The view from my window is more January than March, thanks to a late-season blizzard.
The worst of the storm hit north and west of us, but we still have more snow, and colder temperatures, than we’ve seen all winter. Yet more snow is driving hard past my window, but the wind is scouring our driveway clean. I am glad since Tuesday’s heavy, wet snowfall damaged the snowplow we attach to our tractor mower. Of course, I write “we” in the most generous sense because my contribution to clearing snow is keeping the children out of their father’s way.
It’s a strange day to browse my favorite gardening books, but this is the middle of March, and I must keep faith with the angle of the sun, no matter the peculiarities of the weather.
The literary letters Elizabeth and I have recently exchanged here on the blog have had me giving a great deal of thought to the epistolary genre. As a form of artistic creation, it is centuries old, though today’s epistolary novels are perhaps more likely to include email transcripts than handwritten letters.
It is not a form you tend to see in garden writing, but exploring the form these past few weeks has reminded me of the quality I most appreciate in my favorite gardening books: that is, the singular human voice writing from a particular time and place.
My preferred gardening books are written by gardeners who love their own plot of earth and know it well. It is tempting to think their advice might be of only local importance. The needs of my own garden will be very different from a garden with rocky New England soil near the salt-air of the ocean. Yet I find precisely the opposite to be true. This may be one more case of greater love leading to greater wisdom.
Here are a few of my favorite garden books, just in time for spring. These are not exhaustive and impersonal garden reference books. These are more like letters from a gardener, or better yet, missives from a particular plot of cultivated earth. I hope they inspire you to better love the ground beneath your own feet.
- Henry Mitchell is one of my favorite garden writers. Usually he makes me laugh out loud, but he often surprises me with eloquence and emotional insight. For many years he wrote a garden column for The Washington Post, and it is these columns that make up collections like The Essential Earthman and One Man’s Garden. His style, geared toward local Washington D.C. newspaper readers, probably comes the closest to the intimacy of the epistolary form.
- Tara Austen Weaver’s memoir Orchard House is a perfect example of why I prefer the personal rather than the encyclopedic approach to garden reading. I am easily overwhelmed by lists of plant varieties, but when Weaver praises a particular variety of homegrown strawberry, I find that I want to plant and taste nothing else. This is a lovely memoir of growing a garden and healing a family.
- If you enjoy Michael Pollan’s approach to food writing, you will love his gardening book: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. It is another well-researched book filtered through Pollan’s everyman voice and his particular gardening adventures. Flipping through my tattered old copy, I’ve decided it’s time for me to reread it.
- I do not recommend Katharine S. White’s book Onward and Upward in the Garden to many people. If yours is only a casual interest in garden writing, this may not be the book for you. However, if you are at all intrigued by the idea of an experienced gardener and knowledgeable writer examining seed and plant catalogs as a reviewer would study a just-released novel, then you might enjoy this book as much as I do. Here is another enticement: Katharine was the wife of E.B. White, and her descriptions of their Maine garden helped me to see Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan in a fresh light.
- The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy leans more toward the encyclopedic, but this astonishing account of the importance of native landscaping for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of our planet is told through from the perspectives of scientists making important observations in their very own gardens. I used to think that native plants were a nice extra, but Darke and Tallamy have transformed my thinking. This may be one of the most important garden books you read.
- If you love keeping fresh flowers in your home, I highly recommend the beautiful just-released book Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden by Erin Benzakein. This book is practical, gorgeous, and inspiring.
I’d love to know: do you read garden books?
And if you’d like to read a little more from me, here is my latest post for Grace Table: “Sunlight, Shadows, and a Supper Club.”
Elizabeth and I are homebound. She, a writer of poetry and prose, is bound to Mersea, a 1904 white Victorian nestled in the historic district of a South Carolina shrimping village. I am bound to Maplehurst, a red-brick farmhouse built by Pennsylvania Quakers in 1880. We are both writers, wives, and mothers, but nearly twenty years and hundreds of miles lie between us. This season, as winter turns toward spring and Lent leans toward Easter, Elizabeth and I are writing letters, she beneath the pines and pecans, I beneath the hemlocks and maples. We will reflect together on our homebound journeys. We will explore the bonds of love and faithfulness that tie us, and not always easily, to these particular places and to the people sheltered within them. Please join us for an epistolary exploration of love, loss, and restoration.
Read Elizabeth’s letter of March 3 here. My response is below.
March 6, 2017
In my third-floor office, tucked up in an armchair near the window
You write of pansies and roses and blooming cherry trees, and I imagine a scented floral carpet working its way across our country, south to north. I know a new season is on its way, but it is difficult to believe in spring while this bitter wind whips across my attic window. The temperature here at Maplehurst is predicted to fall to thirteen tonight. I am afraid that the swollen buds on my peach and apricot trees will not survive to bloom. Seasons do collide, as you say, and there are casualties. I am grieving the fruit we likely will not pick this July.
