Does Henry Mitchell Stand the Test of Time?


A few questions immediately come to mind:  Should he be blamed for being mistaken in
some cases and for being unaware of the environmental impacts of
gardening?  Just how ignorant was the gardening world when he wrote
these examples?  (Unfortunately, the book dates all the columns
collectively as 1923-1993 – what a shame.)  Do we
think he’d be offering those opinions if he were writing today? 
And what conventional gardening wisdom of today will be debunked within a decade or two?

And about those sacrosanct trees.  These days we’re all convinced
that trees serve higher purposes, especially in our tree-deprived urban
areas, but do we support laws protecting them on private property?
As a long-time resident of the tree-hugging-est town in the East, I
know first-hand how annoying those tree laws can be and I’ve noticed
that readers are shocked at the very notion, but what’s the
alternative?  And I ask that as a moderate on the subject, at
least in this ultra-left town.  (Translation: I supported the recent moderation of
our tree statute, which formerly protected even invasive trash trees
like Bradford pear and mulberry, among other legislative excesses.  It
took a hurricane to convince our city council to allow more weak and
sickly trees to be removed before they knock out electric service with
every storm.)


  1. Susan, I suspect you have bigger backyards in Takoma than we do in Saratoga Springs, or than Henry Mitchell did in D.C. proper.

    Didn’t Mitchell once put it more succintly–trees belong in forests, not in gardens? Or am I just making that up?

    Big trees are wonderful on big properties, but in a small urban backyard, they just prevent gardening, keep the houses gloomy and the citizens depressed. We had something approaching a monoculture in my yard–vinca alone–until the neighbors took down an admittedly beautiful 150-year-old maple that was growing into their house. Now, all kinds of amazing plants thrive here.

    So, giant street trees, yes, absolutely. But in the city backyard–only with extreme caution. Your neighbor might hope to grow tomatoes. And I think tomatoes are as ecologically sound as it gets–they help to put those damned oil-fed supermakets out of business.

  2. This is similar to a discussion that happens when discussing literature: Can an author be sexist (or racist, or classist, or in Mitchell’s case, an invasivist) when he/she is writing in a particular time? I don’t think you can necessarily blame the author. Yes, the 17th century poet John Milton was terribly sexist, but does that negate the literary achievement of Paradise Lost? Personally, I don’t think so. He lived in a particular time when people had particular values, and we can’t go back and change them.

    In the same way, Mitchell didn’t necessarily know in the 60’s what we know today about English ivy, honeysuckle, etc. Today, we don’t know really know the impact of introducing some sort of plant/animal/insect to try to control some other invasive species that’s gotten out of hand. Who knows what future generations will judge us for? I think we can guarantee censure for GMO foods, along with seeds with built-in pesticides. But who knows what seemingly innocuous plant introduction will plague people in 50 or 100 years?

    So, I think you can read Mitchell for all the other timeless insights he has about gardening, and for the lightheartedness and humor he brings to the subject.

  3. Oh my goodness. I can only hope that if he were writing today, he’d have a different attitude towards invasives, and at least a more generous perspective on trees. (Of course, I’m hopelessly biased when it comes to trees).

    As to laws affecting trees on private property… I’m not sure where I stand. Seems the American way should to be respect the personal choices of the property owner, but then again… neighbors don’t live in vacuums.

  4. I can hear the clunk of debunk a mile away as the garden years march on–gardeners of today will be debunked as well in some way or other. So many factors enter intelligent garden decisions. I would not want the Garden Police to ban Mitchell’s book. There’s too much to learn from those who gardened before us and wrote about it–positive & negative. I wouldn’t want to be denied garden entertainment…a quote from “The Essential Earthman”…”Vessels used in the garden, orginally from the kitchen, such as various pans, cannot be considered garden expenses if they were bought to roast chicken in (etc) and are only temporaraily used for some outdoor purpose.”

  5. Even in this tree-loving town, where trees offer the best protection (aside from A/C) against summer’s brutal heat, I think many people could stand to heed Mitchell’s advice and cut a few trees out of their yards.

    I was driving through a central neighborhood yesterday, noticing how many people have a virtual forest of trees in their yards. All you see through the gloom of that much shade is vertical, brown trunks. The poor people struggle on with trying to grow grass under their trees. Meanwhile you can hardly find their front doors. I wanted to bring a chainsaw over there myself.

  6. After the last discussion of garden books, I immediately bought Amy Stewart’s From the Ground Up and H.M.’s The Essential Earthman, and in total honesty, with no kissing up intended, I enjoyed the former far more than the latter, although they are very different books and perhaps shouldn’t be directly compared.

    Mitchell’s haughty air revulsed me and his regular obsession with what I consider perfectly detestable ornamentals really turned me off. I thought if he said “peony” one more time I was going to hurl. (I know, who’s haughty now?)

    Most importantly, Mitchell’s ethic is very east coast centric. This makes it hard for me to internalize his message. I garden around a six-month summer drought, not a seasonal killing freeze. Dec-Feb are busy months in the garden for me. There is no shutting down. His plants are just not my plants. He has no business making pronouncements from Washington about the most preeminent tree or the most beautiful flower in all of America—which he does regularly. That kind of attitude really irks me.

