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Musings » Our Life in Gardens
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Eck, Joe and Winterrowd, Wayne
New York
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2009

Wayne Winterrowd is a very familiar figure in the horticultural world. He writes a column in Horticulture quite regularly and gives talks at seminars about gardens and plants. He and Mr Eck live in a small house in Southern Vermont. We know it is small because its diminutive size is mentioned fairly often in this fluid collection of essays encompassing both their personal lives and the lives of the plants in their garden.

One of the most interesting revelations is how they learned so much about horticulture before they even had a garden. Both men were teachers at that time but dreamed of living in the country and growing glorious plants. Each of them set out to study major encyclopedias methodically, going from cover to cover in meticulous order.

The essays reveal how they began their garden, how its maturity and density have led them to change some of their ideas and how the rest of us can learn from their triumphs and mishaps. Half the time neighbors and friends fell over laughing then they told them what they had in mind. “You are going to plant that ?” was the response very much like that of the mother of a teenaged daughter attending her first prom, “You are going to wear that?”

Anatomy may be destiny for men and women in the Freudian universe but climate zone is destiny for gardeners. Submitting to its tyranny and chortling when they outwit its strictures provide Winterrowd and Eck with a great deal of innocent merriment. They gloried in the survival of tender rhododendrons in their pocket sized greenhouse but they had to swallow hard when their cherished R. fosterianum grew too large. It threatened their roof and had to go to the botany department at Marlboro College nearby.

The two men had driven across country from Vermont to California just to visit two small specialty nurseries, one in Fort Bragg and the other in the Bay area. The R. fosterianum, a Himalayan species found in the mid 19th century, was the last specimen belonging to a devoted aficionado up in Fort Bragg. It was bigger than they had bargained for when they found it and they had to crowd all their other treasures around it somehow.

Stewartias receive loving attention in one essay as do summer flowering bulbs in another. Very few of us know anything about Stewartias, a serious omission in the author’s opinion. In the section about summer flowering bulbs we learn a huge amount about many flowers which might survive year round in the Bay area though in Southern Vermont they have to lift them in the fall if they want to keep them for the following year.

The richness of the detail catches one’s attention. The authors recommend Colocasia esculenta for its foliage, a variety of elephant ears which bloom very well in pots in the heat of summer. We are instructed to buy the bulbs at a Chinese grocery and not spend money unnecessarily at a nursery. I suppose I should have seen that coming. “Esculent” means edible.

In one of the early sections they capture the aggrieved tone of a garden snob who visited them once. She was attracted to a tuberous begonia, B. sutherlandii, but as soon as she heard it was an annual, she turned her nose up and marched off. “I don’t plant annuals”, she told them. “It is like pouring money into the ground”. This bigoted attitude is hard to eradicate and they very wisely did not try.

Looking in from the outside we can wonder why they did not castigate her for her ignorance in not knowing a tuberous begonia when she saw it but they are too sweet natured to do that.

Our Lives in Gardens is a charming book which takes you inside the hearts and minds of two obsessed gardeners.