To invest in a garden is to have your heart broken on a regular basis. The more you pour in, the more you receive, but the more you also have to lose. In the past year or two, I have focused my gardening efforts on “extending the season of interest,” as it says in one of my gardening books. This means planting the earliest blooming snowdrops and daffodils and the latest flowering dahlias and windflowers. This week has shown me that in addition to the great joy of more flowers I now also have an extended season for potential heartbreak. My early “February Gold” daffodils were a lovely winter surprise, but now they look, from my window, like a child’s toys left out to be ruined in the weather. I should have gathered them all up, but I couldn’t bear to erase every last bit of golden yellow from beneath the hawthorn trees.
I had forgotten how slow the shift from winter to spring can be (two steps forward, one step back). Home restoration is the same. I sometimes think that every project we complete merely highlights the decay that remains in new ways. If I paint a wall, the ceiling suddenly looks dingy. If I paint one radiator, the peeling paint on the others stands out more than ever. I recently painted the trim down our back stairs, but now the cracks in the plaster wall are all I can see (two steps forward, one step back). If I struggle to know where to begin, I also struggle to decide when, and where, to stop.
You write that the slow process of transformation shapes you, that it is formative. I agree, and yet I resent the slowness. If I could, I would snap my fingers – ta da! – and Maplehurst would be fixed, repaired, spruced up. This place, and everyone in it, would be healed. Made whole. But if I lost the process, what else would I lose? I know I would lose a great deal, though I am loathe to admit it.
Lent is indeed a sacred time. It is a season for active waiting. It is the season when I try to turn, deliberately, toward the source, like a daffodil turning its face toward the sun.
I set this letter aside when it came time to make dinner. Now a night and a day have passed. The cold did come. The daffodils no longer look like toys, but like debris that has been trampled underfoot. They are utterly wilted.
The bitter cold arrived with the first Sunday of Lent. In the morning, I read the Sunday paper and shook my head. I could not finish a single story because every one was breaking my heart. At church, we began our service, as we do every year during Lent, with a recitation of the ten commandments and a prayer of confession.
Now I recall what it is I hear when you say the name of your home Mersea.
Mercy. I hear mercy.
It is both prayer (Lord, have mercy) and statement (Lord, you are merciful indeed).
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Is misty and mild and not like January at all.
This is our fifth winter at Maplehurst, and we’ve never waited so long for real snow.
But it’s cold enough. The woodstove in the kitchen is pouring out heat while I study my stack of seed catalogs. I am often asked about my favorites. This year, I’ve ordered vegetable seeds from Seed Savers, Park Seed, Burpee, and Pinetree. I love the conservation work of Seed Savers as well as their highly curated collection of heirlooms, and I appreciate the very low prices at Pinetree (though, twice, my Pinetree seeds have been mislabeled).
I’ve also ordered flower seeds from Renee’s Garden Seeds and dahlias from Swan Island Dahlias. In a month or two, I may order a few new David Austin roses. Last year, I planted four Lady of Shalott shrub roses. While orange has never been my favorite color, the flowers have a great deal of pink and coral, and they were so healthy and vigorous and constant in their blooming that I fell in love. Plus, the name. I care very much about names in paint and roses and crayons, though not so much in lipstick.
If you are unfamiliar with David Austin roses, they are often called “English roses.” They are bred to look and smell like old-fashioned roses, but they bloom continuously. This year, I have my eye on Munstead Wood though I don’t yet know where I might put it. However, I never let that stop me.
Now you might be wondering why anyone would choose a once-flowering antique rose if they could plant a modern English rose. Personally, I love to plant both. The modern roses give me flowers in spring and fall (and frequently in-between), but the antiques put all of their effort into one extravagant spring explosion of scent and color. There’s nothing else like it. Besides, no one ever complained that a peony only blooms in May.
Besides seed catalogs, I am consulting my favorite and most practical gardening book: The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch. I am reading a recently-released book called Getaway with God: The Everywoman’s Guide to Personal Retreat by Letitia Suk. This one is a great resource for any woman considering a personal spiritual retreat in the new year. I am also finishing a library copy of Phyllis Tickle’s wonderful little book What the Land Already Knows: Winter’s Sacred Days. I may have shed a few tears when I discovered that this gem is out of print and used copies cost a small fortune. Now I know what to look for at the used bookstores!
