Second Nature: Garden Bloggers’ Book Club

– Posted in: Book reviews

Just as we wonder guiltily whether the food we put in our mouth is good for us, so we now wonder just as guiltily whether what we do in the garden is good for the planet. It was not so much that way back in 1991, when this book was published. In fact, I am pretty sure that Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education was my first introduction to the existence of gardening philosophies. Sure, I had realized there were practical considerations (will this help my plants grow?) and aesthetic considerations (does this look pretty?) but ethical considerations? Right or wrong? What a concept!

I was already averse to using poisons because, well, they were poisonous, but the idea that there was a certain view of the world behind the ubiquitous lawn was mind boggling. And I had to face the fact that my concepts of natural and native were actually moving targets, depending on the underlying philosophy of the definer for their meaning. And so I was challenged to start defining for myself what a native plant was and what made a landscape natural. Yes, I had to start working on my own philosophy of gardening: What exactly is my relationship to nature? To what extent are we partners, and to what extent adversaries?

I read Second Nature for the first time over ten years ago, shortly after it first came out. Reading it again recently, I was struck by how much our ways of gathering information have changed. Think of it: in 1991 there was no email, no websites, no search engines, no blogs. Yes, there were gardening books, but you had to know they existed before you could read them. If they weren’t in your local library or your local bookstore, you’d have to come across a magazine’s book review to learn of them. There was no searching Amazon to see what’s “out there” on a topic, and if you happened to have access to a bookstore’s or library’s expensive set of Books in Print–well, searching through the subject listings was like looking through an unabridged dictionary.

What seems like common knowledge in this book was closer to esoterica back then. Second Nature not only got me thinking, but made me aware of others who were thinking, such as Eleanor Perenyi. It made me aware that gardening touched not only botany and soil science, but reached into history, art, and yes, politics.

I wonder if Michael Pollan would come to the same conclusions, knowing what he knows now. Of course, this book was the starting point for his further thoughts on plants: The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

Visit May Dreams Gardens to find other reviews of this book for the Garden Bloggers’ Book Club.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

commonweeder April 4, 2008, 9:57 am

I agree with Dee that mentioning the changes in information gathering over the past 15 years is a good idea. For me the book wasn’t so much dated as irritating. However, I did very much enjoy Botany of Desire. I haven’t read in Defense of Food. We are big eaters of Real Food at our house, and reading about people who aren’t is too depressing.

Dee/ April 1, 2008, 9:29 pm

Kathy, great idea to tie the review and the book’s information to present day information gathering. I wouldn’t have thought of that. Splendid. Reading it for the first time this time, I found it dated.~~Dee

kate April 1, 2008, 11:20 am

Kathy, this was a fascinating review to read. I was transported back to that time before computers – to searching libraries for information – and what an impact this book would have had then.

tedb March 31, 2008, 6:05 pm

I also read Second Nature when it first came out, and a couple times since then. It remains my favorite of Pollan’s books. It’s the most personal and intimate.


Annie in Austin March 31, 2008, 3:53 pm

Is it even possible for young gardeners to understand what lengths one had to go to for information back then? I can remember hours poring over reference books at the library trying to identify passalong plants that were given to me.

I’m older than you Kathy, and many of the concepts talked about by Michael Pollan were already familiar to me when I read it back then…luckily I’d already met Allan Lacy, Eleanor Perenyi , Celestine Sibley and the venerable Organic Magazine . But in 1991 no one else I knew read those books or got that magazine. Maybe it was esoterica instead of common knowledge. Judging by the amount of lawn chemicals going out of Home Depot on an Austin Saturday morning one might assume it’s still esoterica!

You’ve written wonderfully about this book and of your own personal introduction to gardening philosophies. When it was written, Pollan was a 35-year old man who’d spent just 8 years as a landowner. For a work like this the context is important.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

See you in a few days!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter March 31, 2008, 2:33 pm

I like when book reviewers revist a book that they haven’t read for a long time. It gives a deeper perspective to the review & an interesting comparision with my experience of reading a book for the first time. Thanks for your insights.

Kathryn J March 31, 2008, 11:23 am

Your right about the passage of time and how more aware we are today. I reacted to Second Nature with your same sense of its revolutionary nature.

My review of Second Nature is up now.


Nancy Bond March 30, 2008, 3:16 pm

Thank you for the excellent review.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens March 30, 2008, 2:34 pm

Interesting, how easy it is for us to find books today, compared to even 10 years ago. Not only do we have Amazon and other online bookstores, but if we so choose, we can show the world what’s in our own libraries via sites like

Thanks for the book review. I think it speaks to the maturity of a gardener when they finally think beyond ‘what to plant’ to ‘what impact am I having on the natural world around me’. It is always good to stop and consider if, as a gardener, we are doing the right thing on the plot we plant on. It is quite a concept.