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.

Eating and Sleeping in the Garden

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Mona the Cat dangles her foot while trying to stay cool during our recent heatwave.

Moving a blog from one platform to another takes time. I dreaded working through this process, and now, I’m simply overwhelmed by it.

The list of required changes looms large on my list of lists. Days continue to pass by me but daily I’m trying to learn a new trick here at my new home while I’m still cleaning up over at the old blog.

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A bloom on a Hypoestes phyllostachya (aka Polka Dot Plant).

Recently I’ve been collecting seeds for Milton’s Garden Menagerie and I’ve been taking notes on where to find more seeds in the coming weeks.

This Polka Dot Plant is a plant I grew from seed this past winter and I hope to collect its seeds in September.

(I just love this plant.)

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Lilies in a friend’s garden in August.

Garden tour season is in full swing. I’ve been trying to get out to see more gardens but my physical therapy is taking up a lot of my time. (I cannot begin to express how much better I’m feeling after back surgery.)

Sometimes I’m amazed that I’m just seeing some gardens for the first time, but life has been keeping me busy these past few years.

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Maurice the Cat trying to sleep through the heat.

My garden is still in the middle of a major redesign. As I remove plants that have underperformed for me—rather than shop for new ones to fill the space—I’m just enjoying the emptiness.

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Zucchini Salad: fresh uncooked zucchini, fresh Italian parsley, olive oil, and a pinch of salt.

Recently, Paul Bonine of Xera Plants Inc invited us over for dinner and we had the pleasure of returning the invitation to him this past weekend.

It was terrifying to have him over because my garden is such a wild mess, but the conversations he and I had as we walked through my own urban jungle helped me so much.

I badly needed guidance.

(He brought me some seeds too.)

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My breakfast in the garden à la John. Eggs fried in brown butter, polenta, and a side of prickly pear.

The next morning I awoke recharged and refreshed. I went out to the garden to weed and John made me breakfast with a side of prickly pear.

If you’re new (or a veteran) to this blog, you may not know that my oft-used online handle Ficurinia is Sicilian dialect for ‘prickly pear’.

It was his first prickly pear experience—and he like it.

Good to know since he married this Ficurinia 11 months ago today.