“Who taught you to garden?” That’s the question posed on the back cover of Augustus Jenkins Farmer’s “Deep-Rooted Wisdom: Skills and Stories from Generations of Gardeners.” I picked up a copy of this recent book from the library to read on our camping vacation and, thanks to some rainy weather, I’ve already finished it. I don’t buy gardening books anymore and few of the ones I’ve borrowed from the library have provided much of interest for experienced gardeners. I think what drew me to this particular book was a description I read somewhere that characterized this as other than a typical how-to gardening book. I wasn’t disappointed.
The book is comprised of eleven chapters all following the same format: First, the author describes an old skill or idea. Second he answers for himself the “who taught you to garden” question as he writes about two people–different in each chapter–who were among the teachers and mentors he learned the skill or idea from. Finally, he describes how the chapter’s topic can be adapted for gardening today. The first ten chapters are about relatively specific things like watering by hand, building soil or rooting cuttings.
The final chapter is a bit more conceptual dealing with “telling stories through your garden.” At first I was worried he was going to advocate for strictly recreating the historic gardens and landscapes of a place since he lives in the South, an area with a rich, long, land-linked history he references often. But that made no sense in the context of the previous chapter on pest philosophy. He ends that chapter with a significant treatment of the Buddhist perspective on interdependence and coexistence. Strict historicism wouldn’t be in keeping with the Buddhist concept of non-attachment and letting go of the past. And, indeed, he doesn’t go that route. Nor does he insist on only using native plants, though they play a large role in his gardens. Instead he encourages looking to a place’s history, people and biology to inform a garden’s design. That’s as much as I’ll dare to try to paraphrase Farmer’s idea.
I do highly recommend you read this book if you’re at all interested in designing and gardening from a simpler, more connected place rooted in the past but adaptable to the present. Personally it left me feeling inspired and confirmed my feeling that I’m on the right path in my own gardening efforts. It’s fortunate that I am nestled in at a campsite hundreds of miles from my gardens or I would have been running out after every paragraph to see how I could apply what I’d read. The book also reminded me how disappointing it was that in my fifteen years of designing gardens and landscapes professionally I was never once called upon to do a design that was either interesting or meaningful for a client or friend. Those days are behind me now and I couldn’t be happier about it. I am also happy to have found a gardening book that was both practically useful and philosophically engaging.
Have you come across a gardening book that hit the sweet spot between the common how-to and the purely philosophical? If so, I’d love to hear about it.