A garden author who swings both ways



Remember Sonia Day’s engaging guest post here about heirloom tomatoes, lawns, native plants, and other hot button topics?


You should also know that the Toronto-based garden writer has two recent books out that represent the yin and yang of garden writing in many ways. Her latest, The Untamed Garden (McClelland and Stewart, 2011), comes in one of the most alluring packages I have seen in some time. The abbreviated wrapper suggesting a brown paper bag unfolds to reveal a gorgeous reproduction of Alma-Tadema’s Roses of Heliogabalus. Inside this pretty package is a diverse and humorously told selection of plant lore, lavishly illustrated with photography and reproductions of botanical drawings and paintings. Day poses and answers such questions as: Which suggestive plant caused a queen to faint when it was presented to her at court? Why are figs and pomegranates thought to be the real culprits for getting Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden? Why is coco de mer “the most erotically charged plant on the planet?” Fun.


Day’s earlier title is at the opposite end of the spectrum—a how-to for urban gardeners and perfect for beginners’ level. Incredible Edibles: 43 Fun Things to Grow in the City (Firefly Books, 2010) runs down a list of vegetables, fruits, and herbs that are suitable for urban cultivation, with brisk advice, recipes, and a bright, photo-centric design. This is a book I might give my husband, who just started growing food last summer.

Most of my garden reading these days tends toward the essay end of the spectrum—Lloyd, Lawrence, Pavord, White, and others. Now that my garden is pretty much designed and full, I tend to enjoy finding affinities in the writing of other gardeners rather than frustrating myself by learning about projects and plantings I’ll never undertake. But I can appreciate a how-to as uncomplicated and attractive as this one. Oh, and it has recipes too.

We’re giving away these two books, and this is how it will work. Where do you land in the spectrum between how-to and essay? Answer in comments and there will be two winners.

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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 regular 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 yahoo.com


  1. I enjoy reading essays more than how-tos. I have a container balcony garden and I prefer to be inspired to do my own thing in my small space. The majority of gardening how-to books are for people who actually have land, with a few exceptions. I would love to read The Untamed Garden! Thanks for the giveaway.

  2. Where do we fall in the spectrum between how-to and essay? In true “rant” fashion, the premise, it seems, is flawed. Our gardens are full of color, not black and white, and the distinction need not be between one (how-to/black) or the other (essay/white). There are writers who, in the process of describing how-to, are able to capture us, draw us into their world, for a meditative stroll through their life and gardens. Example — Gardening for a Lifetime by Sydney Edison. In great detail, we learn about the care of her perennial beds and “how” she has transitioned her gardens in response to the twists and turns of life over the years, affording us a roadmap of how we might do the same. At the same time, we come to know the author and her friends and their gardens, as if they are close friends and neighbors. Masterful combination of how-to and personal essay.

    It also seems that life in a garden is rewarding not only for the beauty and bounty at the end of the day, but also the simple process of living it — tending, seeding, sowing, mulching, pruning, and the various other “-ings” we do because we simply love it. In this way, a well done how-to can be as much of an interesting read as an essay. Again, the “border” between the two types of writing need not be as “manicured” as the question suggests.

    Great blog you maintain here — all of it — the how to and the essays! Keep it up.

  3. I think I tend to gravitate more towards the essays lately. I started gardening about three years ago now and of course relied heavily on the how-tos, and while I still refer to them constantly, I really am loving reading anthologies on gardening and urban farming as I shape my own philosophy. It helps me understand why this new way to live is so important to me and helps me craft my own opinions when people ask me why in the world do I want chickens. Would love to get my hands on both of these titles!

  4. I love a good how-to, but not generally the ones down at the “For Dummies” level. But I also enjoy a good essay as well. I guess the operative word here is “good”. As long as it’s well-written, I can fall anywhere within the spectrum.

  5. Definitely how-to. I’ve only been gardening for 5 years, and I’m sure I’ll be learning the rest of my life. Honestly, though, the best teacher is the garden itself.

    Both of these books look very interesting!

  6. I prefer essays because they cause me to think about what I am doing instead of just doing. Gardening is an activity for the mind as much as the body!

    Then again, I would happily take either book, if I won it.


