If I have in some of my posts given the impression that I am in any way an accomplished gardener, let this post serve to dispel it. While I can recall our family having a vegetable garden when I was very young, gardening was not something that my family did. When I moved out, I lived solely in apartments that had no dirt at all and then in a little bungalow that had a garden fairly well begun before I even I arrived. It is only in the past year, since we moved into our new place, that I have had a substantial amount of space to garden and the growing desire to do something with it. Though I do love to garden, though I do want to become a better gardener, I am, at the moment, almost completely incompetent.
For example, I wrote a month or so ago that I was trying to grow sancherry bushes from seed. Having no idea how to go about this properly, I did what I usually do. I made a completely uninformed attempt to do things on my own, planted the seeds immediately and without any preparation, waited impatiently for them to sprout, and was horribly disappointed when they did nothing of the sort. I could have researched the process online, of course, and there are probably many books available at my local library just down the street, but I have a fundamental antipathy to the usual kind of approach to instructional material. They are either impersonal and dull in the extreme, or they are personal and insipid in the extreme. I have encountered only very few exceptions, and I treasure them very highly.
Fortuitously, I have just discovered a book that is just such an exception, one that serves both my purposes and my tastes entirely. My mother happened to leave it on the dining room table, a book called Growing Trees from Seed, by a man named Henry Kock, who was an Interpretive Horticulturalist at the University of Guelph’s Arboretum and the founder of the Elm Recovery Project. My mother, who worked with him at the arboretum, describes him as probably the most amazing man she has ever met, and his book is equally remarkable.
Its appeal is not in the information it provides, though it covers its subject exhaustively. Its appeal is in the way that he tells the story of growing trees from seed precisely as a story. There are some writers who introduce anecdotes in order to make a text less dull, but often in ways that seem forced and unnatural. Kock’s anecdotes are less an insertion into a broader textual structure than they are the structure itself. He writes as if he is sitting with his reader in the garden, pointing out this or the other detail of a specimen, demonstrating a particular technique, or relating the story of when he first saw a certain variety of tree. He does not lecture on the subject of trees. He narrates a passion for them, a life of dedication to them.
This sense of being alongside Kock as he works in the nursery makes the book much more than a reference volume. While it would certainly serve this purpose, it deserves to be read whole, quite apart from any immediate need for the information it conveys. It deserves to be read with the spirit that it was written, with a passion for seeing native plants conserved and reintroduced in their former habitats, with a passion that never fails to see something mystical in a tree emerging from a seed, with a passion that understand planting native species as “a nearly sacred act.” It is written by someone who knew how to honour the uniqueness of his immediate environment, and he inspires his readers to discover how to honour in this way also.