I want to garden to build a future now more than to remember the past. This will be challenging for me, but I want to do so. So much about gardening requires time and patience. I’ve finally learned too that gardening can be exhilarating when you rip everything out and begin again. Just like a diseased plant, it’s best to rip it out. Some plants struggle in the wrong conditions, I have been one of those plants. 

The real garden here at home. The back boundary has been an eyesore for years. Here is Mona the Cat watching the apartment dwellers. Someday soon I’l have the fence I’ve been hoping for and planning for years.

The front garden runs along the fence and turns along with the walking path into what is my north garden. It is the access walkway and no one ever wants to go that way even when I encourage them to do so. Someday I’ll actually consult someone about how to make that entryway more enticing, but for now, I’ll just continue to gently encourage folks verbally. 

My engagement bike along the North Side of the house. (Yes, I’m engaged to be married.) The bike “La Dama” is now my mobile seed-collecting unit. I can bike to homes nearby and collect seeds from gardens locally to be sold in my online store. So far, the whole process has worked wonders for my health.

I like the small northern strip. I don’t like having to look directly at my neighbor’s house, but he’s a nice man. He just isn’t as into privacy as I am. He has landscaped with English laurels (Prunus laurocerasus), Japanese privet (Ligustrum japonicum), and cedar (Cedrus)—all having grown randomly on his property from seeds dropped by birds or else they were blown in on the wind. He then plucked them and rearranged them into rows. Amazing in its own way I suppose as a lesson in patience and he has loads of that virtue. He’s a great neighbor and I like to harvest from his ever-growing army of Western Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum). (My first client has also been grateful for this too.) 

Sedum morganianum in my office. I’m taking care of my indoor babies before it gets too dark and cold outside to do so in the fall. I hate transplanting houseplants when the days get shorter. It’s best to care for them now. Their roots will appreciate it and they’ll be far less likely to fall prey to pests and disease.

Forgive me for not writing about my plants though. Major life transitions recently have made that painful. I’m healing. I’ve learned a lot. So many memories were tied up in every corner of green in my space. During the past few years I’ve really come to understand how unusual I am in that sense. My plantings have held such sentiments. But I know that I am not the only one. There are those who garden to decorate. Some re-create a time, or a place, or a feeling. Many just want symmetry and low-maintance. Some want that impression—a replication seen in a magazine. I planted to forget. I planted to create another kind of reality. I remember far too much and I’ve come to realize recently that I’ve never forgotten nearly as much in my garden as I’ve remembered. 

The garden of my mother.

My home is the home of a woman who up until recently didn’t really understand she had a moderately serious case of OCD. When I was highly stressed during the past decade—for the first time in my life—the negative effects of this affliction really showed themselves. Now I’m using my “old friend” to help me to organize, clean and make sense of the chaos I’d created during so many years of unhappiness and loneliness. I’ve taken my life back and I no longer see OCD really at all. I had no idea that such severe and extreme stress could do this to someone. In hindsight, I have been that woman. 

I’m very detail oriented. This can be a wonderful thing—especially for making pastries.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy I have a light form of OCD but I want to use it for good. The kind I have appears to have helped me in the past with my academic achievements. I have an amazing memory and when I want to organize and categorize things, it’s like breathing for me and I find it extremely relaxing. It puts me in my happy place. When I’m stressed though, things fall apart. I’ve lived with a lot of stress for many years now and my garden shows that still. It’s the last frontier of my former life but I’m making sense of it now. I’m re-writing my garden as I’m re-writing my life. 

First harvest of the season from the Ficus carica ‘Petite Negra’.

For these reasons I do not see what others see. As I walk the circle around my home I see what never was, I hear the echos of arguments, there were the joyous moments after my divorce, conversations with friends and foster kids, and I see myself wandering, wondering what to do with myself. I see myself crying in pain during times of horrible illness and swelling. In my head the refrain, “I need help,” repeats over and over. It is far more difficult to ask for help than it is to prune a Japanese maple. When I walk in my garden, I see and feel the pleasure pruning the Japanese maples has given me during the worst of times. When I felt my worst emotionally, I always sought my pruners. 

The front of the house July 2013.

You’d think that this would make for an organized garden but mine is not. There are yet many unfinished projects. I’m slowly trashing them now and am making room for a new period in my life. I’m keeping the plants that grow well and which bring me happiness. If the memories are too painful, reminding me of when I fell and broke my fingers, or when I fell and hit my head, I’m trying not to let the plants die. Instead, I am either giving things away or moving them. The memories are dying instead and things are no longer falling apart. 

Maurice the Cat in his happy zone.

I should add more pictures but I’m still ashamed to do so. With a party coming up to welcome my fiancé into his new home I’m making strides. These things take time, energy, and money and I don’t have a lot of any of these right now.

I’m one of the many chronically ill divorced people who’ve filed for personal bankruptcy. I’m not a perfectly comfortable member of the middle class and I’m not ashamed to say so. That’s what I feel and see when I see my garden but I’ve been learning to see so much more.  

