On the Pacific Coast, we are afforded magnificent and opposing views of the world. To the west, we see the East, and to the east, the West. Our lives, including our gardens, are influenced greatly by this perspective. One of the greatest influences is English gardens. Not only the gardens, but the thoughts, words, and philosophies of their creators. In his celebratory HORTUS Revisited, editor David Wheeler gives us a sampling of some of the best garden writing coming out of that country—and, perhaps, the world.
HORTUS, an English independent quarterly, was born on Wheeler’s kitchen table in 1987, an answer to his search for a “natural home for the well-turned garden essay.” The writing, aided only by minimal black and white drawings and photographs, is allowed to shine.
Wheeler’s birthday celebration is a coming-of-age anthology giving us the best of the last twenty-one years. In its essays, we are taken to the heights of Annapurna in Nepal with Tony Schilling, or to meet the New Mexican cowboy gardener, Billy Sol Estes, with Susan Elderkin. We are given tours of Lady Ottoline Morrell’s famous garden with Deborah Kellaway, and Beatrix Potter’s fictional ones with Peter Parker. We are led through the epic history of tulips by Audrey Le Lievre, and the unexpected history of guano by Charles Elliott. We glimpse the private lives of gardening couples like Margery and Walter Fish through the eyes of Catherine Umphrey, and see Sissinghurst through Harold Nicolson’s nurse Antony King-Deacon’s. We laugh as Nigel Colburn pleads Take Me to Your Hostas, and cry about The Gardens of War with Anne Powell. We are balanced between the intimate and the grand, the near and the far, in the span of 351 pages. From the cartoons of Josef Capek to the realism of Simon Dorrell, the black and white illustrations, lifted from the quarterly, blend aesthetically with the text and never distract.
I found lesser-known writers, like John Francis playfully ironic in Paradise in the Park, more endearing than most of the dry iconic garden writers of today. Five of the forty-five essays appeared in an earlier anthology, By Pen & By Spade (Summit Books, 1990), which I sense were included for historical reasons rather than for their literary strengths. All of the essays, arranged randomly (who could imagine arranging this assortment in any logical sequence?), are meant to be read individually, not from cover to cover. In addition to the Who’s Who at the end, I would have appreciated an index.
HORTUS Revisited is a small book made to be held in hand, not flopped on a coffee table. Yet, it is a big birthday gift from Wheeler to gardeners and readers around the world. This Western gardener and reader has his on the kitchen table where he can revisit the essays he loves again and again.
Daniel Mount, gardener & writer