I feel a little bit of a fraud reading Anna Pavord's The Curious Gardener. Don't get me wrong, I am thoroughly enjoying my monthly reading. She has such a chatty, inviting style of writing, and never talks down to the reader. As a matter of fact it's that chattiness on equal terms that makes me realize how very little I know about 'proper' gardening.
I have dabbled just a little with container gardening (to less than satisfying results), tried to grow tomatoes, chile peppers, cilantro (some success there), and even one year gave sunflowers a go. Boy do sunflowers get big. I planted them on the side of my house where they would get the best light and they were so massive you couldn't even walk down the narrow path. The heaviness of them meant that they tilted over the sidewalk. Then again, maybe I should count them as a success since the birds found them delightful. And so did the squirrels. I tried to set the flowers with their seeds on the porch to deal with later and the squirrels had no trouble at all finding them. Greedy animals. They didn't thank me AND made a mess of the flowers and seeds.
But I digress. I am not sure I will ever (attempt to) grow a proper garden--flower or vegetable, but I like thinking about them. I like visiting them and I very much like reading about them. That counts surely? Pavord moves from topic to topic in each chapter. There is not exactly a unifying theme, though the chapters are tailored to the month and each ends with a checklist of what you should be doing in your garden, which for February is all about preparation--but more about that later.
First. I shall never look at a red rose in quite the same way, which is where she begins her February musings. I love roses but I really have not had a lot of desire to get bunches of them, and now I see that's actually a good thing--the desire not to get them, that is. Had I planned better I would have posted this on Friday, for Valentine's Day. I was going to treat myself and buy a few tulips, but the price didn't fit in with my budget (priced for Valentine's Day giving perhaps?) and I was afraid they would droop in the cold before I could get them home.
The thing about roses is that February is not their season--at least not in the places where they are given in such massive amounts so must be imported in from warmer climates.
"I've gone off red roses in a big way since a trip to Ecuador this time last year. Vast tracts of the country were covered in polythene tunnels filled with bushes of red roses and further tracts of native wild flowers were being bulldozed to prepare for yet more of this rapacious monoculture."
What a sad thought that native plants are being destroyed in order for lovers to send a bouquet when words (or deeds) might well suffice instead. She goes on to say what the flowers given say about the giver. Red roses? "From a lover who feels safest as one of the herd and for whom imagination will never be a strong point." Carnations are the kiss of death, though maybe chrysanthemums fit that description better since they are more appropriate at funerals. Tulips are the winners--"wild, irrepressible, wayward, unpredictable, strange, subtle, generous, elegant, tulips are everything you would wish for in a lover." That would be my own flower of choice and they are coming into season now.
There are lots of basics in February's chapter, and "basics are what gardening is all about" she assures the reader. Like knowing your soil and climate and planting accordingly. You need to "know what makes plants grow" otherwise your garden will be littered with corpses. That is probably where I have gone wrong in my own gardening experiments. So, start with the soil and work your way up. Loam is the gardener's nirvana--soil that is somewhere between having just the right ratio of "earth crumbs" to air pockets. Add humus (surface mulching--I was always lazy about this, too), and then let the earthworms do their work--they drag it all underground making for happy and healthy roots. I always knew those worms were important. It's quite a science to learn how it all works together--at what rate and knowing just what sort of mulch to use.
She goes on to talk about pruning and how and when it should be done and why you bother with it--and it's not just to make things neat and tidy (tell that to my neighbor who yearly decimates her hedges when they grow a little too unwieldy). Pruning and thinning all work towards creating an abundance of blooms and at just the right times.
For those of us with thumbs that are more brown than green there are lots of other interesting things she touches upon--anecdotes about her travels like to the Villa Lante in Bagnaia Italy--"said by connoisseurs to be the least changed and best preserved of any of the great gardens of the Italian Renaissance." I'm not sure her travels there were so successful as everywhere she wanted to go seemed to be cordoned off and the fountains were not running until just when she left! But I certainly enjoyed reading about them.
So for me, this book is an entertaining and useful hybrid of a book. There are practical tips and advice and surely some of those little nuggets will stay somewhere in my brain for later, but it's the rest of what she writes about that I am finding so good. Maybe something will rub off on me, and if not, I can at least dream of being outside again (without shivering with cold). Next month's chapter begins with "Spring is in the air." Something to look forward to.