Bringing a Garden to Life

Bringing a Garden to Life

by Carol Williams, Newton H. Stubbing

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"Gardeners step into the world of imagination as soon as they begin to garden. They cannot plant a dry seed without awareness of the flame of life inside it, or prune a bare branch without sensing clustered blossoms and leaves."

In the literature of gardening there are many how-to books and nearly an equal number of philosophical essays. Here is a book that


"Gardeners step into the world of imagination as soon as they begin to garden. They cannot plant a dry seed without awareness of the flame of life inside it, or prune a bare branch without sensing clustered blossoms and leaves."

In the literature of gardening there are many how-to books and nearly an equal number of philosophical essays. Here is a book that is both. Carol Williams elucidates with elegant simplicity the basic processes of gardening and the handling of plants. She also eloquently demonstrates how in bringing a garden to life, the gardener, too, comes to life. Not just the finished garden, but gardening itself, is revealed as a source of delight and a profound awakening to nature.

With its engaging mixture of step-by-step instruction, essay, story, and poetry, Bringing a Garden to Life addresses both the compelling mysteries and the down-to-earth practicalities of everyday gardening:

  • discovering a place and envisioning your garden
  • the alchemy of making fertile soil
  • the wonders and challenges of starting with seeds
  • weeding—or not
  • the flowering year
  • fresh greens for dinner
  • gardening with and around trees
  • tools—hoes, books, and philosophy
  • and much more

From mapping a garden and planting a lettuce seed, to feeding old perennial borders and pruning fruit trees, this book tells not just how but why, and vividly evokes the interest and pleasure of doing the job. Gardening beginners will be encouraged to take their first steps, while expert gardeners will find new sources of joy in their gardens. The author shares the practical wisdomof her own rich gardening experience and invokes the golden tradition of poets and philosophers throughout history who have turned to their gardens to read the book of nature.

With special sections on annuals, perennials, bulbs, vegetable and herb gardening, pruning, composting, transplanting, and much more, Bringing a Garden to Life is an illuminating vision, not just of growing things, but of being in the world; not just of planting, but of being renewed.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A gardener and writer with the soul of a poet, Williams has crafted an unusually lyrical garden primer. Readers looking for horticultural marching orders won't find them here; instead, they'll encounter a mentor who champions a very personal approach to gardening. Williams diligently covers the basics, from soil preparation and composting to seed propagation, pruning, transplanting and the like, and introduces an eclectic selection of flowers, vegetables, herbs and trees, but it's her reflections on each topic that are particularly inspiring. Passionate about her craft, she finds beauty and meaning in the humblest of gardening chores and conveys her enthusiasm to readers in apparently effortless, graceful prose. It's impossible not to be heartened by observations like the following: "The slow, contemplative weeding done by hand around tiny seedlings allows a gardener to smell sap and pollen, hear bird songs, notice the shadows of clouds. Thoughts settle down the spine and tension leaves through the fingertips, earthing itself in the soil." Her own richly textured musings are laced with snippets of poetry and wisdom drawn from such venerables as Lao Tzu, Liberty Bailey, Goethe and Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, founder of biodynamic gardening. An unabashed paean to the life-affirming power of garden alchemy, Williams's practical, lucid guide is a source of delight for experienced gardeners and encouragement for novices. Sketches by Newton H. Stubbing. Author tour. (Jan.) (PW best book of 1998)
Library Journal
Eastern Long Island in New York State is the setting for this thoughtful account of establishing a place for plants to flourish. Horticulture writer and consultant Williams covers the spectrum of the gardening experience, from preparing the soil and composting to planting seeds, transplanting and propagating plants, and weeding and pruning. She includes chapters on flowers, vegetables, herbs, and trees that offer useful insights into gardening activities. This work's appeal is that it invites and confirms gardening as an expression of life, giving readers an opportunity to ponder its joys. Those considering gardening for more than simply growing flowers and vegetables will enjoy her writing. Recommended for most gardening collections.Dale Luchsinger, Milwaukee Area Technical Coll. Lib.

Product Details

Random House, Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.52(w) x 8.21(h) x 0.58(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Adam and Eve were born in a garden, and gardens are still where people go to renew themselves by meeting creation. In that encounter gardeners have a particular advantage, because they see much more than meets the ordinary eye. The garden that is hedged, fountained, sheltered by ancient trees may take many years to realize, but I am in a garden as soon as I pick up my hoe. The garden one meets when one participates in its making is vivid and alive, and casts a sweet green shade of its own.

The distinction between those two gardens, the finished one and the one being made, is seldom clear-cut. Sometimes this leads to confusion and the confusion to discontent. Ten years ago I had a job writing a gardening column in the local newspaper. I never had trouble thinking what to write about, just happily recorded the changes in the season as they came and the tasks in my garden that went with them. Now I see that because I so much enjoyed that emerging garden, the columns gave the impression that I was onto something worth having. The difficulty came when the readers wanted to see what it was.

Acquaintances I ran into at the post office began to ask if they could come and see my garden. "It must be wonderful!" "Oh, it is," I would agree and invite them over. Some of these visits were a success; two even led to lasting friendships. The visitors and I would wave our arms over almost-empty beds declaiming about the flowers and vegetables that would fill them one day, admire the compost pile, the microscopic seedlings that had at last come up at the site of the future rock garden, the young home orchard. Then they would hurry home to get on with their gardens and I would go back to mine.

