Book Review: Outside in My Dressing Gown

Every morning I take my old doggie out into the garden first thing, still in my dressing gown, sometimes stopping to admire a rose or a geum, checking my herbs or opening the cold frame.

Geum

When I saw the title of this collection of humorous poems I had to take a closer look. And when I took a closer look I had to buy the book!

“Outside in My Dressing Gown”

by Liz Cowley

OutsideInMyDressingGown

Liz Cowley has succeeded in touching on so many funny sides of gardening life – what the neighbours think, the frustration of the crowds at the Chelsea Flower Show, snails and slugs, the weather, being tempted at the garden centre, weeds…. There is at least one poem in here for everyone to associate a personal experience with. One that stands out for me is her poem “Ground elder”, a weed I posted about recently. Here’s an excerpt:

Spaghetti roots are everywhere.

You dig them up and bitterly.

You know you’ve got enough out there

to cover half of Italy.

Spaghetti roots – impossible –

and most of them you can’t remove.

So if ground elder’s in your place,

There’s only one solution. Move!

Grelder3

This collection is such fun! With simple verse the writer can sum up precisely how a gardener thinks. I open a few pages every day and find myself smiling and nodding. She understands gardeners so well! In “Here at last” she expresses how the buds of spring can suddenly uplift your spirits. In “Are you named after a flower?” she lists some beautiful names/plants but suggests vegetable names should also be used… fancy being called Maris Piper?! In “Antirrhinums” she has a conversation with a flower. And in “I know I’m not a rarity” she writes:

I know that there are many thousands

of dressing gowners just like me,

outside, and dibbing, snipping, brushing –

I know I’m not a rarity.

The poems are divided into seasons, which is a nice touch. There are a few poignant lines in some of her poems too. This one caught my eye:

Plants can plant a love within you

that sometimes lasts you all life long….

Very true, don’t you think.

June

To sum up: ideal for gardeners who want a little giggle, some thoughtful moments and a few smiles.

😀

(By the way, I got the hardback here, but it is also available as a Kindle book!)

Book Review: The Secrets of Wildflowers

“The Secrets of Wildflowers: A delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History”

by Jack Sanders

TheSecretsOfWildFlowers1

This was a Christmas gift and I’ve been losing myself in it on and off through the spring. The word “Feast” in the title is very appropriate – and “delightful” it is too!

Although the focus is on North American flowers, many are also prevalent in Germany and Europe, some even native. In the introduction the author states that his book covers both “natives and immigrants, friends or foes, because both kinds are here and both are interesting”. I like this attitude, as I find so many non-native plants growing wild, and think they are just as valuable as the native ones.

TheSecretsOfWildFlowers2

Divided into Spring, Summer, Late Summer and Fall, it is easy to find what is flowering now. Each flower has its own chapter, which gives some botanical information and tells you a little about the plant’s history, the common names given, uses (medicinal, culinary etc) and myths or traditions surrounding it. The chapters are broken up nicely into little chunks – very readable. The botanical details are also fed to the reader in a clear way, without getting too complicated and without being patronizing. I am learning so much and in such an enjoyable tone.

I was immediately impressed because it is the first source I have found that upholds my belief that Hepatica nobilis sometimes gives off a wonderful scent… I was beginning to think it was my imagination, but Sanders quotes the naturalist John Burroughs: “Group after group may be inspected, ranging through all shades of purple and blue, with some perfectly white, and no odor to be detected, when presently you will happen upon a little brood of them that have a most delicate and delicious fragrance.”

OurHepaticas1

Occasionally a poem or quotes are included, even a recipe or two, and the little lesser known details and legends are so fascinating! Did you know, for example, that gypsies used to smoke Coltsfoot leaves (Tussilago) for pleasure? Or that spring violet leaves are extremely high in vitamin C? Or that a German scientist counted 93 species of insect that visited the dandelion flower?…

I shall be reading each chapter as the flower appears here, learning new and interesting facts and enjoying the feast daily. This book gets top marks for writing style AND content. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who loves wild flowers!

Book Review: RHS Latin for Gardeners

RHS Latin for Gardeners2

If you love language and you love plants, then you’ll love this book. RHS Latin for Gardeners by Lorraine Harrison  explains all those tricky-to-pronounce botanical words attached to our dear plants, herbs and flowers.

The book itself – a hardback – has a lovely cover and is nicely bound… it looks pretty on your bookshelf! It is perfect as a reference book and for the odd dip into while drinking a cup of coffee. The main body of the book is an alphabetical list of botanical terms, each explained, with a pronunciation guide too. Here’s an example:

helix HEE-licks:

Spiral-shaped; applied to twining plants, as in Hedera helix

Now, I never knew “helix” meant that, but it makes sense….

I also never knew that the “novi-belgii” in Aster novi-belgii means “connected with New York”.

