Sunday Opinion: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

I am a reader, as I was raised to be such.  My Mom read to me non stop until I learned to read.  I never had the good sense to ask her later about why she did this, so I can only assume she thought it was important for people to read.  Reading in its simplest form exposes people to new words; a decent vocabulary is a tool by which people attempt to communicate.  I use the word attempt, as no number of words strung together necessarily insures communication.  Communication is an art form, not necessarily covered in a grammar primer.  Gardeners nonetheless become better, given a better vocabulary.  The best way to acquire gardening skills is to garden, but reading about it can be great fun. 

I know the meaning of verge, bosquet, pergola, porcelain berry, (ok, ampleopsis brevipedunculata is the latin version which precisely communicates the plant in question) bond beam, espalier, species, compost, environment, tap root, topiary, tree lawn, perennial -you get the idea.  Every word relevant to gardening implies an idea.  Reading that exposes me to those words goes on to expose me to ideas from other countries, other gardeners, other times, other places, other eras, other environments, other points of view.  I have a considerable library for good reason-there is always something that is new to to learn.  Part of being a well rounded gardener implies being a good reader.  Not to mention that there are those times when I would rather sit and read than dig a hole or water plants. My magazines pile up all season long, in preparation for winter. I am a reader, not a skier.

I have many hundreds of books; I refer to them, and reread- regularly.  My library is my window on the world. My books do not go out of style.  They don’t wear out or break.  It is amazing how little of the information they contain is obsolete.  A two volume set of photographic plates, entitled Jardins de France, is a prized possession.  Published in 1925, there are places pictured that no longer exist-except on these pages.  The Encylopedia Brittanica that my parents spent so much money to make available for me to read has been replaced by the internet.  Any gardening vocabulary word you might type into the Google search engine will likely get you many more websites than you could possibly digest. But the idea is somewhat the same.  A book you can hold in your hands is a different experience than looking at a computer screen, just like the music you hear in person is completely unlike any recording of music. Clare Lockhart, a high school English teacher, was obsessed with teaching how to write an elegant paragraph. If you didn’t learn, you had to keep writing them until she was satisfied you had that skill in place.  I cannot help but think all that practice with paragraph construction has helped to make my computer searches better and faster. But no matter the source of your reading material-what you read will inform your gardening. My advice-read up.  I do find that I get far fewer questions about plant culture than I did years ago, as the computer has made asking questions easy and convenient. I am better able to field questions about fruit trees and tropical plants, as I can look them up.

I have a long history of writing.  Like my Mom and my grandmother Nana, I kept a journal.  Some parts of that journal were personal-other parts recorded the peony bloom, or the date of the spring thaw, or random thoughts about my gardening efforts. Everything I write down sticks with me. I hope you enjoy reading my essays as much I as enjoy writing them.  The process of writing is exploratory, and helps me to think things through. 

 What I write is a rich stew.  Nature is the meat-how I cook that meat directs my writing.  My experience can  flavor the stew with garlic, rosemary-or romance.  I would furthermore encourage everyone to keep a journal.  Most things I wrote in my journal in my twenties either make me smile, or wince.  At 45, I threw away 27 years worth of journals; it was a good decision.  What you have a mind to write about translates what you think about or experience into information you might use. It can also give you a better picture about weather cycles, plant hardiness-the nature of things.  What interested me about gardening twenty years ago is much different than what interests me now, so  I am back to writing.    

You may think that no gardener needs to think about arithemetic as using it comes so naturally.  Most of the skills I use I learned in elementary school.  I dilute my moss dye using a 1 to 5 ratio.  Mixing soil, calculating how many perennials I need for a project, the flats of groundcover, the yards of decomposed granite-simple arithmetic.  Figuring the numbers of tulips I need to fill a spot may be the least favorite part of the process of having tulips in the spring.  I usually err on the side of way too many, which works out fine in the end. There are other things I have too many of-too many pots, too many hydrangeas, too many ferns-too many plants on a small city lot.  I still scheme about how wedge more in.  This excess is about enthusiasm, not poor math skills. 

We are installing a circular pergola today that Buck made.  A good deal of my excitement about seeing it put together and in place is that my grasp of the mathematics that enabled him to construct it is a skill I do not have.  He saw this structure clearly in his mind long before he put the first two pieces of steel together.  My excitement is about seeing it for the first time. I am sure it will be a very elegant visual paragraph about the structure required to adequately handle growing grapes.  You’ll see.

Leave a Comment