Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Passionate Gardener by Des Kennedy

I thought that after diving into You Grow Girl that I might be done with the gardening books for now, until the snow has melted. I know myself better than this, but I had hopes. Instead, while browsing at my local library, I happened across another collection of gardening essays by one of my very favourite garden writers, Des Kennedy. His collection An Ecology of Enchantment was one of my favourite reads of last year, and The Passionate Gardener is the latest collection. It appears that he's got a memoir coming out this month, titled The Way of a Gardener, which I will certainly have to get my soil-chapped mitts on.

If you are a gardener, even just growing a potted plant or two, you really need to read Des Kennedy's gardening books. To be honest, I much preferred An Ecology of Enchantment -- I thought it was a more graceful book, in a lot of ways, and it had a very pleasing arc in the form of a monthly chronology. There was wider variety in the pieces, too. The Passionate Gardner is still a lot of fun to read, inspiring and entertaining. But there doesn't seem to be the same driving force, and some of the essays start to feel a bit samey. The hyperbole gets to be a little excessive as opposed to just straight humourous by the end of the book, although this might not be as much of a problem if you are smarter about reading this book than I was. I was enjoying myself so much, and needing to feel like spring was a possibility so much, that I have read this book in two days. Which might have been just a little too much at once.

But that's a very minor complaint. Very minor. I have thoroughly enjoyed my romp through Kennedy's garden and brain. It's funny, it's occasionally rather raunchy (there's a chapter that's a torrid love story about gardening based entirely on plant names, and it's steamier than one might think) and it's informative. It's also largely beautifully written: in the introduction, Kennedy talks about how "gardening burst into our lives like a howling southeaster." There are wonderfully quotable bits throughout the entire book. And it's all pretty much dead on. His observations resonate perfectly. He might be a little over-the-top, but I recognize where he's coming from exactly. This is about garden clubs, but it could just as easily be about naturalist clubs (I suspect there's significant membership overlap) or several other types of meetings I've been to:

(from the essay "Garden Clubbing")

Invariably, the introducer begins by describing the guest speaker as someone who "needs no introduction." One might thereby conclude that the introductory remarks will be brief, but it is soon revealed that the lack of a need for introduction will in no way hamper the introducer from launching into a peroration of unimaginable length and complexity during the course of which the guest speaker's accomplishments, both real and imaginary, are paraded for the admiration of all.

And when I say inspiring, I mean that it's nice to know that I'm not alone:

(from the essay "The Ten Commandments")

Perhaps the most problematic of all is the fifth commandment: "Thou shalt not kill." You know as well as I do that if gardeners ever took this commandment to heart, plant sales would plummet, the garden supply business would grind to a halt, and nurseries would declare bankruptcy as often as airlines. Fortunately, no such crisis is imminent, because if there's one thing gardeners are good at, it's the sustained and systematic killing of plants.

And, just because I enjoyed it, from my favourite essay in the collection, "Darwin Was No Gardener":

The early years were not easy. The little tree was disinclined to grow, and what marginal growth it did attempt was invariably in a contrary direction. We came to recognize that it was afflicted with a fear of heights, a considerable disadvantage in a tree.

This collection is recommended. I enjoyed this one enough that I've finally gone ahead and ordered my own copy of An Ecology of Enchantment so that I can re-read it as I wait for the crocuses to get their act together and burn through the snow. The essays range from travel reports, to musings on the gardener's various neuroses and quirks, to loving descriptions of plants. Lots of fun for gardeners and armchair gardeners and anyone who might want a little insight into this strange passion from which we gardeners suffer.


Nan said...

Well, thank you for this great review, and for the introduction to someone I'd never heard of. I really do enjoy gardening books like this. I'll look into all his work. Thanks again.

Unknown said...

Nan, I really think you'll love his stuff. It's mostly published by Graystone here in Canada -- if you can't find copies there, let me know.

Phyl said...

>> "if there's one thing gardeners are good at, it's the sustained and systematic killing of plants." <<

Hahahahahahaha! *wiping eyes*

Oh boy, now you've done it. I can see that I'm going to have to plunge into the Toronto Public Library website and see if I can find these books.

I don't know if you've had the same type of nice weather in the past week that we have, but I've been feeling magnificently springy. And you inspired me last weekend to tidy my balcony a bit, and get rid of some plant debris I should have cleaned up in October.

Now to find these books!

Unknown said...

The weather here has been, with the exception of yesterday, utterly magnificent. I have been itching to get outside and *do* something, although there's really nothing to be done yet.

I really hope you enjoy these books! They're quite a lot of fun. And educational, too. :)