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Annie in Austin
Welcome! As "Annie in Austin" I blog about gardening in Austin, TX with occasional looks back at our former gardens in Illinois. My husband Philo & I also make videos - some use garden images as background for my original songs, some capture Austin events & sometimes we share videos of birds in our garden. Come talk about gardens, movies, music, genealogy and Austin at the Transplantable Rose and listen to my original songs on YouTube. For an overview read Three Gardens, Twenty Years. Unless noted, these words and photos are my copyrighted work.
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Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Essential Earthman

When Carol chose The Essential Earthman for her Garden Bloggers Book Club, I was pretty sure the garden bloggers would enjoy it, but wondered what an average new gardener would think about it. Henry Mitchell started writing his garden columns in the mid-1970’s, around the time that Philo and I bought our first house. Back then, the gardeners we knew might have a basic reference book or two, but were likely to ask friends for advice or use the library to look up plants and their care. Learning how to grow things came with homeownership, stick trees abounded, and the front yards in some neighborhoods became startlingly similar, as neighbors grew and passed around divisions of the same variegated hostas, orange daylilies, phlox and iris.
If you could remember a few botanical names, liked to mail-order unusual plants and were building a collection of garden books, you became known as a ‘plant nut’, and I earned the label while gardening at our second house in the eighties. At some point, I left the ‘how-to’ books on the library shelves, taking home writers like Allen Lacy and Henry Mitchell, whose detailed observation, passion for plants and personal garden philosophy outweighed many tomes of instruction.

Twenty years later, anyone can Google, so no one needs to search through 14 or 15 books to identify a single perennial. News stories tell us that few people will wait for shrubs or trees to grow – they flip the house after a short stay. I read that half the homes in the US use a lawn service - do the owners ever learn the names of what's in their yard? How can gardeners find a personal style of gardening when they learn about gardens from television? Those instant makeover garden shows instill the personality of the TV host, not the owner.

There also seems to be an undercurrent of antagonism in horticulture news – homeowners associations attack native plant advocates, lawn afficianados & and neat freaks square off with organic gardeners, and those newly converted to ecology seldom tend their own gardens, preferring to criticize everyone else’s instead.
It appears that a garden is now an investment; a garden is now a stage on which to display wealth; a garden is now a political battlefield.

Along comes Carol, sending today's gardeners out to find The Essential Earthman. I cannot imagine Henry Mitchell looking at his lot as real estate – this man inhabits every square inch of his garden! He jams the plants in too closely, grows difficult, exotic plants from all over the world, starts trees from seed, succumbs to zone-envy, takes an entire day to get three tomatoes planted, and is overcome by the beauty of roses and iris. He speaks of the impact of a single marigold in a sea of petunias. He rejoices in small triumphs like one perfect daffodil in bloom, he putters and fusses with his stock tank, gloats over his Chinese bronze dog, and loses track of time. He encourages us not to lose heart as we deal with unpredictable weather, because “It is defiance that makes gardeners”.
I hope he will be an antidote to these depressing news stories, and that H.M.'s words will be like oxygen for those who still want genuine, experimental, personal, overreaching, messy, ridiculous gardens, not reading the pages on fast-forward, but savoring his thoughts, like this one:
... it is the Spectrum not the color, that makes color worth having, and it is the cycle, not the instant, that makes the day worth living...
Henry warns us, “ Your garden will reveal your self. Do not be terrified by that…”
I pondered those words in June as I clicked ‘Post this blog entry’ for the first time, knowing that once seen, my garden was sure to give me away, revealing my self.
I believe in Henry Mitchell’s kind of garden philosophy. His plant-specific advice, however, was written a quarter-century ago, for gardeners living far from Austin, and being under that influence got me in a bit of trouble here.
By 2000, I’d read and reread H.M.’s description of the wonderful yellow ‘Mermaid’ rose. Deer ate the roses in my own neighborhood, and I couldn’t grow any, but my friend Diane needed a climbing rose for her large new wooden arbor. I talked her into buying a ‘Mermaid’ just so I could see this rose in full glory. Henry did allow that it could be a 'large' rose, but Diane’s plant went way past “Mermaid’-size, way past ‘Manatee’ size, all the way up to Rosa ‘Orca’.


