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Musings » Your California Garden and Mine
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Mitchell, Sydney Bancroft
New York
M. Barrows and Company, inc 1947

Sydney Bancroft Mitchell, 1878 to 1951, was an important figure in California horticulture even though he was technically an amateur. Born in Canada to English parents, Mitchell became the chief librarian at the University of California at Berkeley and dean of the library school. He was not related to Hubert Howe Bancroft, founder of the Bancroft Library at the same university.

Once Mitchell retired he devoted himself to the service of horticulture. His specialty was irises. He won prizes from the American Iris Society for many important introductions and for developing the bearded iris. In addition he had encyclopedic knowledge of numerous other flowers. Mitchell helped to found the American Fuchsia Society.

The Mitchells’ next door neighbor in Berkeley was Carl Salbach, a noted breeder of iris. Frank Reinelt, the famous breeder of tuberous begonias in Capitola was a very close friend. Reinelt’s children have fond memories of visits back and forth with “Uncle Sydney”. Mitchell and Reinelt enjoyed crossing narcissus, just for the fun of it.

In this post WWII book, deceptively drab and colorless as they all were at that time, Mitchell lays out a very modern approach to the garden. His philosophy was to work with the terrain as it was rather than impose a framework on it which it could not support. All gardens are artificial by definition but truly successful ones are self-sufficient, aiding the gardener and not working against him. Mitchell was very aware of the numerous micro-climates in Berkeley.

One of the most valuable aspects of this book are the recommendations for extending the blooming season. Mitchell makes the excellent point that flowering trees are the best bet in the early months of the year. Rain so often messes up flowers in the ground. A series of flowering apricot, cherry and plum sounds irresistible.

A whole slope of this woodland garden was devoted to narcissus, near a stand of Magnolia x soulangeana, one of the earliest and most successful magnolia hybrids ever bred. Hyacinth was planted beneath the apple trees. Even the slightly dreary black and white photographs show some thing ethereal and delightful.

Mitchell recognized that the native California iris, I. douglasiana, was ideal in the dry Berkeley summers. Clumps of this iris covered a steep hillside, requiring no water and basically no attention to bloom continuously. He was ahead of his time in using these species plants.

Campanula receives a lot of careful attention. He warns one away from invasive types and suggests other, better behaved varieties. It is hardly surprising that Mitchell waxed enthusiastic about delphinium. Not only is there a selection of native species, the larkspurs, but his friend Frank Reinelt bred almost as many new delphinium in the ‘Pacific Series’ as he did begonias. They had international success. A large firm in London, Blackmore and Langdon, bought up everything Reinelt could produce.

For anyone contemplating a new garden in the Bay area this tried and true book could be a useful guide even 60 years after it was written. Nothing trumps good experience.