Robin Lane Fox
Basic Books, 2010
384 pp., 40.99
Flower gardening is rarely contentious. Compared to the Middle East and legalizing marijuana, it doesn't, and shouldn't, make the list. But name your new book Thoughtful Gardening—implying that some gardeners are thoughtless—and the stakes begin to rise.
British historian Robin Lane Fox's Thoughtful Gardening is, at first glance, a compilation of exceptionally fine essays on numerous aspects of flower gardening. Organized by the seasons, it offers entertaining and informative reading on topics such as snow drops, squirrel control (complete with cooking instructions for the deceased), Wisteria cultivars, deadheading, a historic garden on the isle of Capri, and late summer Clematis. The collection is a quintessential combo-pack of information, brilliant prose, and wonderful morsels of history, botany, and practical experience. It is also a mélange of exceptional humor (of vine weevils, "they learned a hideous truth, how to reproduce without sex"), engaging travelogue, and memoir. What more could a gardener or reader want?
Robin Lane Fox has been the gardening correspondent for Britain's Financial Times for forty years. He also has fingernails that have known their share of soil. His confessed mistakes alone verify his immense credibility. Lane Fox is not only a Garden Fellow at New College, Oxford and author of two previous garden books but also a Reader and Tutor at New College and the author of numerous respected tomes on ancient history and religion. When Oliver Stone set out to make a film on Alexander the Great, Lane Fox was hired as the historical consultant (and instead of a huge fee, he asked for a place in the first fifteen of every major cavalry charge in the film and to be listed in the credits as "And introducing" Robin Lane Fox).
There are other outstanding collections of garden essays—brilliantly written, teeming with useful information, timeless, and wise. They too are culled from years of periodical columns: Henry Mitchell in the Washington Post, Allen Lacy at the Wall Street Journal, Katherine White in the New Yorker, Christopher Lloyd in Britain's Observer and Guardian. All belong on a gardener's bedside shelf. But while Thoughtful Gardening easily earns its place alongside these distinguished predecessors, Lane Fox's collection is subtly different. It comes with a strategic agenda, in many respects a worthy agenda, but an agenda nevertheless.
Robin Lane Fox's philosophy and intent in Thoughtful Gardening is to "help gardeners to realize what flower gardening is about …. [I]t means to try to grow plants well, whatever their origins and placing them in a setting that suits them and us." Lane Fox's notion is similar to what I try to convey to my teenagers—or, more aptly, what God tries to convey to each of us: "it's not all about you." Lane Fox writes, "My text and title aim to … answer that young serpent on my sofa. Thinking and knowing do not lead to pedantic labeling from an over-academic mind: they enhance what we see."
Thoughtful Gardening is not, to the author, a holistic, environmental, or purely organic pursuit. Quite the opposite. As only an Oxford don successfully can, Lane Fox unabashedly advocates the necessary use of chemicals ("there is no 'organic' killer for bindweed"), puts poison in milk he leaves out for young rabbits ("it is wonderful what a cocktail of house poison will do for the nightlife who drink it") and blends Prozac (yes, Prozac) into peanut butter to persuade the badgers to leave his tulips alone. Lane Fox does not think flower gardening should be a part of a larger effort to return to "wildflower meadows" or "havens for wildlife." Gardening, he insists, "is dulled and limited if defined by moral purposes that are driven by other concerns." Instead, he argues, "thoughtful gardening practices its pretenses in a conscious, independent way. It is not governed by bossy fashion …. Thoughtful gardening leads instead to knowledge, an asset that is intertwined with gardening's roots."
Has Lane Fox determined the ultimate definition of Thoughtful Gardening? And is his definition synonymous with "Better Gardening" (the title of his own 1986 garden book)? His definition is certainly plausible, even compelling. No gardener can devote all her time to coddling palm trees through Chicago winters or coaxing Japanese Maples to exist without pruning. Plants and gardens do function far better if they are happy to be as they are, but gardens exist in a still larger ecosystem. How we use the land and treat the squirrels and rabbits is related, and gardens flourish all the more for being considered as part of the larger community. When you consider the larger ecosystem, you allow for surprises that are beyond your control, and it's those surprises that can make your garden a far better place. While Lane Fox is opposed to agendas dictating gardening practices, doesn't Thoughtful Gardening begin to metamorphose into an agenda itself?
With or without any agenda, the practical tips—gleaned from years of trial and error—make for worthy reading. Did you know you could cut a tall, gawky winter-flowering Mahonia back very hard in April and it will reshoot to look shapelier than before? Did you know Pawlonia trees could be used in dry gardens to pull water up to the surface, and then provide water to their neighbors? There are wonderful essays on various genuses: Early-flowering cherries, Fritillarias, Rhododendrons, Iris, Kniphofias, Deutzias, Buddlejas, Salvias and others. There are numerous pearls of travel information—we're directed to little known public gardens in France, Italy, the United States, and of course, Great Britain, often complete with public transit information. There is literary trivia, drawing on sources ranging from Mansfield Park to Lady Chatterley's Lover. And the index—an increasingly endangered species—is superb.
While the new homeowner or gardener might prefer The Backyard Homestead, those who stay up late reading about Delphiniums or designing borders will love Thoughtful Gardening. If his agenda can be a bit pushy, Lane Fox is easy to like, and easy to forgive. He cares about beauty. He delights in plants. He's genuine. When Lane Fox suggests you visit his favorite garden in Ireland, he not only tells you how to get there but when to go and what to make sure you to notice. He cares that you like it, that it blesses you like it blessed him. Such qualities make for fine gardening, and for a very fine book.
Julie Lane-Gay is a writer in Vancouver, B.C.
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