  1. You've written yet another delightful post, Annie. I'm steering clear of 'Mermaid,' but I will definitely have to get a copy of "The Essential Earthman," having never read Henry Mitchell before.

    You know, it's not only the first post but EACH post one writes that reveals a little more about oneself. Which makes it both scary and exciting to hit that "post" button. Isn't that what keeps us coming back for more, whether as writers or readers?

  2. Pam, I've got an extra copy of "The Essential Earthman" I'll give you. I'll drop it by your house the next time I'm driving up the MoPac.

    Annie, great, great post. I love Henry Mitchell's writing unreservedly. It never bothered me that he was writing for gardeners in other climes and other times because it was his attitude and personality that attracted me. Especially the defiance. You named all the reasons why. I'm not a slave to fashion or trends. Good writing endures.

  3. Annie,
    "This man inhabits every square inch of his garden!"---There couldn't be a better way to describe Mitchell, and I hope to be just like him :-)

    It is true that our gardens reveal ourselves...and so do our garden blogs. I know when I made my first blog entry in May, I was terrified! I'm actually a pretty private, quiet kind of person. I think in a lot of ways, the people who visit my blog know me better than my neighbors and some of my family. And I'm happy with that...isn't life weird?

    Wonderful post!

  4. Annie, This is a wonderful and thoughtful post. After reading and re-reading it, I realized that as I read HM, I was letting myself get too involved with the plants he wrote about, and you have reminded me that we have to step back from the plants and then we'll find Henry, the gardener and person.

    And the quote you've pulled out "Your garden will reveal your self. Do not be terrified by that…” is indeed perfect for all of us who "blog" about our gardens. Through my garden blog even my own family knows more about me as a gardener and person now than ever before.

    Thanks for your wonderful insight.

    Thanks again for such a thoughtful post

  5. Annie, I'm certainly going to have to add The Essential Earthman to my garden reading list. Not sure how I've passed it over all these years when it sounds like the type of garden writing I enjoy the most.

    Writing about our gardens is revealing, isn't it? But here we are in cyberspace and what would Henry Mitchell think of that!

    Very nice post, Annie, as usual!

  6. My garden and blogging must have revealed by now that I am on the front lines of the "undercurrent of antagonism in horticulture news."

    I think I may be the lone maintenance gardener, making the bulk of my income from Mow, Blow and Go, that I have come across in forums and blogs. Everybody from homeowners and the associations, designers and LA's, nursery staff to city governments loves to hate landscape maintenance gardeners.

    Then I have the gardening soul of a man like Henry Mitchell. I grow trees from seed and covet the different and obscure. I can find the change of seasons in Hawaii and celebrate them in spirit.

    My gardening soul goes to the front lines everyday and I think they are winning. It is a gift I cherish too much to relinquish. The only way I know how to keep it is to withdraw from the battlefield. Soon he says.

  7. Ah, Christopher - without mow & blow, many disabled and older gardeners could no longer enjoy their yards, and it can free up time for gardening. Lawn services are a necessity and can be a goodness. But sometimes it means people are disconnected from ever knowing what happens on the land that they own, never seeing those small everyday miracles...that part saddens me.

    Anyone who has visited Tropical Embellishments knows that you have a gardening soul, and I hope you will find the path to cherishing it.

    Pam, MSS, Colleen, Carol and LostRoses, thank you so much for liking this post - I thought it was going to be so easy to talk about him - and instead it was very difficult!
    In the books, Henry Mitchell seems to dislike computers, but he likes the leftover pieces of wire for reuse in the garden. Maybe garden bloggers could have given him a better opinion about the uses of computers?


  8. Thanks for the book, M! Your generosity is much appreciated. One more reason I love blogging here in Austin with you and Annie.

  9. I hope it's considered okay for non-gardeners to take virtual tours of other people's gardens -- to appreciate them as unique works of art. I may yet have an untapped talent for it myself, but it's hard to find out, since I wilt in the sun.

