The Aphorists


Here is my latest post for Kirkus blogs.  Don't miss Elizabeth's post today on Kirkus about Richard Mabey's fantastic book Weeds.

Mrs-greenthumbs-danz When I was a beginning gardener 20 years ago, I devoured how-to books.  But then I became older and wiser and understood that the most important teacher in the garden is experience, as you begin to your understand your own climate and soil, the way various plants behave in the conditions you offer, and the fact that character is destiny even in the backyard.

So the gardening books that have really meant something to me in the long-term are not those written by people purporting to infallible horticultural expertise.  The ones I value most are written by men and women who understand something about life.  They recognize the comedy inherent in gardening, as well as the essentially sacred nature of the activity.  The best of them are as gently crisp as Austen, as deft with a rollicking picaresque as Fielding, and as harrowing in their depictions of suffering as Dostoyevsky.

Here’s a small sample of the fun offered when a truly stylish writer takes up gardening:


“There is no need for every American to be lured into gardening.  It does not suit some people and they should not be cajoled into a world they have no sympathy with.  Many people after all, find delight in stealing television sets; others like to make themselves anxious with usury and financial speculation; still others rejoice in a life of murder.  None of these is very good material for a gardener.”

Henry Mitchell, One Man’s Garden

“I have come to understand the distance between naturalists, who gaze benignly on all of nature’s operations, and the experienced gardener, who perforce has developed a somewhat less sentimental view. Particularly toward woodchucks. I am not ready to see them banished from the planet altogether—they must have some ecological purpose—but I seriously doubt that news of some form of woodchuck megadeath in this part of the country would put me in an elegiac frame of mind.”

Michael Pollan, Second Nature


“After compost itself, mulches in general are the subject most actively boring to the organic gardener’s friends.”

Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

“Like youth, horse manure goes all too quickly.”

Henry Mitchell, One Man’s Garden


“I wouldn’t presume to know the thoughts and feelings of bees, but if I saw a bunch of teenagers sipping nectar, rolling around with their feet up in the air, covered with fragrant pollen, and then racing off to do it again and again, I would assume that they were having a wonderful time and would probably call the police.”

Cassandra Danz, Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I Turned A Boring Yard into A Glorious Garden and How You Can, Too.


“Iceberg lettuce; topless carrots and half-spoiled spinach packed in plastic bags; turnips and cucumbers dipped in wax; overgrown string beans—not to speak of melons and stone fruit shipped so unripe they would make effective ammunition in a street fight—all these are evidence that Americans, basking in the belief that they are the best-fed people in the world, will put up with almost anything.”

Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden


“Peony hoops, metal rings designed to fit around the whole plant to keep the flowers from falling over are worse than useless…after the first rain, the soaked flower heads leaned over the rails like drunks at a race track.”

Cassandra Danz, Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I Turned A Boring Yard into A Glorious Garden and How You Can, Too.


“The small garden of Washington would almost always be astonishing in its beauty except for the small gardener of Washington.”

Henry Mitchell, One Man’s Garden


  1. I have read and loved all the authors you quoted. They all had valuable information and humor in their writing, and what is life, or gardening, without a little humor. Cassandra Danz was the Erma Bombeck of gardeners. Oh, how I wish she was around to write more books.

  2. Some of the best garden writing – no, scratch that – best writing period in modern American times. How sad that so many of them are no longer around to make us laugh, cry and ponder……

  3. You’ve absolutely picked 3 of my favorite garden writers in Mitchell, Pollan, and Danz and I agree with your premise and tried to follow this idea when I wrote my own meager offering to garden readership. I was saddened to learn through the comments above, however, that Cassandra Danz passed away in 2002…she was one of the best and I’ll forever treasure her humor and garden lessons.

  4. My favorite book of gardeners’ folies remains Karel Capek’s The Gardener’s Year. My copy is from a US Uni. press, a tall narrow paperback. Amazon’s product description reads:

    First published in Prague in 1929, The Gardener’s Year combines a richly comic portrait of life in the garden, narrated month by month, with a series of delightful illustrations by the author’s older brother and collaborator, Josef. Capek’s gardeners—all too human, despite their lofty aspirations—often look the fool, whether they be found sopping wet, victims of the cobralike water hose, or hunched over, hands immersed in the soil, “presenting their rumps to the splendid azure sky.”

