Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana
A Gardener’s Year is one of those books that libraries tend to discard because it has not been checked out in twenty-four years. And it is one of those books that tends not to be checked out because, perhaps, the library patron browsing the gardening shelf takes it down to look at it and sees a collection of short, almost abrupt essays, not written by an expert, published by an obscure, long-gone press, and asks himself – "Why do I need to know what this lady did with her garden in Hot Springs, South Dakota, in 1973?"
We don’t need to know what she did, of course, but the book is a little triumph of charm. Katharine Twomey seems to have written at a time when an ordinary person – do we dare say, a busy housewife – could "contribute scores of articles on horticulture to newspapers throughout the Plains States" detailing little more than her own amateur experiences in, and ruminations about, her garden now, and her memories of gardens past.
These essays did not cost her much effort, which is not to say that they are not good. They are lovely, unhurried, highly personal; she assumes that she can hold people’s interest in simple stories of grasshopper invasions, of the hunt for flowers that will not bring on her husband’s hayfever, and of the depredations to the perennial bed caused by the family dog. Taste in reading matter is highly personal, and it may be that through all this she cannot hold many people’s interest, which is why my copy of A Gardener’s Year was last stamped DUE in May of 1984. I like these kinds of gentle, idiosyncratic essays. The writer is not trying to impress, she hasn’t a slew of professional citations to back up her work. She is simply one human being recording her ideas for the possible pleasure of another.
And all this is not to imply that the book is all sweetness and light and has no backbone whatever. The collection’s great strength is that it details the adventures of the distinctly amateur gardener. As Twomey points out early on, the respected garden writers of yesteryear were often well-to-do people, living in bosky climates, with a staff of servants to do their work. Miss Gertrude Jekyll, comfortable herself, designed gardens for the estates of wealthy Englishmen. She could plan "vistas" and experiment with her famed color schemes to her heart’s content. Katharine Twomey was much more like the rest of us. She lived in an ordinary house and coped with the ordinary problems of gardening around the garage beneath a vista of telephone wires. She also coped with the expense. "You see a lovely iris in a catalogue and you order one – yes, one," she writes.
Winter is the best time for reading gardening books, as Twomey points out, and her own book might prove more encouraging, come spring, than all the up-to-date and expert advice you can find.