Merry Hall: A Book Review

Some books make us better gardeners by giving us knowledge.

Some books make us better gardeners by showing us love.

Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols is a favorite of mine for the latter reason.

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What in the world do I mean by “showing us love”?

What I mean is this: gardening is an act of love. It is love–love for flowers, for fresh food, for the look of a path or the feel of dirt under our nails–that pushes us out the door.

But in the hurry and press of life, it can be easy to forget our own loves. It can be easy–especially when the weather is awful or the pests are merciless–to ask ourselves why do I bother?

Those are the days when we need writers like Nichols. Those are the days we need to step into some other gardener’s shoes and be reminded that, yes, we may be crazy to work as hard as we do, but it’s a good kind of crazy because it comes from love.

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Merry Hall is a farcical, funny, exaggerated romp of a memoir from 1951.

In it, Nichols describes the restoration of an English Georgian house and garden. This is a book with a wicked sense of humor and a golden heart.

I read it regularly.

Merry Hall is the first in a trilogy. The recent hardcover editions by Timber Press of Nichols’ vintage books are worth seeking out. I have found all of mine at second-hand shops.

 

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A Dreamy Plant Book

 

We garden in soil, and we garden in our dreams.

I am often unsure which gardening I prefer. Certainly, I am thankful for both.

Here is a book from my collection that is helpful for the real, dirty work of gardening as well as the imaginative play of garden dreaming.

1001 Plants To Dream of Growing edited by Liz Dobbs is exactly what it sounds like: a sourcebook for garden dreams. With beautiful photographs and sections on everything from “Annuals” and “Perennials” to “Bulbs, corms, and tubers” to “Indoor and patio,” this is an incredibly comprehensive catalog.

What I especially love about it though is that it doesn’t dabble in generalities.

For instance, it doesn’t recommend Brunnera (bugloss) or Hemerocallis (daylilies) generally, rather it recommends very specific varieties to dream of growing. Anyone who has ever gone to a garden center looking for a daylily only to be confronted by two dozen varieties with very different descriptions on their labels will appreciate this approach.

So, 1001 Plants to Dream of Growing doesn’t simply recommend camellia but gives descriptions of two very desirable varieties: ‘Donation’ and ‘Bob Hope,’ along with a few other alternatives if you’d like a different color or your climate is slightly different.

1001 Plants to Dream of Growing doesn’t suggest you dream of herbs in general or even thyme in general but specifically recommends thyme of the Coccineus group for a flowering carpet effect or Thymus vulgaris for good looks and good flavor.

This book is specific, and that’s exactly what we need to turn our general, hazy dreams into reality.

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A Tree in the House: A Book Review

 

There are two kinds of garden books.

Okay, I’m sure there are more than two kinds, but here are two very important kinds:

  • the “How to Garden” books

and

  • the “What to do with what you grow” books

A Tree in the House: Flowers For Your Home, Special Occasions and Every Day by Annabelle Hickson is definitely the latter.

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I have never been much of a “flower arranger.” I’m more of a gather-them-up-into-a-mason-jar kind of girl.

But I love this book because it makes even me want to take a little more time and care with the garden flowers I bring into my home or share with friends. I also love this book because it celebrates intricate bouquets and the ease and fun of simply plonking a few things into a jar and calling it a day.

Hickson is no flower snob.

Here are three things I love about this book:

  1. It’s inspiring! The writing and photography make me want to get outside and start making art with the raw materials of nature, whether I’ve grown them myself or found them on the side of the road.
  2. It’s practical and accessible. Unlike some books about floral design, Hickson’s instructions are easy to follow. She doesn’t make things harder than they need to be, but she’s clear about the tools and techniques that really make a difference.
  3. Hickson thinks waaaaay outside the box, which means you’ll soon be inspired to tromp around outdoors cutting branches and weeds to bring inside.

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Who is this book for?

This book is great for gardeners and non-gardeners. It gives gardeners ideas for doing more with what we grow, but Hickson’s adventurous approach to bringing nature indoors can be adopted by anyone, whether they have their own garden or not.

Is this a book to buy or borrow?

I first borrowed this book from my library. By the time it was due, I had decided to buy my own copy.

Now I refer back to this book:

  • For Hickson’s recipe for homemade “flower friendly water,” using a bit of bleach, sugar, and vinegar.
  • To be reminded that I already have the materials on hand to create something beautiful and special.
  • To reconnect with the outdoors even when the weather isn’t conducive for gardening

 

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Brilliant and Wild: A Book Review

 

Some gardening books grab our attention with big promises.