  7. Mostly essays or ‘the story of my garden’, but I like having the odd ‘how to’ when I am exploring something new. After several decades of gardening, I may get the odd tip, but I’ve kinda figured out a lot of the nuts and bolts. When I started out, there weren’t all that many how-to’s, anyway. I think I had Sunset Western Garden Book and the Organic Gardening Complete Book of Composting. My first gardens were in unusual, weird-environment places (cut-over redwood forest in Humboldt County, then cold desert in central Oregon) so there was virtually no advice that fit my needs very well. I think we all learn better from DIY, even with all the biffs and bops along the way.

  8. Totally based on my mood. How to’s for easy, quick, OMG MUST DO THIS NOW mood. But I learn far far more from the essay based books. Lately, I’ve been in the esssay mood. Must be the weather. Gloomy, but with the hint of promise in the air.

  9. I tend toward how-to, but can appreciate that I’ll just be frustrating myself since i have little undeveloped garden area on my property.

  10. As a young landscape architect, I work in a realm that falls somewhere between the “essay” and “how-to.” I have studied landscape theory, garden history, and the garden in art history, but I am also well versed in the horticultural arena. I also work as a consultant for a non-profit, advising on urban forestry. There is a joke in my field that landscape architects have dull or badly maintained gardens, because they don’t have time or because they have their heads in the clouds about Theory and Design and no time for real dirt. I get someone blank looks and cries of “how do you find time?” when I enthuse to my colleagues that my first seeds of the (coming) spring are germinating. Nevertheless, I am proudly a gardener, and I believe there is room for both the essayist and the DIY-er in my profession.

  11. I start with how-tos. But when I try to do the things that I have allegedly learned from the how-to, all of my swearing is in essay form.

    But perhaps that’s only because my how-tos do not come from reputable sources. These two books sound like they can break the cycle.

  12. The best essay writers cleverly wrap their how-to information in sparkling prose so that I gather tips effortlessly while enjoying the ride. A plain how-to is like reading a shopping list; a good essay shares knowledge without interrupting the flow of the language. My guess is that the best garden writers are writers first.

  13. I think beginning gardeners read more how to’s and established gardeners read more essays. At least that’s what has happened with me.

    I also think that people who love to read (me) tend to veer more towards essays than some of the how to books that end up being more photos than words.

  14. Definitely essays, at my advanced age I have shelves just bursting with how-to’s (maybe I should have a giveaway.) Essays however make me think, imagine and envision. Just the kick I need for inspiration.

  15. I’m all about the how-to books. In fact, this time of year, when I’m ramping up my next vegetable garden, is when I feel a need to read every post on the gardening blogs and check out new gardening books. As spring approaches there are so many possibilities and I want to make sure I know the best methods to ensure a successful gardening season.

  16. Essays, for sure. How-to’s certainly have their place, but I’ll get lost in a finely-crafted essay. Like you, I gravitate towards people like Allen Lacy, Henry Mitchell, Elizabeth Lawrence, Anna Pavord. I truly immerse myself in them, to the point that, when I’ve read the last word, it’s almost like reentering the normal world from some other dimension. I actually have childhood memories of my mother standing literally beside my ear, shrieking at me that dinner was ready! I never heard her; I was that far gone into whatever I was reading.

  17. How-to or not how-to ? That is the question.

    And where do I stand ? Firmly in the middle, it seems.

    My Southern roots long for a good story. Entice me down the garden path to new & exciting ideas & I’m yours. But flowery prose is not enough. I still need facts and crave knowledge. And all the essays I’ve read so far haven’t made blossom-end rot any more alluring to deal with (though I’ll say that many make manure-shoveling sound quite lovely). Turns out the both work equally-well for me.

    So when I need info, I grab a sturdy, reliable how-to book. But if I want romance (garden variety, as it were), it’s the essay that grabs me.

  18. I used to love how to but now that I have been doing for over a decade, my questions are so detailed and specific, I find the Internet or a neighbor are better resources. Now I just love to read essays which inspire me. Favorite way to pass the winter is to read some beautiful garden prose and fall asleep daydreaming about what could be possible.