In the kitchen, we’ve been enjoying Jenny Rosenstrach’s new cookbook How to Celebrate Everything. Attention: she has a recipe for a thin crust pizza with garbanzo beans (among other toppings), and it may be the most delicious pizza I have ever eaten. I know. I was skeptical, too. Now I want to eat it every day. It’s the perfect salty, savory pizza for winter. Possibly, I will tire of it in time to resume my homemade pesto pizzas in summer. Possibly.
Speaking of the kitchen, I have a new post up today at Grace Table. It’s a reflection on the new year, how to cultivate a habit of hospitality, and includes my method for home-brewed kombucha.
What new things are you most eager to see, do, make, or grow in 2017?
Happy New Year! Thanks, as always, for reading along. I am grateful for each one of you.
(P.S. If you’d like to make more frequent virtual visits to Maplehurst, I share a photo on Instagram nearly every day. I’d love to connect with you there.)
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I moved to this old farmhouse with dreams of a garden, but it wasn’t a flower garden. What an extravagant dream that would have been. I was a garden do-gooder. If you had asked me to place a spiritual value on a box of seed packets, tomatoes for canning and cucumbers for pickling would have risen right to the top. Morning glories were an indulgence.
Extravagance is something I have had to learn.
Jesus told us he came to give us life. But not just enough life to scrape by. Not a pinched and narrow life. Life to the full. Abundant life. Life like a cup overflowing.
Life like a garden bursting with flowers.
There is a ministry of flowers. I don’t think I can yet claim it as my own. If I practice it, it is only in small ways. A bouquet for a neighbor here. A flower photo on instagram there.
These days, the ministry of flowers is God’s ministry to me. The flowers that grow here at Maplehurst have become an emblem of God’s wild love and evidence of his generative presence on this earth. They are extravagant. Foolish in their ephemeral beauty. Profuse and profligate and anything but practical.
But this is a post about books.
And it is a post about the ministry of cake.
D. L. Mayfield is one of my favorite online writers. Her first book comes out today, and it is a gorgeous, heartbreaking, and wise collection of personal essays.
Assimilate Or Go Home shows us how Mayfield’s own do-gooder dream deflated, not in the garden but on the mission field. In her own words:
The more I failed to communicate the love of God to my refugee friends, the more I experienced it for myself. The more overwhelmed I felt as I became involved in the myriads of problems facing my friends who experience poverty in America, the less pressure I felt to attain success or wealth or prestige. And the more my world started to expand at the edges of my periphery, the more it became clear that life was more beautiful and more terrible than I had been told.
There are so many reasons to read this book, but I especially recommend it for Mayfield’s final reflections on the ministry of cake. Cake, like flowers, seems like a nonessential. In a world rocked by wars and rumors of wars, in a world of unbearable sorrows and grief, a world where too many people lack even basic necessities, what is the point of cake? I am reminded of Marie Antoinette. If we celebrate flowers or cake, if we celebrate at all, are we hopelessly out of touch? Extravagant to the point of selfishness?
Sometimes we must receive something in order to understand that it is worth giving. Because God gave me flowers, I tend those flowers and I give them away knowing that they matter. Mayfield wanted to give her refugee friends everything: answers, solutions, even the love of God, but they gave her cake and that changed everything.
Her most of all.
Here are two more book recommendations (one for cake and one for flowers). Perhaps they might help you to receive the love of God in more beautiful and more delicious ways.
This is my new favorite cookbook. It’s a book of seasonal desserts inspired by homegrown produce and farmer’s market bounty. As soon as I opened it, I wanted to bake my way from first page to last.
The banana and summer squash cake is my children’s new favorite cake. Seriously. Also, there is a cake recipe inspired by those apple cider doughnuts so beloved at Amish farmstands and pick-your-own apple orchards. Need I say more?
This beautiful book was a birthday gift to me from my sister Kelli. It is pretty and inspiring, but it’s also informative and practical. I still have so much to learn about floral design (okay, I still have everything to learn), but I’ve already implemented a few good tips and ideas from this book. Because the bouquet we take to a neighbor, and the flowers we arrange for our own bedside table, matter more than we know.
Tell me, what books are on your nightstand?
My children have spent the past week with their grandparents. Untethered from their needs, I spent the week living in my head.
Daydreams, interior monologues, thoughts, prayers, and wishes: the inner world is my favorite landscape.
It is quiet there, and I am all alone.
I set several overly-ambitious writing goals for the week. I also determined to catch up on every gardening chore and organize the house from top to bottom. In 90-degree heat.
It was a plan guaranteed to ensure that by the time my children returned, I would feel like a miserable failure who had squandered the most precious days that ever were.
