Garden vs. the beach



A nice dune planting on Topsail Island

How could I do it? How could I leave trumpet lilies ready to
unfold, an amazingly early second budding of roses, the unknown promise of dark
purple hosta blossoms, and the unfailingly brazen flowers of Mme. Julia


The necessity for a summer getaway is not always timed correctly
for the garden and the gardener’s timetable. I love the ocean and our ocean
cottage— the only thing I ask is that I have enough time before Garden Walk
Buffalo to get some mulch down and to fill in the most embarrassingly empty
spaces. This year, I decided to use our beach time to read some garden-related
classics: the ones that everyone else has read but that I somehow missed. As
many of you know, the Modern
Library Gardening Series
, edited by Michael Pollan, includes some of the best
garden books and gardening writers we know. I took The Gardener’s Year by Karel
Capek (from that series) and The Essential Earthman, by Henry Mitchell down to
the beach, where I have been enjoying them immensely, amid bouts of rain.


Here are some gems:

It will soon be clear that until it has been tamed a hose is
an extraordinarily evasive and dangerous beast, for it contorts itself, it
jumps, it wriggles, it makes puddles of water , and dives with delight into the
mess it has made …

In due time it was obvious that I must crunch every day one
hundred and twenty  radishes,
because nobody else in the house would eat them; the next day I was drowning in
savoys, and then the orgys in kohlrabi followed .

There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only
gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on
with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her
chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises.

I could go on and on and on. I particularly respect the
adherence to the Chicago Manual and the wonderful introductions to these new
editions. It’s also interesting how Capek and Mitchell reference a timetable
that is just so slightly skewed from what I know to be the reality in Buffalo.
They both have a lot of action in January and February, for example, but while
the months may be different, the feelings and foibles are the same. I also
enjoy Capek’s hyperbolic description of his epistolary demands to his hapless garden-watcher.
It reminds me of the tactfully-worded instructions I barely managed to fit on
one sheet for our house-sitter. (“Containers must be watered all the time;
always water where the Norway maples are, blah, blah, blah …”)

Which brings me. Why do we leave our gardens in summer,
especially those of us in climates where summer is the only gardening season? I
guess because we must. But vacations are for reading and I do recommend this
new Modern Library series. What gardening books are you reading this summer?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. This is a fabulous series. I got my first copy of The Gardener’s Year many years ago at a second hand book sale and I love it. Have you found the Charles Dudley Warner My Summer in the Garden? Equally wonderful.

  2. Henry Mitchell is the best! I have read his books again and again. You get three aspects that I really enjoy:
    1. A sense of place / or the local paper feel that is hard to replicate given the dying of newspapers, and today’s newspapers vast over-reliance on stories not written locally but purchased from national services.
    2. The basic joy of gardening sans the stale garden-savant tone. He sounds like a writer who loves gardening and writes about it rather than some trumped-up expert that pens handouts to the masses to improve his standing in the landscaping business.
    3. No ax to grind (except against Norway Maples and Marigolds). I find this to be THE most tiresome element on this site (and elsewhere).

  3. I knew gardening could be challenging, rewarding, exasperating, addicting, etc, etc… But after reading Henry Mitchell’s books/articles I looked at all the things I felt I knew about gardening a little differently, somehow they became more fun….I leaned through him to laugh at myself a little more, not take some things so seriously. Things were still important, don’t get me wrong, but often times a look of puzzlement or exasperation on my face while doing whatever in the garden was turned into a smile after reading his books…..I did learn something about gardening from reading his books but I learned more about myself if that makes any sense…..I like reading books by Allan Armitage too, I replaced his worn out, dirt stained, coming apart at the seams 1997 edition of ‘Herbaceous Perennial Plants: A Treatise on Their Identification, Culture and Garden Attributes’ with his new edition as soon as it came out. It’s nice to learn and laugh at the same time. Like Henry Mitchell I seem to read Dr. Armitage’s books with a perpetual smile on my face. Right now I’m reading a little paperback my wife picked up for me called ‘Crazy About Gardening’ by Des Kennedy and it’s turning out to be a fun read too.

  4. I love Henry Mitchell and of course, Elizabeth Lawrence. In fact, it was while I was on vacation on the Outer Banks of North Carolina that I bought my first book by Elizabeth Lawrence at a bookstore in Manteo, NC, about 15 years ago.