    I have no idea how I came across this title from the author of RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), but I’m glad I did. It has given me hours of snickers to outright laughter–the translator was *very* talented, and the illos are hilarious. He talks about hoses in the first chapter, and no matter how many alleged improvments later, they’re still behaving as he describes!

  5. Ah.

    I’ve only read one of these authors – for shame!

    Really have to read more Mitchell. And thank you for introducing me to Cassandra Danz!

  6. Mitchell and Danz are a couple of my favorites. I enjoyed them even though they both gardened in climates very different than mine. What they said went beyond mere “how to”, they addressed “why”.
    I keep meaning to read Read Capek. I should just go ahead and order it.

  7. Love Mrs. Greenthumbs. She was the one who finally made me understand what I wanted to achieve in my garden: multiple climaxes 🙂 Her funny way of explaining gardening through everyday life analogies helped me a lot when I was first learning how to garden. I cherish both her books and have read each several times.

  8. One of my favorites is “ELizabeth and her German Garden” by Elizabetn (actually Baroness Von Armin). She was an English woman married to a Prussian and living in that country pre- WWI. It is a witty combination of feminisim and gardening. As a lady she was not supppose to do any real gardening.

    “And why not? It is not graceful, and it makes one hot; but it is a blessed sort of work, and if Eve had had a spade in Paradise and known what to do with it, we should not have had all that sad businesss of the apple.”

    Gertrude Jekyll did not care for Elizabeth, felt she was too flippant and not a true gardener. It annoyed her that Elizabeth was quite popular.

  9. What joy to see Henry Mitchell on the page again…his frequent columns in the Washington Post some forty years ago were anticipated and read with great pleasure. His observations still are some of the finest writing available.

  10. One of my prayers to God for when I die is that my husband, my mother, and Cassandra Danz will all be there waiting for me.

  11. I met Cassandra many years ago when I lived in Hudson, NY. She was charming and funny and had a fabulously wild garden. Isn’t it fortunate for all of us who love gardening — and laughing — that she can still teach us and tickle us through her books.

  12. Cassandra Danz embodied the absolute joy, lust, knowledge and humor that, for me, is THE perfect combination in a gardener. I miss her so! I was so wowed by Michael Pollan’s Second Nature when I first became a gardener and discovered garden writing that it made me want to become a garden writer. I thought: gardening is about history/fashion/philosophy/politics/and everything else? How cool! I also ADORED Allen Lacy (I’m talking huge crush). There are so many great garden writers. We are lucky, indeed.

  13. Aha! A couple of days ago I pulled Cassandra’s books off my shelf to reread. Yes, these writers are among my faves too. Capek. Must read Capek. Another book a bit off the beaten path which I love is ‘People with Dirty Hands — the Passion for Gardening’ by Robin Chotzinoff. Here is her Aunt Cookie on accidentally pulling up the wrong plant: “When I pull up a good plant by mistake, I say to myself Mr. Rochester’s words after his marriage to Jane Eyre is interrupted: ‘Jane, if a man had a lamb that was the love of his bosom and he sent it to the slaughter, he could not rue his bloody mistake more than I do.’ That’s if I pull up a whole plant. If I cut the wrong flower, sometimes I say, ‘Jane, I never meant to hurt you.’ If it’s only cutting a live bud when I’m deadheading, I just say ‘Jane’. They know what I mean.”

    I’ve been uttering these same words to my poor plants ever since I read this.

  14. I love Mrs. Greenthumbs. Her first book (the one pictured) changed my life. And I also love Chotzinoff’s “People with Dirty Hands” – especially the Aunt Cookie chapter, and the chapter in which she describes her experience distributing horse manure with the NY Green Guerillas.

  15. This exactly sums a feeling I’ve long had on garden books. Reference books are nice and nice and serve their purpose but I would much rather read about someones experiences.

  16. I had to add I LOVE Robin Chotzinoff too! She is (was?) a Colorado writer. I think it was over a decade ago when her book with THE perfect title came out. The local reading-mad gardeners went ga-ga. Since then, whenever I find a used copy for sale I buy it and give it to a gardener unfamiliar with her work.

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