Natty essays from the garden: brassy practicality with pungent opinions handed out like garlic.
The collection shows Sheldon (The Flamboyant Garden, not reviewed, etc.) at her best not-quite-formal style: controlled but fluid prose from the gardening trenches, generous, experienced, capable of a little mischief. The self-contained essays fuse into a kind of journal of information and observations that displays a broad, widely encompassing enthusiasm—which even to Sheldon can be “alarming, though: for what if one should be left with nothing to hate?” A number of pieces concern themselves with hard facts, like the payoff of keeping a log or how to gather seeds and plant from them. The author admits when she’s flummoxed (“Do other people’s primulas stay tidy all summer? If so, how do they do it? Mine become spotty and yellow, quite hideous”) and gives her chapters sporty titles like “Shrubs for the Mixed Border” and “Putting the Garden to Bed.” She writes with a precise touch about elements of gardening that touch her soul, like the atavistic pleasures of a woods garden or why one should take garden snobbery and stick it deep underground along with the bulbs, perhaps paint it, as she does sumac, “with poison ivy killer.” (She also writes about systemic herbicides, so readers averse to such treatment, beware.) Sheldon includes spare paeans to some of her garden favorites—columbines, astilbes, cranesbills, goatsbeards—as well as vest-pocket introductory biographies of Gertrude Jekyll, Jane Loudon, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Alexander Pope, and Horace Walpole. Most of all, she embraces the process, the unfolding, of garden and gardener, the chance additions, the blunders that teach, the successful or disastrous working of ideas.
Now an octogenarian, Sheldon writes, “I myself would like to meet Death in the flower garden—falling facedown onto a cushion of Dianthus gratianopolitanus, if that’s not too much to ask.” No, but not for a while, please.