Perhaps this post is coming a little late in the game, but there is something about the anticipation of fall that has me once again paying attention to and thinking about gardens, plants, and typical Spring-type things. Which is kind of strange considering I am practically allergic to Spring and so far I seem to have a terrible black thumb. Even my succulents bit the dust after just a couple months of apartment living. But recently, I have had a lovely little basil pot survive and yield two batches of pesto thus far, so I am feeling more interested and encouraged about gardening, even in city life.
Before everything starts the beautiful process of dying and changing colors for my favorite season, allow me to share a (bit wordier) look at three books devoted to gardens, and more importantly, community. Let’s read three books about gardening!
1. The Plant Sitter by Gene Zion, pictures by Margaret Bloy Graham, 1959
Beginning with the oldest of the trio, this is a darling book from the creators of the more infamous Harry the Dirty Dog. It predates Harry; but is lesser known, out of print, hard to find, and yet worth any second you get to peek at it. The story follows Tommy who decides to be a plant sitter for all the neighbors on vacation. His mother pays no attention to his scheme until she comes home to a house full of plants. And his father is annoyed by it all until Tommy informs him that he is doing it to fill his time because his father said they couldn’t go on vacation this year.
Tommy turns out to be an excellent plant sitter, so good in fact that the house turns almost jungle-like. After a dreadful nightmare about the plants overtaking the house, Tommy hits the library for information on pruning. In the end, the neighbors are amazed at the health of their plants when they arrive home. Tommy gives all the children of the community baby plants from the cuttings. And his father misses the plants so much, they leave for the country and a vacation of their own. It is a nature-filled win for all.
Brimming with all the quaint home-life details of the 1950s, Margaret Bloy Graham’s expressive characters are even more delightful among all the foliage. Oh, how I would love to ask her if she tired of drawing so many leaves! And yet they all seem to have character of their own! Another lovely thing to note is the limited color palette. The book feels very cool with all blues, greens, and yellows filling in the black linework.
But one of the things I really love about this book that also makes it a good fit with this pairing is the communal aspect of it. The story goes beyond just an entrepreneurial lad making some change off of his neighbors. Tommy is devoted and loving to his job and he returns the responsibility double by making more plants for the neighborhood to enjoy. It is a sweet and warm story about caring for and enjoying nature with your community.
2. The Curious Garden by Peter Brown, 2009
I held a sweet love for this book long before we moved to NYC and especially before we grew to visit and love Manhattan’s High Line. It actually took me a few months before I realized that Peter Brown created this book as a sort of homage to the High Line. Somehow I totally missed the author’s note in the back talking about that very thing and how the High Line’s existence sparked a curiosity in him about what it would look like if an entire city cooperated with nature instead of hiding it.
But I am ahead of myself. If you aren’t familiar with the High Line, it is an old, elevated railway on the lower west side of Manhattan that was shut down in the 1980s. As it lay forgotten, nature took over and wove itself around the old rusty rails. Semi-recently, much effort has been put into it and it is highly maintained and preserved as a beautiful garden of sorts weaving through the Chelsea area up to Midtown. It has become one of my favorite places to visit and take visitors as it affords a stunning juxtaposition of city and nature intertwined.
But, The Curious Garden is not merely a story about the High Line. It is a story about a city with too much concrete and no greenery. There also was a curious little boy named Liam who one day discovered the staircase to an old, abandoned railway. He stumbles upon some forlorn colorful plants in need of some care. He worked hard to learn how to garden and the boy and the garden explored the city together until winter covered it in snow.
When spring finally arrived, Liam continued his task of gardening and following the plants as they seeped into more of the city. But he was mostly surprised to discover that he was no longer alone in gardening. His effort had brought color and life to the city and the other citizens stepped up to continue the work. This is a beautiful book about curiosity driving action and creating change beyond imagination. It is a story about one person pursuing beauty and inspiring others.
This book is early in Peter Brown’s work and although I love his newest artwork adventures most; I am captivated by the detail and city maps he created throughout the book. There are several wordless spreads that show the garden growing and they are breathtaking to pore over and feel delighted by the little, big world he created on the page. It is a lovely curious garden and sweet little boy. I think you’ll love them too. (And if you ever have a chance to visit Manhattan, make time to wander the High Line.)
3. The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes, 2015
Lastly, we have the brand new book by Emily Hughes, just out this spring from Flying Eye Books. This lovely book has gotten a lot of love over the summer and I have enjoyed sitting with it as well. There is much to see and study in Hughes’ work and I find myself still reading it over and over trying to uncover more of the meaning.
The story is about a garden that is slowly dying. It has a tiny gardener who loves it dearly and depends on it for food and shelter, but most importantly for his joy. He toils to care for it morning, noon, and night; but he is too small to make much of it aside from one beautiful flower. He makes a quiet wish for someone to help as he tires and curls himself away to sleep from exhaustion and a depressed spirit. While he sleeps, someone sees his flower. And they begin to work and bring others into the process as well. There is much surprise for the little gardener when he awakes.
I am continually amazed at the amount of foliage Hughes’ has illustrated throughout this book. There are times where it takes me a second to take it all in before focusing on the little gardener. It is such a sweet, thoughtful story about the importance of community in keeping the natural world beautiful and healthy. And I love the underlying thought that reminds us that just because something may not mean as much to us, it might mean the world to someone else. This is part of community. Caring for each other and the treasures of one another as well. And especially here, nature and its beauty affects us all.
Well, there are my three communal gardening books. I hope you found something to peak your interest and even as the season changes and nature starts to slumber, there is never a wrong time to think about caring for our community and the beauty around us. Happy reading!