Or that the “bonariensis” in Verbena bonariensis means “from Buenos Aries”!

Or that “saccharata” in Pulmonaria saccharata means “sweet or sugared/as if dusted with sugar”.

And the list of discovery goes on!

I was pleasantly surprised how many I had guessed correctly, such as Cymbalaria muralis (“growing on walls”), and the information hidden within these words delivers excellent guidelines for planting… if a plant is from Buenos Aries it will like heat and sunshine, right?

A bonus is the pages in between the list… a few plants are profiled, with notes on how they got their name or certain associations and uses. And some famous plant hunters are also given a page or two, with examples of the plants they discovered on various continents.

This is the ideal gift for a keen gardener, and absolutely perfect for anyone fascinated by botanical plant names. It is already a favourite of mine, and the gardening season hasn’t even begun!

RHS Latin for Gardeners1

Book Review: Weeds

Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants: A Cultural History

Richard Mabey

Weeds

I should love to go on a walk in the countryside, or indeed anywhere with a hint of greenery, with the author of this book, Richard Mabey. He explains so well – and with such knowledge, humour and charm – where each weed we may come across has originated and how weeds have been the bane of humanity for hundreds of years. Our comprehension of their uses, purpose, growth habits and so on is so limited, yet Mr Mabey seems to know it all! This book is so fascinating I found myself taking notes!

First of all, he looks at how to define weeds, which only exist where humans are. Ploughing, for example, provides the optimal conditions for plants which sow themselves out regularly and grow rapidly.

He also examines the history of weeds; as medicine or food, in literature and common folklore, in superstition and religion. The allocation of characters and meanings to certain plants are discussed, as well as the weeding process in past ages. Poets and writers have referred to weeds and wild flowers since time began with nostalgia and familiarity, and Mabey frequently quotes one of my favourite poets – John Clare – whose pet subject was country life; our alienation from nature’s ways, and the changes in agriculture and horticulture are very clear when looking at old poetry. Mabey quotes from Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar:

“… Each morning, now, the weeders meet

To cut the thistle from the wheat,

And ruin, in the sunny hours,

Full many a wild weed with its flowers;—

Corn-poppies, that in crimson dwell,

Call’d “Head-achs,” from their sickly smell;

And charlocks, yellow as the sun,

That o’er the May-fields quickly run…”

The origins of many weeds found in the UK – some of which are extremely invasive – are explained too; how they were transported on ship hulls, in bales of cloth, in wood exported as building material, and nowadays in pot plants and birdseed, and even in coffins!

But my favourite part of the book was Mr Mabey’s reference to my most hated weed – Ground-elder. He says  “ there is one weed species that is beyond the pale even under our laissez-faire regime … in the herbaceous borders it permeates every inch of soil….. insinuating their white subterranean tendrils, as supple as earthworms, around and through any root system in their way.” His wife has contracted the name into Grelda, describing its witch-like qualities at the same time!

“Weeds” is very readable and entertaining, and yet at the same time extremely informative.

I highly recommend it!

Book Review: Mary Swann

Mary Swann

by Carol Shields

Mary Swann1

This engrossing novel unravels the story of an ordinary woman who wrote poems – beautiful lines written on scraps of paper by a farmer’s wife. And it seems that is exactly all she was – a poet.  Yet the four major characters are involved in trying to discover who the “real” Mary Swann was. The actual “story” is more a character study – as a biographer, a retired editor, a librarian and an English professor are revealed to us with regard to their connection to Mary Swann.

These four characters are finely outlined and presented beautifully, without criticism, yet laid bare.   They are all ordinary in their own way. Just as Mary Swann was. One of them (the editor) sums things up nicely: “… the lives of most people are pretty scrappy affairs. And full of secrets and concealments.”

The theme that dominates this book is how people deceive and are deceived, concocting and exaggerating stories in their struggle for recognition and praise, love and respect. In the search for truth they distance themselves ever further from it.  “Forgive me the sin of untruthfulness” says the atheist librarian, Rose. The fact that “ordinariness” can be great is not accepted in our society, so the search for a deeper meaning behind words (or actions) will lead to… what? When meaning is not found, do we invent it? Do we give the words of a poet greater weight and interpret meaningful influences and symbolism?

They all seem aware of their deceit, but are unable to admit it. “I want to live for a time without irony, without rhetoric, in a cool, solid metaphor”, says the professor. When they all come together at the end… well, I must not give away the plot! Let’s just say the ending is triumphant!

This is a great study of human behavior, with a slight wryness, barely susceptible. It is comforting in that it gives ordinariness some kind of significance.

Compelling!

Mary Swann2

Carol Shields is one of my favourite writers – I also liked “Unless” and “Various Miracles“. She won the Pulitzer Prize and was short-listed for the Booker Prize with ‘The Stone Diaries’.