    Also not to be missed is Charles Dudley Warner’s My Summer in the Garden as noted in the comment above. This summer I’m in the middle of Jane Smith’s book about Luther Burbank, “The Garden of Invention”. I need a summer at the beach to read all the gardening books I’d like to read!

  5. The simple reason this year for a Summer get away is there has been no sun in the northeast.

    Ayy excuse to get of town before the sun goes down is a good reason.
    I left my garden this morning to go shoot dome ictures in the village of Athens since the morning was so beautiful.

    The TROLL

  6. I’m not familiar with “My Summer in the Garden”, and will definitely look for it.

    Henry Mitchell’s gardening column in the WashPost was a wonderful treasure, and I miss him every week. He was indeed a real gardener, and he died just the way he would have chosen, I think — suddenly, in his garden. No lingering, no “whatever shall we do about Dad”, just gone, leaving us with his words to treasure. Although I find he was a little wobbly on English ivy, describing it as the perfect ground cover for this area. Henry, you owe me a whole lot of money for what it cost me to get rid of what I planted under your influence!

  7. I, too, need to find My Summer in the Garden. But Henry Mitchell is my all time fave. I had the good fortune to live near DC for awhile and I just loved his garden columns. Now, I read and re-read his books.

  8. Sysiphus’s Gardner, Henry Mitchell was the greatest of all garden writers. He made the subject profound, which it is. But he was just as cranky as we are…worse even! Just read him on the tortures of the weather, the depredations of his dogs, the disapproval of his wife, and his own hysterically irrational behavior in wanting to fit a bit more in. Just read him on the subject of trees, which he hated in small city gardens!

    If you really love anything, you develop blistering opinions about it. No apologies here.

  9. I’ve been reading trashy and high minded novels instead of garden books! My new favorite reference books include the Weather-Resilient Garden and the A-Z Growing Edible food book both from Storey

  10. I prefer to do my garden reading in the winter, when I need a mental escape from snow and bare branches. I hate to leave the garden in summer, except when the mosquitoes are so thick they create their own weather and there’s the inevitable July lull.

  11. I am lucky to live close enough to several beaches that I can go for a walk at low tide and a snooze in the sand without missing a beat in the garden.

    Even though the water is still so cold you shriek when it hits your toes, I would not willingly move away from the coast.

  12. I do my garden reading on-line here and at other wonderful gardening blogs. I’ve yet to fall in love with scholarly works about gardening, but I may some day. I do, however, get a great deal of satisfaction when writers sneak gardening know-how into fiction. For instance, the book I’m reading now mentioned a woman planting rusty nails under her blue hydrangea and I was proud that I knew why!

    As to vacationing in the summer…finances kept us home last summer and I found that a few long weekends here and there relaxed us much more than the hustle and bustle of packing up and going away for a week or two. The plants survive, the kids don’t get restless and I skip spending all of September regretting the expense!

    So far we’ve this summer we’ve twice taken advantage of specials at a hotel about an hour drive from us with a lovely pool and purposely opted out of the internet service in the room. A huge thunderstorm with hail hit the first time and in less than 12 hours I was home examining my garden which was remarkably damage-free.

  13. I own most of those reprints, and in my opinion, garden writing when in the hands of masters is a wonderful thing. What else could I ask for? My favorite subject being discussed by others who love it just as much. Oh, wait, I also get that on blogs too. I feel lucky to be alive in such a time where I can have both.

    Enjoy your vacation. I understand about leaving the garden in summer. It will be there when you return.~~Dee

  14. I love the definition of gardeners as “the ones who ruin after ruin get on with the high defiance of nature herself”. Some days that’s exactly how I picture myself. And some days I cower powerless before Nature!

  15. Michele Owens: I believe that to confuse passion with boring repetition of the same writing themes deserves an apology not just here but everywhere.

  16. A favorite that I go back to again & again: Why We Garden by Jim Nollman. Another favorite The 3000 Mile Garden by Leslie Land & Roger Phillips

  17. My goodness, who would have thought this innocuous little post would arouse such ire. Sysiphus, you are welcome to read or not read this blog.

    We, however, are not required to apologize for anything we say here.

    And Michele is right: Mitchell is an incredibly opinionated and crabby, though wonderful, writer. Lots of axes–mostly aimed at trees and shade plants.

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