    Mitchell provides all kinds of contradictory advice, and the neverending run of superlatives makes it hard to pin down a central message. Don’t even get me started on his design ideas. And I have more important things to do than be concerned about the use of “garden rooms” or “plant material”. I can’t even relate to that complaint.

    I appreciate Mitchell’s love for the garden, his emphasis on planting what makes sense, planting lots of plants, and I particularly relish his encouragement to ignore self-styled experts. I will start with him.

    From the Ground Up revels exuberantly in the delight of experimentation and the emotional roller coaster of garden trial and error. I like that. That works for me. It also helps that she wrote it in Santa Cruz, where I went to school…perhaps passing by her house on the way to the bus station. I walked across that railroad trestle by the Boardwalk twice every day for a year.

  7. When you live in a northeastern urban neighborhood infested with Norway maples and Tree of Heaven, it is very easy to find yourself with way too many trees. Some judicious thinning is definitely in order — especially since no human planted the darn things. We removed 18 Norway maples from a half-acre lot, which meant the remaining trees and shrubs had room to grow and a prayer of getting some sunlight. Might not apply to So Cal or Texas, but sure works in Connecticut.

  8. Thanks, Chuck! Actually, we welcome kissing up around here. Watch out–we might kiss back!

    What interests me about reading garden writers of the past–and about this discussion–is the question of what a garden writer is. Is a garden writer a scholar, handing down botanical information from on high? Just think–it wasn’t too long ago that American gardeners were quite literally pioneers, writing about “new” plants and climates for the first time. (and without the aid of color photographs!) In the 1800s, a gardener might only have one or two books, and the advice of friends, to go on. (suddenly that doesn’t sound so bad.)

    Over time–and this is what so delighted Katharine White–you can see garden writers start to have opinions and personalities. (if y’all haven’t read White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden, turn off the computer this minute and get to it.)

    And now I think garden writers are tackling much broader subjects–the environment, politics, sex, city planning, friendships, neighborliness–and investing even more of their own personalities. I really believe that when you have gardeners ranting about whether one should play music while gardening, or what place the American flag has in the garden, that we’re in for some big, big fun.

  9. It looks like your copies of “Essential Earthman” don’t tell you much about the author, so perhaps I could add a little background information?

    My copy of Earthman was printed in 1988, but copyrighted in 1981; the individual entries were written between 1973 and 1981 as newspaper columns for the Washington Post, NOT for a national gardening audience.

    In the third collection, “On Gardening” there’s autobiography and the history of the first book. The columns were chosen and assembled for “Earthman” by John Gallman of the University of Indiana, who got no help from Henry. Ginny Mitchell found notes from her husband to several other interested publishers, saying, “No one wants to read these things; they’re worthless.” Ginny disagreed, and then bought the rights to “Earthman” from Henry for one dollar.

    While he was still alive, Henry’s column was syndicated to many areas of the country where they had little value as practical advice, but were loved for the specific voice of the author, the humor and the immediacy of the writing. He was called the best essayist in America. Henry was born in Memphis, the son of a physician, and he was a student at the University of Virginia until WWII. He had a long career as a newspaper writer before starting the garden column in 1973. He died in 1993.

    When I heard the news, this long-time reader burst into tears.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  10. I like Henry Mitchell as a ‘garden essayist’ who knows his mind and is willing to speadk and change it. I’ve just about finished reading the book (several hours on a plane in the past 24 hours provided an opportunity to just read). I’ve found him to be entertaining, and I’ve gotten some new ideas from reading his essays. Isn’t that what we want from a “good read” about gardening? I still don’t agree with everything he wrote, but I think he would appreciate that from a reader.

    Hope all are enjoying the book and if you have ideas on other “good reads” for fellow gardeners, don’t be shy about suggesting them.

    And now I’d better turn off my computer and commence to reading White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden, per Amy’s comment.

  11. Chuck B, I also love Amy Stewart’s garden memoir. That was how I met her in fact–emailed her to tell her how much I admired it.

    And I love, love, love Henry Mitchell. As I said on my blog, his advice is preposterous–so personal as to be useless. How many gardeners do you know who are obsessed with copper wire, as Mitchell apparently was?

    No, I love him for the self-mocking spirit with which he describes the experience of gardening–the exasperated spouse, the dogs lying down in his newly purchased perennials, the insane fads, the inexplicable obsessions. He knew he was ridiculous in his garden. Let’s face it–most of us are ridiculous in ours, too.

    And I love him for his prose style. He is the Jane Austen of garden writers. Aphoristic and hilarious. What’s his line about horse manure? Like youth, horse manure goes all too quickly.

    Made me laugh out loud.

  12. Since when is shade gloomy?

    Once upon a time, before everyone and their brother needed to have central air (and the pollution caused by creating the energy to fuel it), we considered shade a pleasant thing, something that made life outside not only bearable but joyous.

    Just keep in mind our trees are cleaning the air and making especially cities healthier places to live.

  13. I had the pleasure to have Henry as a phone friend. He was to come to Lawrence, Kansas to give a speech but unfortunately that was the period he found out about his cancer. He allowed us the great courtesy to do a documentary (done by local students) with him in his garden. The video isn’t great, but Henry was gigantic. He will stand the test of time to all of those who remember his wit (why it takes all day to plant a tomato) among other things. He will always be in my heart and in my garden.

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