Henry Mitchell on gardening

“Still, as I went about my potting on a glorious afternoon, one small treasure after another, the world of nature that is so terrible and so beautiful appeared only in its sweetest aspect.”  (On Gardening)

Henry Mitchell and his beloved dog by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer
Henry Mitchell and his beloved dog by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer

Like a pair of time-worn secateurs or a beat-up crock pot, a favorite book can reverberate – the pages dog-eared, pock-marked with coffee stains or biscuit crumbs, and stained from peripheral notes,  the spine coming unhinged, and the dust jacket long gone. As midsummer approaches, I start to peruse my shelves for any books worthy of summer reading even if they already have been read. Only did I realized missing Henry Mitchell’s On Gardeningand unfortunately never remembered to replace it.  On Gardening caught my attention when I was browsing the local library shelves for something literary and horticultural to read. It wasn’t a weighty tome and its length felt right. Each chapter was enjoyable and I kept reaching for my pen to copy down some of his quotes. With reluctance, I returned the book and soon I found and bought a secondhand copy at a bookstore. On Gardening introduced me to Mitchell’s other books, The Essential Earthman and One Man’s Garden, both of which were equally enjoyable 

Ming Dynasty-style Dog Sculpture in Mitchell's garden by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer
Ming Dynasty-style Dog Sculpture in Mitchell’s garden by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer

Henry Mitchell wrote a gardening column “The Earthman” in the Washington Post for 20 years until his death in November 1993, and these published pieces were often wry, humorous, and informative. The garden writer Allen Lacy wrote that “Mitchell was the best garden writer in America, but he was more than that. He was a master essayist, with such a highly distinctive voice and style that his newspaper pieces didn’t really need a byline. Two or three sentences were sufficient to make it clear that Mitchell had written them.” Rarely did you not read his writings and not utter in agreement at the same trials and tribulations of gardening. It might be fair to say that Mitchell was the Julia Child of gardening – he preached improvisation and spontaneity as long as certain cardinal rules of gardening were followed. Like Julia Child, Mitchell did not come from a horticultural or related professional background. First and foremost he was a journalist whose stints were at the Washington Star and Commercial Appeal before writing for the Washington Post in 1970. Mitchell’s weekly gardening column “Earthman” began three years later and continued to entertain his readers until he died in 1993. Just as Julia Child invited television viewers into her ‘kitchen’ through her cookery shows and demonstrations, Mitchell opened his garden to his readers through his column. His garden was not of immaculate perfection, and its lack of pretensions underscored Mitchell’s humbling approach towards gardens.  Its slightly disheveled appearance had a particular charm that would have pleased the British garden writer Mirabel Osler who shunned “zealous regimentation” in A Gentle Pleas for Chaos. And certainly Mitchell’s book was the antithesis of the glossary coffee table garden books I indulged in.

by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer
Front Facade of Henry Mitchell’s House by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer

“Often when people see such things they think the gardener does not know how big plants get. Ha. The gardener knows quite well, but he is greedy and wants both. Greed in this case is not far from love, both of which exact a price in this world.”

Mitchell nails the psychology of us gardeners  – like other human beings, we often see, covert, and hoard things, find ourselves aching and longing for another climate, another paradise where plants perform enviably well. On plant acquisitions, he likens the thrill to sex, warning us that excitement is at best fleeting. Our foibles are reflected in our gardens. We knowingly overplant for a full effect, ignoring the future price of editing and replanting when giving adequate space between the plants is more sensible. By exposing our oversights, Mitchell catch us red-faced, but he might as well as make us laugh by underscoring the absurdity behind serious gardening. The best of garden literature playfully convey our struggle for orderly  artistry in nature. More telling is how relevant Mitchell’s observations remain today. 

Rose Arches in Mitchell Garden by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer
Rose Arches in Mitchell Garden by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer

Plants still remained the focus of Mitchell’s writings. Mitchell had a soft spot for sensual flowers – irises, roses, sweet peas (“chancy beasts”), tuberoses. Roses were his favorite – aboard Mitchell visited rose gardens, such as Roseraie de l’Hay in Paris, and at home, he had roses cascading over arches and filling out garden beds. He too loved dahlias for their winsome colors and shapes.  “Sometime in late August there suddenly comes a hint – maybe you feel something in the air – that summer is passing. It is then dahlias are in their glory, and while none have yet been bred that are quite as large as TV sets or as bright as atom bombs, they will bloom magnificently and conspicuously enough through September and October, when few other things do.” Revisit this section on dahlias in September and October, and you’ll find yourself basking in their glory as much as Mitchell did. He tried hard to remind us of seasonal flowers we sometimes overlook in our madness to keep our gardens from becoming too wild.  


 References: Henry Mitchell on Gardening and Life


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