In the 53-plus years of this column’s existence, very few of them have been book reviews. Some outstanding garden books by authors, domestic and abroad, have made the short list. 

At the risk of bothering you today with a book review, let me say this will not be your garden variety (no pun intended) book review. That’s because this is no garden variety gardening book. It may be the best one you will ever read in order to contribute to your ornamental garden’s welfare and your accomplishment as its gardener. 

I have on hand some 100 or more gardening books by world class writers, but The Essential Earthman, subtitled Henry Mitchell on Gardening, published in 1981, is 239 pages of somewhat pedestrian appearance of the finest American prose on ornamental gardening you will find. Never judge a book by its cover. There are a few black-and-white woodcut illustrations but it is not a coffee table book. 

Mitchell, who lived in the environs of our nation’s capital, died in 1993, leaving in his footsteps his classic book just mentioned. It is generally a compendium of newspaper columns he wrote over some years for The Washington Post, and which, after his death, brought accolades from dirt gardeners and the elite of the clan as well. 

If witticism is a trademark of fine writing when called for, and I believe it is, then that alone would gain Mitchell a seat in the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. But there’s more. Co-joined with his wit is downright helpful advice to help anyone growing, say, cabbages, or, say, world champion roses. 

In between there are crammed little opinionated excerpts on just about every facet of gardening, from, say, cabbages to roses. He knew the lore of both and everything in between. 

My battered and back-broken copy of the book came by way of a bookstore in Hilton Head Island in South Carolina as we vacationed there in 1986. It has been read and re-read through the years, and I still would not trade it for a farm in Georgia. The language has not grown stale with all these readings and if any writer can make you want to garden Mitchell can, even in the dead of winter. 

As far as descriptive nomenclature is concerned, just let me say The Essential Earthman writes with such silver tongue that he turns a common hollyhock (one of his favorite flowers) intro a silken purse, if you will. 

Then more, besides, on, for instance, the perils of gardening, including storms, freezes, droughts, deer, moles and on ad nauseum, that provoke us all to tears at times. 

To wit: these words, or words to the effect, concerning those “once in a lifetime” gardening provocations just mentioned. He simply tells it like it is, thusly: “The drought you think is rare, is no such thing. We have had them before. We will have them again. Ditto the floods, tornadoes, hurricane winds, and on and on. It is amazing how often 100-year droughts occur.”

My last excerpt from his book is his relating of a reader who complained that he wrote too much of unusual plants and not enough on common ones. His retort: “OK, marigold, marigold, marigold.” 

Old pros as well as every novice gardener should read this book, if only to warn of the hazards that inevitably will come, and see, even with the warnings, if you can take the punishment and like it. You might get it from Amazon.


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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