I feel that I’m lucky and gifted to be here—to be able to continue living here. I’m loved now too—a lot!—and I’m learning to be part of a team. We plan to buy the house and stay here. These things take time, but sometimes things work out for the best. I’m learning that too and being positive makes a huge difference. I adore all of the positive green people in my life and want to thank them from the bottom of my heart. We gardeners are ever the optimists and you’ve all helped me feel alive during a time when I really needed the lifeline. Thank you.

Gardens are for people and this garden is a big part of me. I really look forward to sharing it more with others in the future—and I guess that means you’ll get a bit more of me too.

(The Grow Write Guild is a creative writing club for people who garden. It’s a series of bi-weekly writing prompts created by garden author and blogger Gayla Trail. I’m starting out late with the series but hope to catch up soon. It’s just what this blogger needed for some summer fun.)

Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton

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When I was a young girl I spent Saturday mornings wandering the aisles of Powell’s Books in downtown Portland with my father Frank. Since my parents were very protective of their only daughter—and I was a good Catholic school girl—let’s just say this activity persisted for many years.

One Saturday I happened upon a book with a title that really spoke to me. It was Journal of a Solitude and its author was the poet and memoirist May Sarton. At that time I was journaling a great deal, and of course I considered myself to be a solitude, so it seemed like a match made in heaven. I purchased it, read it, and I can say with certainty that it change my life by showing me more of who I was and who I could be. To this day, I still list it as being one of the most formative books of my early creative literary life. Considering how many books I’ve consumed over the years, this is quite a feat.

Imagine my surprise when just months ago I was reading some theoretical piece about garden literature and May Sarton’s name popped up. Almost immediately I put on my walking shoes for the 4-mile roundtrip walk to the Powell’s store on Hawthorne. It was there that I purchased this now precious book Plant Dreaming Deep.

It is a garden memoir of a place in time, a person and her life, and the town where she has come to live. As a poet, she writes patches that are striking and true. Readers at first do not know how to make sense of how the text works and fits together. These are the best books for my mind at least where there is a puzzle. We work to patch together the meaning of something so intimate, the thoughts and experiences of a stranger, and best of all, yes, there is a garden and many thoughts about what plants mean to her. More than anything, she bridges the divide that bothers me most about the majority of garden writing. She makes it personal. She is not hiding the fact that her ideas are opinions and her tastes are based on feelings and memories. She is an artist and she makes herself vulnerable. Gardening and garden design is not formulaic and it is not mimicry. I believe she would say that we have little control over our gardens at all and that for the time we have them, we should feel them at every available moment. They are gifts to us. At the garden’s heart, like all great things, we will always find the subjects of life, death and change. It is for this reason we’ve spent so many years reflecting in gardens. It’s just what humans do.

For Sarton—and for many of us gardeners like her—it’s our heart and our minds we find when we garden. It is our spirit we grow and truly our souls we nourish as we tend to the soil. Not all gardeners fall into this group though, but if you do, and you’re like me, I really recommend the work of Sarton.

A Gardener Spends an Hour or Two at Powell’s Books

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Last Friday the sun was out in the City of Roses and I was running around getting ready for my nieces’s 21st birthday party.
Why not stop for a bit at Powell’s? Right?

I have been visiting the nationally-known and locally-loved store since I was a girl and to say that it’s part of my routine and my life is an understatement. Long before the Internet existed I was using this book lovers’ destination as a much needed resource—along with the local library system of course!

Walking the two blocks from where I’d parked my car I enjoyed the familiar sights.
There were the usual humorous things to see too—even if I was the only one laughing.
No folks, this is no longer a trash can once it’s painted and planted!
As for the Italian cypress, it reminded me a bit of the old drunk men I used to see in this area as a girl. They too leaned up against the walls of building just like this poor thing.
Portland looked much different during the 1970s. I suppose to outsiders, we still look different, but in a much more friendly way.

For instance, we have our urban windmills atop buildings. Everyone does that right?

Since I hadn’t been to the downtown location for several months I’d not yet noticed that the gardening section had been expanded a bit.

There was a great display of new books and I was happy to see they’ve included a cheap section again with older titles that don’t cost as much as the newbies.

Yes, it’s harder now to find great deals on books here but that’s happening everywhere.

My favorite section was still very much intact.

Beside it is my other favorite section in the store. As someone with a background in critical theory and philosophy relating to art history and visual analysis this section has been nice to transition into over the years. At least with gardens you can actually talk about something.

Upstairs in the arts area I was excited to see vintage typewriters on display with houseplants. This is a nice Ficus elastica.

Some of the other houseplants didn’t look as nice but this is a bookstore after all. I felt like turning this Sansevieria but then I decided that I might look like one of those obsessive characters in that popular tv show you’ve probably heard about that’s filmed here.

Before I left I was looking at hiking books because I plan to go on more plant and nature adventures this year. It was strange to me that an older edition of one of the used books seemed familiar. I looked on the back and suddenly remembered that my dad had resold the remainders he’d purchased from the original publisher when they’d gone out of business. I may have actually put this sticker on the back of this book because I used to do things like that when I was younger.  As the daughter of a publisher, I was lucky to grow up surrounded by books. I always could earn some extra money too.

When I was a young girl my Saturday mornings downtown at Powell’s with my dad were often the highlight of my week. We’d often spend several hours there together reading quietly and watching people.

It was really nice to remember those memories just before leaving and I also found some great books for my niece.