Like parenting books or self-help books, their titles seem to say, “Here is the solution you’ve been searching for. This book will change your (garden) life.”

Lucy Bellamy’s Brilliant & Wild: A Garden From Scratch in a Year sounds a little like that.

A brilliant and wild garden in one year?

It’s a big promise, but I think she keeps it.

If you begin from scratch (by which I mean, you begin with an empty and prepared patch of soil), follow Bellamy’s detailed and inspiring guides, and keep your new garden well weeded during its first year, I feel sure you can have exactly the kind of brilliant and wild garden she shows in this beautifully photographed book.

But what about those of us with established gardens? Do we have any reason to read this book?

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Who is this book for?

Written for beginners, this book offers simple and thorough step-by-step instructions, but even more experienced gardeners will find the plant lists helpful and the photographs and illustrations beautiful and inspiring.

This book is written from the perspective of a British gardener, so those gardening in other countries and climates will need to do a bit more research to determine which of the plants she recommends will do well in our spaces.

What does it offer?

Bellamy writes about a very particular garden style. She calls it “brilliant and wild,” but we might also use words like natural, prairie, and meadow. It’s a style made famous by the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf in the High Line in New York City and the Lurie Gardens in Chicago.

I love Oudolf’s naturalistic garden style, and I appreciated how Bellamy makes this style accessible for home gardeners.

One of the main tenets of Oudolf’s designs, and those of other designers in what has come to be called the “New Perennial Movement,” is that plants should be chosen less for their flower color and more for the look of the plant through all four seasons. Oudolf is more likely to choose a plant because it has beautiful seedheads in winter than because it has pretty flowers in spring.

What is the main lesson?

Simplicity.

The particular risk of a “wild” garden is that it will look like chaos rather than nature. Nature rarely looks chaotic. It is never planted with one of everything from the garden store.

Bellamy emphasizes the need to limit our palette of plants while incorporating a variety of shapes. She organizes her plant suggestions by shape, which is unusual for a garden book but very helpful for amateur garden designers.

Bellamy also asks her readers to imagine what their garden will look like through all four seasons. This is an often neglected aspect of our home garden design. It is easy to picture a flower in bloom, but what will that plant look like when it goes to seed?

In Bellamy’s “brilliant & wild” garden, it will look more beautiful than ever.

“In a world of quick-fix, instant-gratification gardening, the brilliant and wild garden is something different. With just a few tools and a back-of-an-envelope plan, it is easy to grow a blooming bee-filled garden from scratch in a single year–a space wild in character that happily knits together in a matter of months, brimming with bugs, birds, and butterflies; somewhere that evokes other natural, beautiful places in an incredible sparkling whoosh, wilder, greener, and right outside the back door.” – Lucy Bellamy

Two Books for The Less Than Perfect Gardener

 

I often read two or more books at once, but it is rare for me to read two books at the same time that are also in the same genre.

But I found myself reading both of these books together, and I think they make an illuminating pair.

They aren’t exactly memoirs but rather deeply personal essays and stories and investigations–all set in or around the garden. One has a very English perspective. The other is entirely American.

I recommend them both.

It is well titled, as Osler relates her own mistakes and happy accidents. She lives in the country, and the neat, well-maintained suburban garden is not for her.

Osler’s book is more literary. The Latin plant names come fast, and there are interesting historical and botanical rabbit trails. I wouldn’t recommend this one if you aren’t already a fan of personal garden writing as it might seem a little dense.

However, read Anne Raver’s book, and you will fall in love with this genre.

  • Deep in the Green by Anne Raver makes for lighter, easier reading, but it is also thoughtful and intelligent.

The essays aren’t chronological or strongly linked, but over the course of the book a portrait of this east coast gardener emerges: she is no expert dispensing advice, rather she is someone who delights in the green world, and she is gifted at sharing her delight.

Despite their superficial differences, Osler and Raver set an encouraging example for beginners and experts alike. Both acknowledge that gardening is hard work, that we don’t always feel like pulling weeds or harvesting the green beans we planted with such enthusiasm. They are easily distracted by other things, but both feel a strong, magnetic pull toward gardening.

These books inspired me to keep on gardening, but they also reminded me that I don’t need to be so hard on myself.

Both gardens and garden books are for delight.

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