Bed head 

Tilling the stiff soil of staid English gardening

You might think that a book of botanical vignettes conjoined in one way or another to aspects of English gardening might lack both the relevance needed to really bring it across to gardeners in harsher climates (like Montana) or a certain sexiness to make it appealing to the general reader. And you might be right. The Potting-Shed Papers is not for everybody, avid planter or otherwise. Where the attention of even the most inquisitive Missoula gardener might start to wander, though (say, about two pages into a discussion of raised beds versus rows with regards to some uniquely English tilling aid none of us has ever seen) it’s generally because by this point in the book a certain monotony has seeped into the essays. The topics vary, but in some ways it’s the same essay a few too many times.

Actually, The Potting-Shed Papers is nowhere near as staid and complacent in its oh-so-veddy Englishness as you might surmise. Author Charles Elliott is actually an American, a globe-trotting gardener who has been settled in rainy South Wales for the past few years on a small patch with the storybook name of Towerhill Cottage. Luckily for us, Elliott never gets too sentimental about it. He largely avoids that most irritating of Anglophile affectations, enthusiastically indulged by so many other Americans in England writing about their adopted home, which is the sprinkling of good corn-fed American prose with spellings like grey, plough and centre, and Britticisms like “ring me at the weekend,” and “what’s he on about?” Call me chauvinist, but it drives me bonkers when American writers pick these things up and start tossing them around like they just learned them yesterday. I just happen to find American writers who do this as annoying as students who come back from a few weeks abroad and talk about having lived there, salting their speech with cockney swears or perhaps apologizing weakly about not being able to lose an affected accent. Yeah, right.

In any event, Charles Elliott is still going to call a courgette a zucchini and an aubergine an eggplant. Where The Potting-Shed Papers starts to become somewhat tiresome, it can probably be attributed to the fact that these essays previously appeared in column form for a British gardening magazine. Having originally been written to suit an allotted space, after a while Elliott’s wide-ranging flights of botanical fancy merely suffer from a root-bound sameness with regards to length, pace, and the depth of his tangential excursions. Not to lay the gardening analogies on too thickly, but it’s like he’s got too many interesting runners coming off of each central topic and not enough of a growing season to make them bear fruit. Main theses are forced to leave time for interesting side notes but then the interesting side notes get pruned; eventually they all start reading like bonsai versions of bigger landscapes.

And that’s too bad, because there’s some intriguing stuff in here. Perhaps surprisingly so, for those without a natural inclinations towards flowers and fruit trees. Elliott’s outings to British botanical and pharmaceutical gardens serve as good jumping-off points for exploring the often unusual stories about how many of the plants arrived in the Old World from Asia and the Americas, although the stories are mostly recounted in fewer words than they would be for comparable pieces in an in-flight airplane magazine. Call it “adventure botany lite,” if in fact there are non-diet treatments out there about the many dangers faced by 19th century plant-hunters combing the screes of the Himalayas and slogging through the rainforests of Brazil to find interesting specimens to propagate in gardens back at home.

And, of course, you just might learn something! Did you know, for example, that the Cincinnati area was once as renowned for its wines and wineries as California’s Napa Valley is today? Or that American folk hero Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman, was a slightly loopy vegetarian who refused to wear fur or ride a horse, and left as many religious tracts as he did apple seedlings in the Old Northwest Territory between 1800 and 1840? Elliott’s English gardens, as well as the wormy mulberry trees and wild apple orchards of his American childhood, are fertile ground for these and other intriguing intersections of history and botany, folk wisdom and modern science. If only there were more time for them to flower!

Elliott, in talking about all the specialty manias of strawberry sexing and varieties of cherry tree, always manages to keep a slightly bemused distance from the seriousness with which many of his contemporaries and the people he writes about approach gardening, both as hobby and vocation. He’s not above taking a few wry cracks (at his British hosts, for example, and their distaste for any gardening equipment more mechanized than a manual push mower), but more often than not he’s able to quote some acerbic writer from his extensive library of obscure gardening treatises to do the dirty work for him. Botany, to read The Potting-Shed Papers, isn’t half full of arrogant naturalists and cranky taxonomists, melodrama and contention and treachery unfolding in every climate. But mostly what comes through is an abiding love for the minute particularities of nomenclature and taxonomic ordering and just the right place for everything which seems best typified in the English garden itself. If you can get past the sameness of the presentation, there’s a lot to recommend The Potting-Shed Papers for a little post-weeding relaxation. An essay or two at a sitting, perhaps, with a tall glass of sun tea or a glass of rhubarb wine.

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