  19. I can write the how to of vegetables in containers, backyard gardens and by the acre. Flowers, shrubs, perennials-anything other than vegetables, and I need almost step-by-step how to. The best? A combination of both. How to with why, who else has and how to make the most of the garden.

  20. I think I am close to the middle but might skew a bit toward how to… I find how to books to be sort of like eye candy year after year during the winter… Essays I tend to maybe enjoy more, but reread less frequently…

  21. Well, as usual, I want it all. Life would be deadly dull without the Lloyds and Chattos, butI can be SO seduced by a knowledgeable, hands on person who can still teach me. after a lifetime spent in the garden, I know that I will never stop learning from my peers, from good writers and from wonderful garden friends who have shared both plants and knowledge.

  22. I tend toward essays when it comes to books – the kind of books that sustain me through winter. As for the how-to’s, I tend toward trial-and-error… and the internet. Though I do love my how-to’s when I’m out in the plot. Thanks for the giveaway!

  23. After thirty years of self-employed “how to” gardening, give me a well written essay any day. I’ll give my tired back and arthritic fingers a rest flipping the pages.

  24. That’s a difficult question. I certainly enjoyed the essays in Henry Mitchell’s columns (and later books), but in general I think I like how-to better, as I can relate to it in my own garden.

  25. I enjoy the well written words of an essay the most. It is becoming a lost art we must support or it will vanish, into a string of abbreviations that I seem to read all over the web.

  26. The more I garden, the more I realize that gardening is a game based in a particular plot of soil in a particular climate and microclimate.

    I read both types of gardening books. The how-to books give me an idea of what other people tried and how it worked. I skim them for inspiration. This week I saw some corner shelves offered on freecycle, and I happened to be reading a DIY blog that described how to turn Ikea corner shelves into a cold frame. I need to start my seeds and had been wondering where and how. Now I have a project!

    The essays give me a narrative and a more complete picture of what happened in someone else’s garden and what they thought about it. But I also love books about pollinators, beneficials, and microfauna, which tend to be more essay than how-to. It enriches my experience of my own garden and makes me a better observer when I know what to look for and whom to appreciate.

  27. “Feeling at peace, however fragilely, made it easy to slip into the visionary end of the dark-sight. The rose shadows said that they loved the sun, but that they also loved the dark, where their roots grew through the lightless mystery of the earth. The roses said: You do not have to choose. ”
    ― Robin McKinley, Sunshine

    I like to eat and try new dishes, so there are cookbooks. I like to garden, and read what others have done, or as Robin has written above,
    How to with why, who else has and how to make the most of the garden.

    Then there are the books of dreaming and thought, the essays, the histories, the explorations of what might be. Rosalind Creasey hits both for me, as well as Frank Browning on Apples. Oh, dear–and well-written catalogs, such as Greenmantle Nursery and that of Sandy Mush Herb Gardens.

    Choose? Shan’t I have a stab at some of each?

  28. Definitely on the essay side. I like to design and appreciate. My basic gardening technique is: remove grass and weeds from the dirt; rough it up a bit; plant about 1/3rd more plants and seeds than you need; pour on water and a bit of compost/mulch occasionally; hope most survive. Usually works OK, but if not, then I go find a how-to book.

  29. I discovered garden writing right out of college, a new mom with a BA in English, burned out on the study of American fiction, looking for something new and exciting. I picked up a few books: Michael Pollan’s (then new) Second Nature, Allen Lacy’s books, and the anthology of American Garden Writing by Bonnie Marranca, to name a few. These ignited the flame to seek out “how-to” and soon, even though I didn’t even have space for a garden, I sought out master gardener training. No contest for me–the heat and passion is in the ART–everything else feeds on that.

  30. I’m definitely on the essay side of the spectrum. I love to read about the stories behind the plants, behind the gardens. The how-to is great to have for reference, but the gardening books I take to bed with me are the essay collections. My favorites are the ones that sneak a little science into the stories.

  31. Essays are by far my favorite! I love to read about the passions that motivate the action. With essays there is no need to worry about which zone you are in or what kind of soil you have. The author’s passion then inspires my own.

