A New Leaf
Growing With My Garden
By Merilyn Simonds
Doubleday Canada, 268 pages, $29.95
In a series of essays, Merilyn Simonds writes of her soul-feeding experiences across an entire gardening year, from clean-up through harvest, including memories of gardens and people past. It doesn't take long for the book's hard, black lines of type to disappear, and for the reader to be spellbound, completely submerged in Simonds's special world.
Simonds lives with her "Beloved" in a 200-year-old stone house on an old orchard acreage north of Kingston, Ont., where she tends 26 gardens, each with its own name according to place or purpose: the Hortus Familia, "a bed of plants that reminds us of our families"; the Winter Garden, planted with vegetables and covered with mounds of hay in the autumn to allow for cold-weather harvesting; the Shed Garden, the Arbor Garden and so on.
Working 26 gardens is difficult, but Simonds does have help from some special companions - her Beloved, of course, who works along with her; the Rosarian, the next-door rose-grower and rose-tender; the Garden Guru, wise in the way of gardens; the Frisian, who comes every week to weed - all of whom share their special talents.
Simonds works willingly from dawn to dusk in her gardens, and lives by the gardener's motto: "Never work harder than you have to; live as gloriously as you can." There are no rigidly straight lines in her garden, but rather glorious clouds of shape and colour. We see this because Simonds has mastered the art of seeing what she is looking at, and because she has the skill with words to share that vision with us.
In one of her essays, describing her great love of swaths of plants and drifts of colour, Simonds says, "I've never messed with paints …" but it's easy to see that her garden is her canvas. And there are different ways to paint; Simonds paints with words, and being a brilliant word painter allows her to involve more than just sight. She brings the sweet sense of smell to life as she describes her heritage sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus, and we feel a sense of beauty as we picture a haze of blue forget-me-nots - and (for myself) a sense of envy as she "aggressively" shares cuttings of her intensely fragrant autumn-blooming hosta.
Simonds also writes with a nice sense of humour. Consider this bit of advice given to her from the old woman whose house she was
buying: " 'And don't plant your beans,' she said with a wink, 'until you can pull down your pants and feel the earth warm under your bum.' "
And so, while winter and spring play tug-of-war and your snow shovel still sits next to your gardening tools, here is this great book to help you settle your yearning to poke your fingers in the dirt and plant your early seeds of spring.
THE ZERO-MILE DIET
A Year-Round Guide to Growing Organic Food
By Carolyn Herriot, Harbour, 256 pages, $32.95
Carolyn Harriot is a passionate gardener and seed saver who lives on ferry-fed Vancouver Island. If there were an emergency there, the shelves of supermarkets would be bare in three days. Herriot's answer is to grow food organically and preserve your own food, and this book tells you how to do it safely and successfully. Although West Coast-centric, her organic methods and food-preservation and seed-saving advice can be used by anyone anywhere. And a big thank you, thank you for the four pages of green-tomato recipes.
THE ARMCHAIR BOOK OF GARDENS
By Jane Billinghurst, GreyStone, 298 pages, $35
Past and present, as long as there have been gardens, there have been people who write about them. Poison and passion, solace and sustenance, humour and sadness are all present in this anthology. Two essays in particular - Kleptomania in Ceylon, by Michael Ondaatje, and The Lethal Garden, by Germaine Greer (writing as Rose Blight) - left me absolutely gobsmacked. A wonderful collection, beautifully illustrated.
NO GUFF VEGETABLE GARDENING
By Donna Balzer and Steven Biggs, No Guff Press, 157 pages, $26.50
"Garden coaches" Steven Biggs and Donna Balzer have written a vegetable-garden how-to book that is fact-based and fun-basted. If you are a new gardener and want to know when, why or what to plant, this is a terrific book, and it's also a handy reference book for more experienced gardeners. The "he said" and "she said" is very clever; yes, there is more than one answer to any question. Kudos to illustrator Mariko McCrae for making the book even more user-friendly.
Sherry A. Firing is a Toronto artist and gardener.