But more often, the encounters were discordant and bewildering, and sometimes I felt I was losing my grip on the garden I loved. I would begin by pointing out the mixed hedgerow of holly, hazel, cedar, and lilac, the Gardiner's Island peach tree (which produces delicious white-fleshed peaches with skins that are shriveled and green) that grew from a pit, the glacial rock overhung by the exquisite, pale yellow honey-scented native azalea. But soon I would hear my explaining voice trailing into lack of conviction, unnerved by the disappointment in my visitors' eyes. Through their perplexity I began to see another garden: undeniably present, but sparse, incomplete, and littered with the equipment of everyday life: pajamas on the clothesline, rusty tractor parts dwarfing the rock-and-azalea configuration, trucks and cars rumbling and flashing through the gaps between the knee-high hedgerow plantings. The young apple trees -- mere whips, never very visible in the gray spring air -- could, in a certain light, disappear altogether.

The visitors and I would part, embarrassed. Had I deluded them, or perhaps myself? Was the wonderful garden something I had only imagined? I would make dejected efforts to move a tricycle, cut the grass. Or I would go listlessly indoors, unable to face so much emptiness. Then a little time would pass, perhaps one night. In the morning a small red bud would appear on a gray, thorny rose stump, or some thyme seeds sprout, primroses open. Before my eyes the garden burgeoned again -- green, compelling, no fantasy at all. And I would go to work in it.

Over the years, the garden in my imagination and the one outside the kitchen windows have drawn closer together. Now the buds on the narrow apple whips are branches loaded with fruit. People bump their heads on them. Boundaries are defined, no more gaps in the hedge: birds nest there and children hide, and the road seems far away, even though it is not. The flower beds are thick with peony, phlox, lavender, bees. The backhoe is gone, so the rock and azalea are sculpted against sky and distant water. There is a gate, and anyone who passes through knows they have arrived, where once they might not have been quite sure.

Though all this brings great pleasure, I do remember that to me, the gardener, the fragile early garden -- partly tangible, part imagined -- was as satisfying as this present substantial one. Imagination is not fantasy, but active interest. "I feel," wrote William Blake, "that a Man can be happy in This World. And I know that This World Is a World of Imagination and Vision.... The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a Green thing which stands in the way. " Gardeners step into this world of imagination as soon as they begin to garden. They cannot plant a dry seed without awareness of the flame of life inside it, or prune a bare branch without sensing clustered blossoms and leaves.

Following the earth

No two of the gardens I have visited and loved have been alike. They have been formal and austere or wild and abundant, rural and expansive or tiny and pristine. But each has evoked, through but beyond the personality of the gardener who made it, a distillation of its place on the earth. This is why I cannot bring myself to say, as some books do, "Before picking up your spade take out graph paper and ruler and plan your garden." Or, "Study photographs of gardens you admire and reproduce them where you live." The danger is that in starting with a picture of what should be, a gardener may lose sight of what is. A great garden says, "This is where you are." It is as though the gardener's work was not so much to impose as to make visible, by artistry, something already there in the rocks, trees, and breezes of that locality, the spirit under the ground and in the air.

I think all gardeners keep this idea somewhere in their minds, but the Taoist gardeners and garden poets of ancient China took it as their essential calling. Their gardens, whether vast palace grounds or tiny plots outside hermits' huts, were intended as revelations of the flow of chi or life spirit as it manifested in a particular place. According to the accounts of travelers in ancient China, not only gardens but a cultivated rural landscape of surpassing beauty arose from this consciousness.

It was among contemplative Taoist monks at least two thousand years ago that the art or science of feng shui, or geomancy, originated. Certain monks became adept at determining the flow of chi on any site. As dowsers look for water, the feng shui masters charted the sources and sinks of spiritual energy in a given place and thereby uncovered its essential genius. To this day the Chinese of Taiwan and Hong Kong (perhaps covertly also on the mainland) call in a feng shui master before embarking on work at any building site or garden. Sometimes this process is crudely conceived as a matter of good or bad luck -- get it wrong and your company stock will fall, get it right and you prosper. But it originates in the more subtle and profound recognition that the places in which one feels truly well -- close to God, restored to oneself -- are those made in harmony with the spirit of earth and cosmos. In the sixth century BCE, Lao Tzu wrote in his book of the Way (Tao Te Ching):

Man follows the earth
The earth follows the universe
The universe follows the Tao
The Tao follows only itself.

Gardeners, I think, can become geomancers of their own gardens when they work in them with love and imagination. They notice how the soil is; they follow the course of water, where it puddles, where it flows; they plant a little of this and a little of that, discover what fails, what thrives, and how and where a plant turns toward the sun. Gardeners are also geomancers when they put down their hoes and find the places where they love to linger and where they are inspired to move on, where and when light filters through flower petals, where the cold winds come from, where the sunny shelters are, where the comforting shade, where birds nest. From a thousand homely parts a picture slowly arises that becomes more than their sum.

This kind of knowledge takes time to acquire. While it is accumulating, gardeners endure (or perhaps enjoy, depending on their temperaments) a certain amount of tenuousness and lack of form. The garden may not "look like anything" even while there is much for the imagination to see. But I do not think there is a better way to ensure that when the garden does take shape, its forms, hues, and scents will be rooted in the place where it is.

Meet the Author

Carol Williams has written about architecture, art, and gardening.  She has been a contributor to BioDynamics, the quarterly journal of biodynamic farming and gardening.  A graduate of M.I.T., she lives in Sag Harbor, New York, where she works as a gardening consultant.

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