Garden bloggers’ book club: The Essential Earthman

Carol over at May Dreams Gardens kicked off a Garden Bloggers’ Book Club this year, an opportunity for all of us in the garden blogging milieu (I have wanted to use that word for WEEKS…) to get our hands out of the dirt and into a good book. I support this concept, not just because books are good things, but because I figure if people are only willing to recommend helpful and/or well-written gardening books, and as you can tell by reading four or five of my posts, I can use all the gardening help I can get.

I received a copy of this month’s selection, The Essential Earthman by Henry Mitchell, through the interlibrary loan program at the Iowa City Public Library. Let me just take this opportunity to put in a plug for the ICPL, which is, hands down, the best public library I’ve ever visited. The staff is friendly, the library is beautiful, the selection is fantastic, and if they don’t have what you’re looking for, they’ll get it for you. Plus, as my next-cubicle neighbor at work points out, they have a terrific train table in the children’s section. This place cannot be beat.

But this is not a post about the library. This is a post about Henry Mitchell’s work, which I had never read before. This is probably both a little bit of a travesty as well as an indication of my awareness of gardening in the past. See, I spent years reading The Washington Post, but somehow missed his columns, which he wrote up until 1991.

The Essential Earthman focuses far more on flower gardening than vegetable or fruit gardening, so I will admit that as I read through it, I felt like the exchange student at a college party – I recognized that I had a beer in my hand, but couldn’t really get into the conversations around me because they were in something of another language. But I laughed out loud when I got to “The Sour Taste of Fruit Trees,” within the chapter titled “An Edible Complex.”

Mitchell talks about the absurdity of growing a small number of fruit trees, simply based on the effort and chemical sprays required to produce healthy fruit that has not be scavenged by the local bird population. “…the point is not that the birds should starve or that people should never eat pears again, no. Rather, the point is that the gardener of this capital who has a very small garden should buy fruit at the grocer’s and should feed the birds (if that is his bent) some more sensible way than by growing fruit trees.” Besides, Mitchell points out, “where are the great flowers to go if the garden is full of wretched trees?”

I admit that I’ve had moments of wanting to plant some sort of fruit tree. It seems romantic to go out in the morning and pick some peaches to go with breakfast, or to know the figs you’re plucking from your very own tree are not going to be moldy like the ones that didn’t get bought quickly enough at the store.

I think better of the fruit tree experience, though, when I think about my cousin, who moved with her family to Grand Junction, Colorado and into a house with several fruit trees in the yard. The thought of the trees entranced me until one afternoon when I called her and got an earful about how sick of the fruit she was. “You can’t possibly eat it fast enough, so then you have to process it and can it or freeze it before it all goes bad. And it all gets ripe at the same time, and it’s all ripe when it’s too hot to be spending time canning in the kitchen.” The fruit trees pushed my even-keeled cousin over the edge, and by the next season, she’d had most of them removed.

So I’ll take Mitchell’s advice on this. I’ll leave the fruit trees to the farmers who want to grow them and have the means to make fruit happen. Luckily, here in Iowa City, we have plenty of fruit farmers around, and the summer farmer’s market was filled with local plums and peaches and plenty of melons (which don’t grow on trees, I know, but bear with me, here…). Now we’re into apple and pear season, and it’s easy to find local fruit in the produce section of the local co-op and even the larger grocery stores. As for my garden, I’ll stick to tomatoes.

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5 Responses to “Garden bloggers’ book club: The Essential Earthman”


  1. 1 Annie in Austin November 14, 2006 at 3:56 pm

    Hi Genie,

    Are you the first to make a post for the book club? [mine is still in draft] This is a cool observation, from someone who lived in Henry’s part of the world.

    I first read the book in the eighties and in spite of it, am still trying for figs. Henry was proven to be correct on the grubby peasant syndrome soon after we bought a house with several pear trees. The first year, there were so many rotten pears that we had to dig pits in which to bury them. And the numbers of yellow jackets were terrifying!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  2. 2 carol November 14, 2006 at 9:23 pm

    I’m excited to see you are reading the book and posting some thoughts about it. I have been wanting to plant two apple trees, just two, but after reading H.M.’s thoughts, I’m a bit worried that I’ll regret doing so. I’ll probably do it anyway, and then wonder what I was thinking and why I didn’t “listen” to Henry.

    And I love your analogy to being at a party but not quite knowing how to get into the conversation.

    Carol

  3. 3 inadvertentgardener November 14, 2006 at 10:06 pm

    Annie, I’m not sure if I’m the first or not, but thanks for coming by and for your comment. I’m looking forward to read your entry, too. Your story about the pears is a little horrifying, but probably one of those things that’s very funny in retrospect, eh?

    Carol, thanks for stopping by and for organizing the book club! I’m looking forward to hearing about your apple trees. I actually have two posts about the book — the other one is in the hopper for Thursday, so stay tuned!

  4. 4 rosie November 16, 2006 at 3:54 pm

    Hi Inadvertent – I think you are wise to bypass the fruit trees and leave them to the farmers. My backyard neighbor, who has a green thumb extraordinare, grows all kinds of fruit, even lemons. Each year I observe him fighting off a sorts and conditions of pests and devising schemes and traps for the squirrels and deer which often get to the fruit before he does…….and he doesn’t even have to deal with juglone! Rosie

  5. 5 inadvertentgardener November 17, 2006 at 12:46 am

    Hi Rosie! Good to see you stopping by! I agree with you…your neighbor’s experience does not sound either like much fun or like something I care to experience. No fruit trees for me!


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