  10. How interesting! I've not read Mitchell's book, but now I'm dying too. Also - I must say that I adore my 'Mermaid' - it is a crazy rose that I have on a very large trellis that a friend helped me make - and today during the silly snow storm we had in Charleston, it was still in bloom!

  11. What a beautiful post, Annie. A very thoughtful answer to the question of whether Mitchell is still relevant today.

    ps. The quote, "Your garden will reveal your self. Do not be terrified by that…" really struck me as well when I read it, on so many levels that I can't even bring myself to post, much less edit down into a comment here.

  12. I've had a copy of The Essential Earthman on my nightstand for about a year and a half now, unread. So many people find Henry Mitchell inspiring that I thought I should give him another try. His columns in the Washington Post in the late 80s (when I first moved here) only annoyed me then. It seemed to me they were mostly long lists of plant varieties he'd grown or seen. But I've changed (OK, matured) since then, and I think I may have overlooked some subtleties the first time around. You've just given me a big nudge toward picking up the book and actually reading it this time. (And I've been so out of it for months that I didn't even know about the Gardeners Book Club.)

  13. Annie, you must be very pleased that your very thoughtful post has elicited so many interesting comments. You've given me the desire to read Henry Mitchell's book. I can certainly relate to being overcome by the beauty of roses and iris and I can easily lose track of time in the garden.
    Reading of other gardeners thoughts, plans, triumphs, failures,etc. and seeing their gardens is what makes sharing ourselves through blogging so rewarding. Perhaps we're a collection of Henry Mitchell-type souls :)
    I always love your writing! What you reveal about yourself keeps me coming back and makes me wish I lived close enough to know you! Getting to know you through blogging is on my "thankful for" list too. Thank you for your sweet comments :)

  14. Annie:
    I'd love to find out about your gardening book club. Is it a personal one, or like Book of the Month Club for Gardeners? Please respond. You've made me put Henry M. on the list of books-to-read.
    ML of full fathom f.

  15. Pam/Digging, your own generosity is also appreciated - I'm quite thrilled with the 'Best of Friends' daylily!

    ChristinMP, gardeners all over the world will be happy to have you visit, whether or not you dig. I follow the shade around myself, with a big straw hat and sunglasses.

    Pam in SC, as much work as it is for Diane to keep up with her 'Mermaid', she couldn't get rid of it - loves the flowers too much.

    BlackswampGirl, if you do post on that quote - let me know. Your garden is revealing you to be incredibly artistic, so far!

    Kerri, your writing has made me wish I knew you, too. What a wonderful description for so many of the garden bloggers, "A collection of Henry Mitchell-type souls".

    Entangled and ML from Full Fathom 5, you can be part of this book club~

    Carol has posted links to the other participants in the Garden Bloggers Book Club over at May Dream:
    Book Club
    She has a tour of her own garden there, too.

    Carol's December selection is edited by Jamaica Kincaid, "My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love". It will be a new one to me and I'm looking forward to reading it.


  16. This man seems to be my kind of gardener! I've never heard of him before. He seems to be slightly chaotic from your description. I love wildness and chaos, and experimentation, I must look his book up!
    Oh, and thanks for the plant ID on my blog!

  17. When I first started gardening two years ago I read some how-to books, and I'm glad I did. But I have no interest in those anymore. I have also read a few books that convey the fun and excitement of gardening, and those are the kind I intend to read in the future. This sounds like one of them.

    Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that there are a few garden blogs that, if compiled into a collection of essays, would make good books. I think yours would be one of those. You really do a great job. Thanks for sharing.

  18. Loved visiting your blog again, and reading your and the others' comments about Henry Mitchell, who has always been one of my favorite gardening writers. Your blog's layout is so neat and well-written and has such a pleasant color scheme. Best regards, Jon on 8-7-07


  19. It's the experimental and passionate sides of your blog and gardening that appeal to me. Great pics, too. I hadn't come across Henry Mitchell before, so thanks for the recommendation. I am copying and pasting the quote for my ideas book.


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