It’s the longest day … it’s the shortest day. For a gardener, winter can be a tough and challenging time. We all itch to get out and dig in the dirt, but the wetness, cold, and gray can make the shortest days of the year feel like the longest.
Of course, the concept of a long winter or a short day is entirely relative. Even after living in Bangor, Maine for 10 years, I couldn’t get used to a 3:57 p.m. sunset on the shortest day of the year. Even so, our gardening friends in Reykjavic, Iceland hit rock bottom with four hours of daylight – sunrise at 11:30 a.m. and sunset at 3:30 p.m.
But in relative terms, winter can feel long to almost anyone in any climate. And as a plant person and plant book collector who needs serious technical help to prevent his living room bookcases from ending up in the basement in a single action, I get a lot of questions about garden book recommendations. Of course, given my penchant for compulsive collecting … both plants and books … it’s like asking me which internal organs I’m most connected to when recommending my four favorite books.
So I’m not going to offer the following as my favorite four. I will only offer them as four that I have both read and thoroughly enjoyed.
Land of the blue poppy
By Frank Kingdom-Ward
Partly adventure travelogue, part Himalayan anthropology and part incredibly cool plant history. This is both easy to read and nerve wracking at the same time. Kingdom-Ward is one of the most famous of the intrepid British botanists of the early 20th century and one of the most prolific writers of the genre. Apparently he had the physical constitution of an iron anvil, the stage presence of John Wayne’s toughest cowboy characters and at the same time made a mean cup of tea.
During his travels through western China, the Tibetan plateau and, as he called them, “Burma’s icy mountains”, he experienced 25 strenuous collecting journeys – thousands of kilometers, all on foot – and introduced countless plants into our gardens, not least that was it what he first called the Cambridge Blue Poppy (Meconopsis speciosa). If you don’t appreciate your warm, cozy armchair as a result, nothing will.
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The Reef Point Gardens bulletins
By Beatrix Farrand
Farrand was quite an accomplished woman, to say the least. She was a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects – and the only woman in the group. That would be remarkable today, but even more impressive than it was in 1899! During her career, she designed parks and gardens and worked with John D. Rockefeller on the creation of Acadia National Park’s breathtaking horse-drawn carriage trails. Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC is probably their most famous garden.
In 1949, Farrand began publishing her Reef Point Bulletins based on her experiences and that of her close gardening friends in the summer vacation community of Bar Harbor, Maine. And instead of stuffy or academic prose, these collected bulletins are written in the hand of a gardener. If you turn the pages, you can hear the fire crackling in the study of her long-gone Bar Harbor home and imagine her looking out the window and remembering the past season. Comforting prose and detailed information on plant performance that you won’t find anywhere else.
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Seeds of happiness
By Sue Shephard
If you’ve ever wondered how a garden plant dynasty is made up, this book is a must have. Beginning with a Scottish gardener who moved to England in search of his fortune, the story is about five generations who built one of the most influential and successful kindergarten empires in the western world. And as a small side project, they enabled the establishment of the Royal Horticultural Society.
Over the generations, the Veitch Nursery Company sent some of the most famous plant collectors around the world in search of the next great plant. North America, South America, Asia, Australia … there were only a few places that Messrs Veitch had not explored by one of their collectors. I dare say that there is probably no garden in the western world without a plant that they planted there.
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The man who planted trees
By Jean Giono
If you only have an hour and need to lift your gardening spirits, this is hard to beat. It’s an allegorical story of a humble shepherd at the foot of the Alps who simply wants to plant trees. He plants his acorns 100 a day over the course of his long life and transforms a once barren landscape destroyed by World War I into a green land of abundance. The story has been translated into almost every language in the world and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were versions in Klingon and Martian too. Do yourself a favor and get the version with the stark and beautiful woodblock prints by Michael McCurdy.
A short but effective tonic for a gray winter day.
And when you’ve finished all of this and winter is still firmly entrenched, drop me a line. I probably have a few left in the basement.
Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old Lagrange Road, yewdellgardens.org.