The peeperage of the other day appears to have been premature—yesterday the snow started falling here, and has returned in earnest again this morning. Needless to say, the peepers have been peepless! But, like all gardeners, the taste of spring has infected me, and I long to be puttering about. For this year, though, the gardening is going to be limited to what I can do indoors ... not optimal, but I’m tired of not having fresh herbs available. I promised Wolfie I’d post on how I’ll do that, complete with pictures, so that must wait for another day. What I want to share with you today is an inspiring little book that I instantly adored.
A few days back, I was feeling a bit under the weather and decided to give my body the rest it was craving; to occupy my mind whilst abed I picked up How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back by Ruth Stout. It’s a slim book, just 160 pages in its near-trade paperback form, and I’m a fast reader; but even so I had no intention of trying to read the entire book that day. I was feeling quite punky, and expected to get drowsy at some point. Instead I was utterly charmed by this beguiling book, which is as much a gentle tutorial on gardening as it is a thoughtful perspective on living. I read it through in just a couple of hours, becoming completely and happily immersed in Stout’s prose.
One might think that any book titled “How To” will of necessity be chockablock with prescriptions and proscriptions. Not so this one. How Stout accomplishes this is explained in the first essay, A Lilac Bush and an Apple Tree:
My ambition is to write this book without a single statement which can be muttered at. I will try to accomplish this by relating my own experiences, letting the reader do the conclusion-drawing.
This does not mean, however, that my mind isn’t crowded with opinions and convictions. It is. For instance, eleven years ago I put into practice a revolutionary method of gardening, and if I were put in charge of the world I would make it compulsory for every gardener to give it a three-year trial. After three years I don’t believe anyone would go back to the old, cumbersome procedure. If someone did, if someone deliberately chose to work ten times as long and as hard as he needed, chose to spend more money and have more headaches than necessary with less satisfactory results, I wouldn’t interfere. I doubt if there would be enough of them in the whole world to fill a medium-sized mental institution. [pp.5–6]
Stout’s method is so simple it can be related in just a few words: mulch heavily and consistently, using your garden as your compost pile. So how does she fill the rest of the book? With tales of her former gardening methods and woes, the reluctance of friends and neighbors to embrace her new mulching methods, and a couple of chapters devoted to specific gardening subjects (vegetables and flowers). Every word is straightforward and un-self-conscious, as if the reader were enjoying tea with the author and the subject of gardening naturally arose. Best of all, Ruth Stout’s writing brims with gentility and patience, being written in an era where such things were common.
Perhaps some of her most revelatory statements approach the reader as asides. Here’s one that caught my attention, from the chapter Enemy Aliens:
Many things fresh from the garden should not be washed. Berries of all kinds are much better off not, and if you are willing to eat a handful which the gardener gives you out in the patch it is inconsistent to feel fastidious about it if she serves them unwashed for dessert. A little trust is all you have to have, and not nearly as much of that as you need every time you eat a meal in a restaurant. [p. 99]
Earlier, Stout reveals her Quaker roots, in a passage I am still pondering:
Some of the nicest people I know would rather lie on the grass and watch fat, white clouds languidly play tag with each other in a deep-blue sky than dig an asparagus trench. Maybe they are just plain lazy or maybe they are poets, by temperament if not by performance. In either case, why disturb them? It seems to me that our first obligation to ourselves, our family and friends, and to society, is to be happy. If they are happy lying on the grass they are only doing their duty. [p.22]
There is much more on gardening, “armchair gardeners”, and the experts, of course. If one’s interested in an easy way to grow strawberries, Stout covers that, for example, as well as addressing tulips and gardenias and asparagus. Perhaps the only shortcoming on the subject is how dated her recommendations are for specific varieties of plants—but that’s unavoidable, seeing as How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back was first published in 1955. Putting the issue in Stout’s own phrasing, just because the book does 100 things for the reader, should it be expected to do 101?
The final chapter alone, We Shall Come Rejoicing, is worth whatever price you may need to pay to procure your own copy. And yes, you will pay: as soon as I was out of bed that day I began searching for it online (a hint, now that my copy is on its way to me: Amazon’s prices are nowhere near the best available); I paid over twelve times its cover price ($1.95) and am very pleased to have gotten off that easily. I won’t spoil that chapter for you, but will offer this in support of my assertion:
There is no competition, no criticism in a garden, and yet where, in so small and crowded a space, could you find so many different things, looking, seeming, behaving so differently?
The carrots and parsnips modestly hide the most important part of themselves under the ground. The cabbage becomes a big green ball, the tomato plants make smaller balls which turn red. The corn, it would seem, might frighten the gentle parsley by shooting away up in the air. But the parsley is not afraid.
The corn is not arrogant about its superior height: it doesn’t shout, “Do as I do, you little runts. Be somebody!” Peppers do not ridicule the carrots for hiding in the ground, calling them cowards. The parsnips don’t accuse the gay red-and-green peppers and tomatoes of showing off.
The asparagus doesn’t form an organization to fight un-asparagus vegetables. It has been in the garden many, many years longer than any of the other things, but it doesn’t tell a single one of them to go back where it came from. Live and let live is the motto. Each one does the best it can, unobtrusively, uncritically, and so there is peace in the garden. Peace and results. [pp. 158–159, emphasis in original]
Presto (whose web site has, sadly, been taken offline) loaned How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back to me, along with another of Ruth Stout’s books. In doing so he was most emphatic—even for a bibliophile—about my taking care of them and returning them to him. I now understand why. My deep and everlasting thanks to him for loaning me these precious possessions. And now, after all this, do I need to encourage you gardeners to check your local used bookstores for your own copies?