The gardening chores have at least forced me to temporarily abandon my inner world. Daydreams evaporate very quickly when one is sweating, swatting mosquitoes, and cursing one’s inability to properly stake a sprawling cherry tomato plant.
Also, there are flowers. I am finding this summer that I do not think very much in the flower garden. There is something about the overpowering scent of oriental lilies that empties my head of everything else. Only a few days in to my full immersion in the life of the mind, I decided that it is a good thing to take a break from oneself. My inner world, as much as I love it, can be exhausting.
I do not think I would like to live there full-time.
Something else happened while the children were away: I turned on the car radio. I am not sure why I so rarely do that. Perhaps it is the demands from my little companions in travel for this music but not that. Perhaps it is my own need to control the tunes that tickle their ears.
I hopped in the car for the first time in days only because a few library books were due and our first bag of peaches was ready at the orchard where we participate in a fruit-share CSA. I do not think that anything less than library books and peaches could have convinced me to leave the quiet oasis of my child-free house.
Left to my own devices like that, I found myself punching the AM/FM knob. I had to take my eyes off the road for quite a dangerous stretch before my fingers found a tiny button labeled “seek.”
I don’t know what I was seeking, but a familiar voice filled the car. It was a childlike voice and instantly recognizable to me. I was a little girl in the early 80s, and the voice of Cyndi Lauper will always recall that one memorable sleepover when my best friend Michelle and I decided to find out how many times in a row it was possible to view that classic 80s film Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. I think we watched it two-and-a-half times through before Michelle fell asleep.
In April, in Texas, the very first person who greeted me when we arrived at the cemetery for Shawn’s burial was Michelle’s mom.
I was holding two children by the hands and feeling a bit dazed by the heat and the crowd and the terrible finality of a flag-draped coffin. I was searching for a path through the people who had gathered around a small tent and a few rows of folding chairs, when she suddenly appeared beside me and put her hand on my arm. I had not seen her in years, but I had no trouble recognizing the woman who placed our after-school snacks with such care on those tv trays, the same woman who never complained when Michelle and I brought home sticky gumballs we had spit out and saved from the gumball ice-cream cones we purchased at the mall.
I sort of love Cyndi Lauper’s strange voice. She always sounds a bit like a little girl, and my best friend Michelle will always be, for me, the little girl I loved best. I wish I could call her up and tell her that, but Michelle died in a car accident not long after I graduated from high school.
There’s a kind of epiphany that only comes when the music is turned up loud and you are all alone in the car. It’s a strange mix of sadness, joy, and gratitude.
Half my mind was singing Time After Time and the other half was recognizing what a privilege it is to sweat in my garden and run dirty, weed-stained fingers through hair that is beginning to gray. What a privilege it is to feel overwhelmed by four children, to bicker and then make up with the same man for twenty years. How glad I am for this life of interruption and inconvenience and heartache.
It’s a good thing to stop on a too-hot summer day and remember and cry for those who left us too soon.
We are following fast on their heels, but meanwhile, there are flowers to grow and meals to prepare and stories to tell. And there are songs to sing.
Loudly and with the windows rolled down.
“Nothing is perfect.”
Those words cut me. They always have. I don’t care if they’re true because everything in me wants them to be untrue. Everything in me longs for perfection though perfect is as cold and distant as the morning star.
Yet here is the lesson I keep learning over and over again: when perfection falls to earth it veils its light in imperfection.
This house is my perfect dream come true, but Lord-have-mercy it is a mess.
Half the windows can’t be opened, whole chunks of molding are missing near the roofline, there is an ominous bulge in the plaster wall along the stairs, and please do watch your step on the porch. You never know when your foot might crash right through.
I wrote these words in Roots and Sky, though I did not know how true they would become:
“… I picture this house, this hilltop, cracked open. Torn right open. And everyone invited to come in. In this picture, it seems that something precious has been emptied out and is being passed around. It is a frightening, exhilarating vision.”
The thing about a broken, imperfect house is that we cannot live in it alone.
When I met Dr. B (“doctor of old houses”), he told me he had prayed God would bring him another old house to work on.
When I called J about our windows and gave him my name, we both held our phones in a state of shock. Apparently, he had purchased Roots and Sky for his wife only the day before.
Jonathan and I always hoped that this place would be a blessing for many beyond our own immediate family. We glimpsed how that could be true our very first Easter when one hundred neighbors joined us to hunt eggs on the lawn. We sent those invitations to a neighborhood of strangers because we were lonely.
I called these local craftsmen because our house is broken.
Perfectly, beautifully broken.
Praise be to God for broken houses, broken hearts, broken bodies, and all the other precious broken things.
Praise be to God for hands that heal and hands that make things beautiful and whole.
Praise be to God for roses.
Praise be to God for thorns.