By Anne Boulton
I have in my care two linen-bound tomes on the propagations of perennials. Both books, written decades ago, contain an elegance long missing from today’s books on gardening. The publishers of these books weren’t concerned about niche marketing; thus, there is no dumbing down. Not even close. In fact, reading these books is akin to a take-home course on botany, poetry and Greek mythology. They are charming in their sagacious adages( “Nothing without labour”)and nostalgic in their references (“yester-year” anyone?)
These books were written with robust attention not only to gardening details, but also to language and form. They are written unfailingly well. Occasionally there is a flourish of poetry and I can only wonder at the kind of elitism that gardening once held. The leisure class could garden for aesthetic. This class was educated in all of the arts: classics, literature, art, music and so would recognize the references to Homer or to Ruskin. You wouldn’t see a line like this nowadays: “Persons with more refined tastes appreciate colors (sic.) which are complex”. Because of this blatant classism, they would easily be dismissed today. But to me, I enjoy seeing gardening on par with the classic arts.
Allow me to illustrate. Says John Ruskin (leading art critic of the Victorian Period): “Contrast increases the splendor of beauty.” He was absolutely right. Did he ever have to plant in deep shade, I wonder? Or was he blessed with a south-facing window?
There is a tendency to reflect philosophically about a single topic, much like a poet. “Colour,” or the variety of, is one such a subject:
“Form pleases us, but a more primitive instinct leads us to appreciate colour more than form. It is strange that most colours are associated in our minds with form. Yet, blue we conceive without form because we visualize the sky—blue can go on and on without limit. Night, which shrouds the earth, gives no limit to black. But think of red, purple, orange, and immediately a form looms to mind—a red apple, a purple flower, or an orange shawl.”
Nowadays, garden writers don’t wax poetic on colour and form. That is reserved for the realm of art. Nowadays, readers want the nitty gritty: point form, Cole’s notes, quick fixes, gardening for dummys. We don’t want to know that the Asphodel is mentioned by Homer as a flower that grows in the Meadows of the Dead where heroes gathered in Hades. Nor does contemporary sage advice resemble this: “Do not think that summer is nigh just because the Hepaticas have bloomed.” (The what?) And who thinks of their weeds-cum-flowers as a “Pygmalion” type who disguise themselves well with a fragrant bloom, but have a shoddy reputation? I thought it a fine reference! In fact, ever since Piebird, I’ve come to see my thistles in a far more tolerant light.
But there is something grand I take away from these books. They speak of the gardener as someone heroic. Everything considered, to really do well in the garden—no “false triumphs” allowed—takes a kind of epic heroism that could only be likened to the Odyssey. I mean, just look at the language reserved for the description of pests: “pernicious, vicious, obnoxious and thoroughly bad”. Quite the savage enemy, indeed. Pests only the heroic could slay.