OK. I have to admit to an addiction: It’s almost impossible for me to pass up old gardening books, especially Victorian ones.
I’m not quite sure exactly how I fell into this trap. Somewhere along the line I came across my first antique guide, and I was immediately seduced: wonderful old pen and ink drawings, interesting history, fantastic writing. All in all, harmless fun, I thought, and besides, for someone like me who works in the media, what a great starting point for new articles. Plus, as all the images had long since passed out of copyright protection, this would be an illustration gold mine! Surely, a sound purchase!
Little did I know.
For a while I’d find the odd book here, another there, generally for cheap money, but soon, my greed grew, and I started perusing the catalogs of specialty vendors. I just had to have the $225 first edition of Frank Scotts Suburban Home Grounds, didn’t I, and certainly $400 was not too much for two 1780 French treatises on pears! You can see where this was headed…
And of course, Martha Stewart didn’t help. Until the late 90s, many old gardening books gathered dust for lack of a buyer. And then the big M got involved, cooing and kaaing on her show about just how wonderfully quaint, decorative, and amusing these volumes are. And of course, they are, but she didn’t have to say so on national TV! Prices shot through the roof almost overnight, and have only recently just begun to drop back to reasonable levels.
In my defense, I did use the books I purchased, heavily. Most of the illustrations in my first book, The New Traditional Garden, came from these volumes. As did many of the drawings in my second, From a Victorian Garden, as well as the print editions of Traditional Gardening. But there rapidly came a time when even the ample shelves of my gardening library – which holds 1200 odd volumes – began to groan under the weight – literally. One day, I noticed some cracking in the first floor library ceiling (yes, another library, this one for general volumes) and called over a structural engineer friend of mine. Sure enough the weight of all those gardening books on the second floor was weakening the ceiling above the first floor library. Substantial repairs ensued, finally putting an end to my active collecting. Out of space, and now, thanks to the construction, out of money, I’ve finally called a halt.
The other day I came across a wonderful volume by Liberty Hyde Bailey, one of the most famous garden writers and horticultural thinkers of the early 20th century. (Click the link above to find out more about this remarkable man.) I’ve always admired his fluid, witty prose, and I as I flipped through the pages, my eyes settled on this passage from Garden-Making:
The lesson is that there is no soil – where a house would be built, so poor that something cannot be grown. If budocks will grow, something else will grow; or if nothing else will grow, then I prefer burdocks to sand and rubbish. The burdock is one of the most striking and decorative of plants, and a good piece of it against a building or on a rough bank is just as useful as some plant which costs money and is difficult to grow. I had a good clump of it under my study window, and it was a great comfort, but the man would persist in cutting it down when he mowed the lawn. When I remonstrated, he declared that it was nothing but burdock; but I insisted that so far from being burdock, it was really Lappa major, since which time the plant has enjoyed his utmost respect.
The dump heap of plaster and lathe that I mentioned before has a surface area of nearly 150 square feet, and I find that it has grown over 200 good plants of one kind or another this year. This is more than my gardener accomplished on an equal area, with manure and water and a man to help. The difference was that the plants on the dump wanted to grow, and the imported plants in the garden did not want to grow. It was the difference between a willing horse and a balky one. If a person wants to show his skill, he may choose a balky plant. But if he wants fun and comfort in gardening, he had better choose the willing one….
Now tell me, how could I possibly resist such reasonably thinking, such charming prose?
Besides, just one more book couldn’t hurt… Could it?