Our book today is that great, odd classic from 1979, Katharine White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden, the book-collection of her famous New Yorker columns by the same name, here assembled by her husband, famous essayist E. B. White. I’ve praised this book privately to a good many of you, and I buy every cheap copy of it I find in the hopes of giving them away to people who haven’t yet read this gem, which is, as White accurately acknowledges in his Introduction, not ultimately about gardening at all but rather about hope, that stock-in-trade of all horticulture. Katharine White’s New Yorker column started when she had the irresistible idea of taking seriously the overblown and hackneyed prose then common in seed catalogues – she reviewed that prose and subjected its writers to a scrutiny they’d never known before, and it all works like a magic charm. These columns first started appearing half a century ago, but they’re fresh as daisies today, starting with the book’s sparkling first line: “For gardeners, this is the season of lists and callow hopefulness; hundreds of thousands of bewitched readers are poring over their catalogues, making lists for their seed and plant orders, and dreaming their dreams.”
From that modest beginning, her column’s scope – and popularity – steadily grew. One of the keys to that success was the vogue her pieces instantly enjoyed among amateur gardeners of all ambitions (of whom there are always dismayingly more than one expects). White entertained them by pouring forth opinions on all the quotidian things they already had their hands on every day, from seed catalogues to their wares to the aesthetics of the plant kingdom itself:
The Burpee people go for ruffles in anything. To me a ruffled petunia is occasionally a delight but a ruffled snap-dragon is an abomination. The snapdragon is a very complicated flower form to start with, and it has style. Fuss it up and it becomes overdressed.
Our author is equally prompt to admit her blind sides, although she’s never quite as uninformed as she protests:
I know next to nothing about fragrance. A year of trying to learn about it has left me as ignorant as ever, beyond a few simple facts that everybody knows, such as that a moist, warm day with a touch of sun will bring out fragrance, that hot sun and drought can destroy it, that frost sometimes releases it, and that rain will draw out the good chlorophyll scents of grass and foliage.
And for me, one of the most perennially charming things about this book (I re-read it virtually every year, usually in a newly-bought second-hand copy, since the old FS&G paperback doesn’t exactly weather the seasons well) is the tangled undergrowth of literature just below its discussions of containers and fertilizers and winter gardening. An old friend of mine was fond of saying that although not all readers were gardeners, all gardeners were definitely readers – something about patience and the penchant for delayed and well-founded gratification. I’m not sure it’s true for all (in the North of England I met some pretty damn stupid gardeners), but it’s certainly true for this one – her memories are entwined in books:
… I have in the past year been rereading the Countess von Arnim, the anonymous author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden, a book that was wildly popular with gardening ladies in the late nineties and early nineteen-hundreds. I tried it when I was a child, just to see why my aunts talked about it so much, but soon gave up. I disliked the Countess then, and I fear that I still do, in some of her moods.
That Countess at one point shares a sentiment that could easily have been written by White herself, had she been unfortunate enough to have married into gentility:
I wish with all my heart that I were a man, for of course the first thing I would do would be to buy a spade and go and garden, and then I should have the delight of doling everything for my flowers with my own hands …
“Poor Elizabeth!” our author cries, but she herself thankfully never hesitated to pick up a spade. The various gardens she made and tended have long since vanished, but we still have this wonderful book in all its various forms. Unearth one as soon as you can and read it – it’ll make you smile (and maybe pick up a spade yourself).