Prose is more than garden variety

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2009 - 3:20 PM

An almost random collection of essays as vivid as a cottage garden.

Our Life in Gardens by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd

Gardeners tend to be of two minds regarding garden essays, on one hand ripping them as variously precious or perky, on the other relieved to find that they aren't the only ones who've considered sleeping with their trowels.

Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd are renowned gardeners who have written several books about their horticultural life in Vermont, the most recent of which is "Our Life in Gardens."

What they write is neither precious nor perky, and their garden philosophy follows suit. They unapologetically plant annuals amid their more exotic species, defending the zinnias against derision. They're down-to-earth (OK, got that out of the way) about their trowels. They love them, not because of some strained metaphor, but because the half-dozen seemingly identical ones they own are known by how the friction of each man's hand has worn their handles.

Mostly, though, they strike that tender balance between "know" and "it-alls." They write of their struggles with overwintering agapanthus with a kindred haplessness, even while recommending a 20-20-20 water-soluble fertilizer mixed half-strength and used once a week starting in March.

An essay about biennials includes a tribute to forget-me-nots' particularly exquisite blue, while noting that the color provides a clue as to your soil's condition. Too pale? Add lime. Far easier than fiddling with soil testing kits, and as much as many of us weekend gardeners need to know.

There's no apparent logic to the collection, ordered as haphazardly as a cottage garden. But there is one surprise: an essay about old gardens and the joy found in remaking them. "For when you have reached the boundaries of your plot, or more probably the limit of your own capacities to maintain what you have, you have to go backward," they write, noting that your garden probably has grown shadier and perhaps gloomier.

Wisely, they make only a passing reference to the parallels with human mortality, instead encouraging us in the necessary "art of elimination," cutting back and even cutting down to let in more light, and thus present us with new possibilities.

They really don't have to spell it out.

Kim Ode is a feature writer at the Star Tribune. She is at 612-673-7185

  • OUR LIFE IN GARDENS

    By: Joe Eck, Wayne Winterrowd.

    Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 322 pages, $30.

    Review: The authors write eloquently about the realities of soil conditions and the joy of digging in.

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