Minding the Garden: Book Review

– Posted in: Book reviews, Lilactree Farm, Things I Love

My favorite gardening books to read in winter make me pause and think about what I just read, or bring back memories of my own garden with their vivid descriptions, or trace the development of the author’s garden, complete with maps. Minding the Garden: Lilactree Farm by Brian Bixley does all three, with a dash of wit thrown in for good measure.

Garden books that focus on the writing—as opposed to the pictures—are getting harder to find. In the past, they were often collections of essays (Katherine White, Eleanor Perenyi [affiliate links]), or newspaper columns (Henry Mitchell, Anne Raver, Allen Lacy [affiliate links]), but in Minding the Garden, they are the best sections from the email newsletter, Lilactree Farm Garden Notes, that Brian has sent out six or seven times a year, often just before opening his garden to the public.

Full disclosure: I have been the recipient of those Notes for several years, and I liked them so much I asked permission to reprint some of them. (You can read them here.) I’ve also visited his garden. Not only did I receive a review copy of Minding the Garden, but one of the blurbs on the back cover is an excerpt of my review of his previous book, Essays on Gardening in a Cold Climate.

I don’t think there’s ever been a gardening book quite like this in structure. The notes are organized in seasonal order without regard to the year they were written. The maps of the garden are interspersed throughout so you see the garden grow and change through time. The individual passages are merely numbered; there is no clue as to the topic, so it’s always a surprise. The length varies from a paragraph or two up to a few pages. This is a terrific book for all those places where you have to wait, but don’t know for how long: doctors’ waiting rooms, car repair shops, airports. You can dip into it as you have time.

Gardening as artistic creation

Brian considers gardening “the most demanding of the arts” and he sees parallels between gardening and poetry, novels, concertos, and paintings. His musings on the relationship between gardening and other arts certainly make me think. Am I trying to tell a story with my garden? Do I design my garden to elicit a response from its “readers”—those who visit it? Does employing a garden designer obscure the gardener’s voice? To what extent is a garden natural? How do I find the right balance between serendipity and control? How satisfying to ponder these things while the wind is howling and the snow is swirling!

Gardening from the heart

But what if you’re not a deep thinker? No worries, Brian still has plenty for you. Like any true hands-in-the-dirt gardener, he agonizes over the lack of rain, anxiously awaits the reappearance of a transplanted lily, grows trees from seed—trees that may not be quite hardy where he gardens, and wages war against lily beetles. He enjoys the garden on an emotional level—“In this spring it was beyond bliss to be alive”—as well as the intellectual level. His writing is vivid– “Martagon lilies…wander like an invading army that has lost its maps”—as well as heartfelt.

Gardening in the cold

Brian gardens in Canadian hardiness zone 4b, which roughly translates to USDA hardiness zone 3. If you’re a cold climate gardener, you’ll want to keep a pen and paper handy to jot down the many plants he grows that aren’t supposed to be hardy there, most notably seed-grown trees and clematis. I hadn’t realized before that the peonies lining the Blue Bench Walk were all grown from self-sown seedlings. Imagine finding species peony seedlings showing up in your garden beds. Imagine having enough to line both sides of a 30m (98ft) path!

I should add that Brian’s garden has sandy soil, the opposite of my heavy clay, which is probably why martagon lilies aren’t “borderline invasive” here as they are at Lilactree Farm. The excellent drainage may contribute to the ability of his marginally hardy plants to pull through the winter.

If you’re lucky, a gardening book will give you one map of the garden. Minding the Garden supplies eleven. (Yes, I counted.) Brian believes “the art of garden design is at least partially the process of undoing earlier errors” and views the evolution of his own garden as “a history of setbacks and failures as much as it is of successes.”

I don’t know what I’m doing in my garden, either, and it comforts me to know that a beautiful, pleasurable garden can come out of ignorance and passion. The important thing is, you have to care. You have to mind what you’re doing. Oh! Minding the Garden: caring about it, tending it, thinking about it. It’s all in the book.

Insider tip: This is one book you should order directly from the publisher, Friesen Press. It’s much cheaper that way.

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.

What differentiates a bulb from a perennial plant is that the nourishment for the flower is stored within the bulb itself.…There is something miraculous about the way that a little grenade of dried up tissue can explode into a complete flower.

~Monty Don in The Complete Gardener pp. 142

Comments on this entry are closed.

karen wojcinski December 6, 2020, 10:19 am

On another topic…much as I love colchicums, that foliage is ugly. May I ask how you deal with it?

Kathy Purdy December 6, 2020, 5:46 pm

Ah, yes. I cover this in my colchicum talk. Let me start off by noting that many people find the leaves attractive when they are fresh and green–and they are one of the first green plants to emerge. They go dormant in June-July, depending on the weather and your location. They are definitely ugly as they die down while the rest of the garden is at its peak–peonies, Oriental poppies, and bearded irises all bloom at the same time as the colchicum leaves turn a sickly yellow-green before turning completely yellow, flopping over and finally going brown. One of my solutions is the three H’s: heucheras, hemerocallis, and hostas. Plant colchicums just inside the outskirts of these plants. When the colchicum leaves are in their glory, these three perennials are still dormant, or just barely growing. When the colchicum foliage is dying back, the three H’s are thrusting out their leaves and will cover the dying colchicum foliage. When the colchicums bloom in the fall, they usually are able to poke through the leaves of their companion plants. If they can’t, a simple snip of the obstructing foliage is all that’s needed. I have some other design tricks for coping with this problem that I cover in my talk.

Florissant Tree Service December 5, 2020, 12:39 pm

I’m always looking for new knowledge about gardening, landscaping, and trees. I was on the fence about adding this one to my reading list, but I think I’m convinced this book is getting added and pushed toward the top lol! Thanks!
Dave V.

Brian Bixley November 25, 2020, 5:45 pm

Karen might be mistaken about the hardiness zone. It is shown as 4b on Canadian maps, a reflection of the height above sea-level. Kathy calls attention to our sandy/gravelly soil; she could have added the large number of hedges and fences that provide considerable shelter. There are areas to the north that are both lower and close to large bodies of water.

karen November 25, 2020, 1:22 pm

Hi, Kathy,
I enjoyed your article about Brian’s book and a website featuring Brian’s Lilac Tree Garden, particularly because I was born and raised about three quarters of an hour north of his area. Part of his success with marginally hardy plant material is probably due, aside from his sandy soil, to his property being in Canadian zone 5. This would give him somewhat more choice than he would have in zone 4.

Kathy Purdy November 25, 2020, 2:10 pm

Thank you for that information, Karen. I asked him what his Canadian hardiness zone is, and that’s what he told me. I figured he should know.

Patterson Webster November 25, 2020, 11:14 am

Kathy, this is a wonderful review of a very fine book. The maps really do give a sense of how Brian’s garden grew over the years and the essays touch on so many interesting topics. I am enjoying it, bit by bit, page by page.

Kathy Purdy November 25, 2020, 11:20 am

Yes, it’s an easy book to take in small bites. Did you see the Amazon review “you can savor them two or three at a time, like chocolates, all winter long.” A very apt description, I thought.

Kathy Larson November 25, 2020, 8:10 am

I just ordered,from Freisan Press.For myself for Christmas!Thank you for finding a garden WRITER,I love hearing the gardener’s voice.

Kathy Purdy November 25, 2020, 11:20 am

You will enjoy it!