Reviews -- The Passionate Gardener

"A poet and philosopher..., Borchardt was also a gardening enthusiast.... In [The Passionate Gardener] he explores the meaning of gardens and gardening by tracing their historical evolution from the most ancient notions of the garden..."
-- Publishers Weekly

"Hobbyists beware: The Passionate Gardener is a guide to raising flowers in the same way that "Moby Dick" is an instruction manual for hunting whales. Yes, there is plenty of botanical knowledge packed into this teeming, rhapsodic, deeply humane book. Rudolf Borchardt, a German novelist, dramatist, and translator who died in 1945, was clearly an expert gardener, and his pages are strewn with practical advice: what type of soil a rhododendron needs ("free from chalk, and decidedly acidic"); what kinds of leaves should never be used as compost ("All remains from conifers, which are saturated with tannin, and poplar and plane-tree leaves ... are excluded"); how to separate weeds from seedlings ("two of the fingers of the left hand gently hold the plant itself to the ground"). But Borchardt is more than a gardener: He has that love for the mere names of flowers that betrays the obsessive and the poet. He lists breeds in Homeric catalogs, as though naming were a form of possession: "Aster gracilis, with the light of the face of a child, Salvia carduacca, the phantom sage, sand phlox and lily bushes build flickering groups and lead the way to white and yellow prickly poppies, to the yellow horned poppy, to the horned poppy in dark ochre, the sand thistle which ripens blue, the ragwort that ripens white ..." One does not need to be able to recognize all these flowers to share Borchardt's verbal intoxication...

"He is one of those writers — like Melville, or the 17th-century essayist Thomas Browne — for whom the choice of subject is almost irrelevant, since it is merely the starting point for endlessly ramifying digressions. Thus Borchardt can begin by considering a window box of blue petunias in a slum apartment — a shrunken, pitiable effort which nonetheless shows "the essence of the human garden" — and within a few pages find his way to the Garden of Eden, the Elysian Fields, Calypso's island, and the lilies of the field from the Sermon on the Mount.

"Not that his field of reference is strictly, or even primarily, literary. "The Passionate Gardener" is also a compact history of gardening, from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon — "the apex of the art of gardening as the whole of antiquity knew it" — through the nearly flowerless gardens popular in the Roman Empire, to the artfully artless flower gardens of the German Baroque, to the botanical gardens that flourished in the age of exploration. Borchardt especially admires the intrepid botanists who brought back exotic species from around the world, thus giving an example of nonviolent heroism: "Capuchins and Jesuits as missionaries, envoys to the Indies and officers, voyagers of discovery and plant collectors, all of them filled their collection bags and plant boxes in the wilds of every continent."...

"Above all, and most important for readers today, Borchardt addresses the concerns of what we now would call environmentalism. Ideally, the garden is the site where man engages nature without defeating it, an encounter Borchardt expresses as "the eternal tension between the flower and the garden. ... The order within the flower is prehuman, and governs the flower itself. The garden speaks of human modes of order, where man is master, subduer, and transformer."The key to a successful garden, he insists, is to maintain "the wealth of this tension," allowing the gardener and the garden, nature and humanity, to work in partnership....

"Borchardt's critique of the commercialization and industrialization (and, not incidentally, Americanization) of gardening runs parallel to the critiques of modernity made by many right-wing German writers between the wars.There is a potentially reactionary element in Borchardt's grievance, an implicit nostalgia for a more organic and hierarchical society. But Borchardt, to his credit, does not allow himself to be ensnared by such fantasies.

"His is finally a profoundly democratic vision: Every man should be his own gardener, he insists, the poor no less than the rich. Gardening is not a luxury, but an essential human activity — indeed, one of the ways in which we learn what it is to be human. For a reader hemmed in by concrete, with no green space to plant, "The Passionate Gardener" offers the salutary reassurance that "when times are stark, the garden too will be stark, but a garden will be there. In arid times, charged with anxiety, bleak and insecure like our own, the garden will be a sandpit, but will not be missing."
--ADAM KIRSCH, New York Sun, July 19, 2006

"Plenty of books on the market survey flowers and gardening, but THE PASSIONATE GARDENER offers something different, being a handbook and memoir from a naturalist, philosopher, and poet who is as interested in the garden as a symbol as in gardening as a talent. His discourse on flowers, botanical history, and the act of planting blends literature and science with history and offers college-level readers a broad-based survey of the psychological sociological and botanical roots of landscape gardening."

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