An Ecology of Enchantment:
A Year in a Country Garden

by Desmond Kennedy,
256 pages,
ISBN: 000638482X

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by Brian Brett

The world of garden literature, real literature, has fallen on hard times. Lately, all one encounters are rows of pretty books with texts that could have been written by committees, books usually oriented towards a specific niche market.

Over the years the niches have become narrower and narrower. Soon, no doubt, we will be confronted with some volume entitled Time Saving Tips on Container Gardening Organic Scented Geraniums in Rosedale. Well, at least they're keeping the photo agencies in business.

I do have to admit that a hundred or so of these volumes grace my shelves. Yes, hope is eternal, especially with gardeners. It remains true, however, that evocative, thoughtful writing has been replaced with an emphasis on instant beauty and fads. Aside from a few wayward individuals exploring permaculture, organic theory, and the insidious effects of the multinationals manipulating the green revolution, horticulture has become technique-driven-the spirit, the meaning of the garden, and the sensibility having been overwhelmed.

Drive through the new subdivisions of any Canadian city and you will see one of the results of this pretty-picture approach to the landscapes we surround ourselves with: a Disneyland gaudiness that has even infiltrated once-classy showplaces, like Butchart Gardens with its high-keyed, garish colour contrasts and tacky light shows and fireworks and dancers luring in the touristas. And let us not speak of the civic gardeners employed by most communities, where gauche displays of tasteless annual beds are enough to make the dogs retch.

This lack of sensitivity, this treating of the garden as fashion statement, has also, among other things, culminated in a collector mania and passionate rush for the "hot plant of the year" that easily matches or exceeds the orchid and fern and tulip stampedes of previous ages. It makes the unseemly antics of parents hunting down the current rage in Christmas toys seem like gentle considerations of the season.

One of the most horrific stories I've heard along this line was of the death of a famed rock gardener. Her children thought it would be touching to hold the wake in her garden, inviting her friends and fellow horticulturists. When the afternoon ended, there were almost thirty rare plants missing, pulled right out of the ground and stuffed into pockets.

Recently, a nurseryman told me about being grilled by an obsessive alpine plant enthusiast, who wanted to know if a specific plant had been collected in the Himalayas. When assured that it was, the fanatic then said: "But was it collected above 4,000 feet?"

Of the current traumas over the importing of rare, exotic bamboos from China, I will not even speak.

My theory is that this lunacy has spread partly because the literature has gone out of plant literature. Opinions and moral observations, serious questions of taste, the satisfied spirit in a simple garden, all have disappeared. Even the organic gardeners and seed-savers mostly resort to discussions of technique.

There are occasional brave attempts to insert some wit and thought and judgement in the texts, notably in Brian Fawcett's The Compact Garden, with its curmudgeonly asides and its vendetta against marigolds. They are few and far between.

But there is one horticultural writer in Canada who has consistently floated sideways to the tide. Des Kennedy's first book, Living Things We Love to Hate, was well-received. A bit gimmicky, it focused on the odd things that are usually not welcome in the garden. It was a treat.

He hit his stride with Crazy about Gardening, a classic, romantic meditation on West Coast gardening that is also hilarious. This book has become somewhat legendary in gardening circles, and so it should be. Not only is it an off-centre approach to gardening, but it is also well-written.

He followed this up with The Garden Club & the Kumquat Campaign, a novel that is an amusing, perhaps somewhat slight rag on Gulf Island living and politics. If nothing else, its heart is in the right place.

His new book, An Ecology of Enchantment, to some extent, returns to the style of Crazy about Gardening. Derived from columns and occasional writings, it traces a year in the life of a Gulf Island garden-his. It's a simple format, often used before, but this simplicity is one of its endearing qualities.

Alas, the same can't be said for the prose in the first chapters. After so openly admiring Crazy about Gardening, I was shocked when I encountered this text, which often seems rushed, and worse, florid and over-written. Too much frittering around in the fritillarias. I was so shocked that I checked back to whether I had missed something in the preceding book.

No. The early chapters of An Ecology of Enchantment stand out alone for their purple prose and forced humour, as if Kennedy, unsure of his wit or trying to write too much too quickly, has adopted the amateur tactic of piling on the adjectives in the forlorn hope that more words will make it more pretty or more humorous. It doesn't work that way.

I was beginning to feel like some hopeless perfectionist trapped in a new suburb where the lots were foundation-planted with nothing but gaudy purple petunias and those outrageously yellow pom-pommy Inca marigolds that Fawcett hates so wildly.

Then, strangely, something happens, and the book settles down. He finds his stride again, the prose becomes simpler, not by much, but enough to become bright and lively once more. His meditations lose their forced quality and we are on our way. By mid-point, he is in full flower, and I found myself, once again, alternately guffawing at his wit or admiring his delicate sensibilities on the nuances of colour.

One of the glories of Kennedy is his unabashed provincialism. In a recent newspaper article he insisted that all gardeners, whether the cabbage growers of the Yukon or the survivalists of the Prairies, must celebrate their landscapes and climates as if they were the only ones that mattered. What a far cry from the old days of Canadian writers fearing to be taken for colonials. And of course, by focusing so well on his own milieu, he becomes universal, as most notable horticultural writers have done, from Sackville-West to the Zen poets of the monasteries.

Kennedy's greatest charm is his knack for combining knowledge of traditional ways, a familiarity with eminent texts (which he's not afraid to quote), and Gulf Island loopiness. Though he obviously has learned the basic principles, they haven't interfered with his ability to either spade himself in the foot, or discover some new way of looking at plants. And better yet, a new way of writing about common objects.

I once had the good fortune to attend his lecture and slide show, and what I recall best from it was his spectacular use of white, not just any white, but many naturalized white plants from the local habitat as a major foundation for his colour schemes; that, and a comment from an older, obviously more "serious" horticulturist who said of him: "What we like about your garden is that you do everything wrong." Yes, wrong, but it still works, delightfully, as does this book.

It's a charm to read, lyrical and humorous, and most delightful of all, once again there are no pictures. The word is the garden.

Now, if he'd only planted fewer of those purple petunias at the entrance. 

Brian Brett is a poet and gardener who lives in the Gulf Islands.


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