Garden Books: Our Life In Gardens
By Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, illustrated by Bobbi Angell (with the accuracy, sensitivity and elegance she always brought – full disclosure – to our collaboration at the New York Times Garden Q&A.)
This is the first page of the first chapter; you’ll be seeing the cover all over the place if you haven’t seen it already.
When Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd decided to call their third book Our Life in Gardens, they probably didn’t mean “our” to include everyone who ever fell for a plant. But that’s the way they made me feel.
No matter that my gardens will never be a patch on theirs, that they have taken zone defiance beyond art into legerdemain and amassed a collection of rare plants that puts most public gardens to shame, they share discoveries, admit obsessions and air plenty of strong opinions as though their readers were their equals on a level playing field of horticultural passion.
The chapters arrive alphabetically, so you know going in this will not be a straightforward march through North Hill, the seven acre Vermont garden that the two have made (over more than 30 years) into one of the country’s most famous marriages of plantsmanship and design.
Instead the tour is elliptical and so is the history. You don’t learn how they found the property until you get to The Daffodil Meadow, 88 pages in. There’s an enchanting introduction, Setting Out, that really is an introduction. But right after that we’re honing in on Agapanthus, one of the many (many many) tender beauties they simply can’t do without – and neither can you when they get through with you.
Next up are Annuals, Arborvitae, Artichokes, Bananas, The Bay Tree … In other words, it’s a pointillist picture, an aggregation of bright bits that makes a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. Telling details are tucked in as though by chance, like choice plants in a rock wall. The step by step description of their pea-staking technique, for instance, includes the “twine from hay bales fed to the cows all winter long.” Cows? By the time the bovines make their brief appearance you’re not surprised; a large assortment of other animals has already flashed by.
The love letters to leafier pets, from tiny species cyclamen and rare Himalayan blue poppies to the collection of (38!) magnolias are at the same time thank you celebrations of those who provided the plants. As the chapters roll by in flowers and vegetables, trees, shrubs and bulbs, a whole sub-plot’s worth of eminent gardeners and nurserymen enter the story – most of them as friends. Wouldn’t hurt to make a list; it’s bound to come in handy.
There are also plenty of plenty of useful tips on the choice, care and feeding of a good sized assortment of plants, but Our Life In Gardens doesn’t pretend to be a how-to book. I beg to differ. The authors aren’t didactic about it but if you read carefully there are instructions on almost every page about how to be a generous, patient and loving gardener.
all drawings by Bobbi Angell