  32. I’m schizophrenic in my writing–and my reading. One day, I’m writing a personal essay about becoming an accidental vegetarian after the death of one of our backyard chickens. The next day, I’m writing a how-to for growing a Three Sisters Garden. It’s a messy writing life.

    My books are equally crazed…city dweller turned farmer memoirs, garden design and winter extension manuals, Farmer Markets guidelines, history of Biltmore’s gardens and heirloom tomatoes. Wishy washy, for certain–but entertaining always!

  33. It’s seasonal: How-to starts about now; essays when the snows start. Remember that the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues started training this week, so there’s hope!

  34. I never ceases to amaze me how there can be yet another how-to-book on any garden subject. It’s like cultivators… yet there is another heuchera and another hosta. i prefer the essay book, because
    1. it’s about writing and that interests me. the ability to write a good sentence is an artform.
    2. the diversity of topics and points of view.
    3. the essay is as much as about the author as the topic of the book itself. To me it’s a kind of autobiography of the author.

  35. It never ceases to amaze me how there can be yet another how-t gardening book. It’s like cultivators … how can there be another heuchera.
    I much prefer the essay.
    1. Because it’s about writing. And writing a good sentence is a hard thing to do.
    2. Because it’s autobiographical. It’s a window into the author as much as the subject matter.

  36. I love reading essays of all types – the ones that share a garden’s history, the love of gardening, the frustration, the victories and defeats.

    However, just when I think I’ve hit the peak number of How To books (I own a lot!), another one is published that I just have to have.

    I’d say both are an addition.

  37. I love essays especially at this time of year. Once I get gardening I will be dragging out my how-to books which explains why my favorite gardening books are all muddy with seed envelopes as book marks.

  38. This is a non-question for anyone who enjoys reading as much as gardening. Some of the how-to books are beautiful and I enjoy reading them even if they are talking about a plant that I could never grow, such as Meconopsis betonicifolia, blue himalayan poppy. On the other hand, there are times when my garden practices change after reading an essay, like one by Roger Swain talking about how poisoning our underground munchers (gophers, moles, groundhogs) disturbs our garden ecology. I have come to think of poisoning gophers as equivalent to using pesticides on my plants.

  39. I’m definitely prefer essays, especially writers like Allan Lacy. I do have and read how-to books, but they’re not what I would settle down with at the end of the day.

  40. I am a how-to fan. For me gardening is about exercise and feeding my family; I go someplace else for philosophy and musings.

    Thanks for the opportunity to win.

  41. Since i’ve been gardening for about 25 years, I’m definitely in the essay land these days. If I win the boks, I will send the how-to book to a gardening pal in England who recently gave up his allotment due to lack of time/engery. He’ll be gardening on a smaller scale at his home and would be delighted to get the book!

  42. I’m a certified UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener who’s grown her own food on a patio and in a community garden, but isn’t a great planner in terms of getting seeds started and in the ground or in pots. I’m also a newly minted Master Food Preserver and cofounder of SLOLA Seed Library of Los Angeles (www.slola.org). I find myself carried away with the poetry of pastoral books on farming and sustainability: The Botany of Desire; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; The Heirloom Life; Epitaph for a Peach; but I lust over the images in Botany for Gardeners, which look like contemporary art masterpieces. In my gardening practices, I’ve been spiritually moved by looking at a bean sliced across its horizon under a microscope and watching the cotyledon pop its head up. Magical. And on the how-to books, I like John Jeavons, not exactly a beginning book, and basic tomes such as Square Foot Gardening.

  43. I’m drawn to how-tos. But then essays work out fine too. What really draws me in is a clever HEADLINE and some great PHOTOS. I sure hope i win the Incredible Edibles book.

  44. Truthfully? I fall right square in the middle. I’ve got enough garden know-how to appreciate the essays when I do, but there is always something that I’d like to, or need to know when it comes to certain how-to’s. So either book is cool. Although if I had to choose I’d probably lean more toward the “how-to” book if it dealt with a specific subject, and now that I’m really interested in urban gardening (since I have one), that would be my choice.

  45. i have been vegetable gardening for over 35 years and judging by the results i have been getting lately, i think the vegetable oriented book might just help me. i enjoy reading all of the posts here and i can say that at times some are inspiring. peppero

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