The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Garden Read: Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Essay on Gardening by Henk Gerritsen

I first discovered Henk Gerritsen when I read Dream Plants for the Natural Garden, a book he coauthored with celebrated Dutch plantsman and garden designer, Piet Oudolf. I have been following his work and writing ever since. Henk Gerritsen was also a Dutch garden designer with decidedly wild tastes. He had a dry wit and a love of nature. He started his career as a biology teacher and became interested in gardening after visiting the garden of Mien Ruys in 1976. Ruys was major force in Dutch garden design. She was known for using a simple palette of plants that had structural form combined with a very modernistic bent in design. He said visiting her garden " was a culture shock, a slap in the face. Although the bold combinations of deep blue delphiniums, bright orange Alstroemerias, vivid yellow Ligularias and pink-reddish phloxes hurt my eyes, which were accustomed to the pastel colours of nature, I still found it fascinating to see: this was not a baboon's bum, this was art. I had never realized that something like this was possible with plants. I wanted to do this as well. But then differently." Two years later, he began gardening at Priona Garden, the parental home of his partner, Anton Schlepers.

His first tentative title for the book was Playing Chess with Nature. The idea being that when gardening, humans are playing a game of chess with nature. "They can only settle for a draw instead of being checkmated. Winning is not an option, and cheating is altogether useless: at best, the latter will result in a Pyrrhic victory and ultimately a devastating defeat." The gardener needs needs to come to terms with this fact and work with, not against, nature.

The book is a series of essays that describe Gerritsen's philosophy on gardening and the journey it has taken him on. It is divided into three main sections: Inspiration, Garden Ecology and Building Blocks of a Garden. Every section is filled with beautiful photographs that illustrate each topic superbly.

In the Gardening Ecology section, Gerritsen recommends "gardening like a cow." By that he means "grazing" or pulling the weeds "without attempting to remove the roots from the soil. When plants have to keep putting energy into creating new offshoots, their hearts literally sink into their roots and...the soil is not disturbed. Because if there is anything that encourages the growth of perennial weeds, it's the constant disturbance of soil." Practical advice prescribed with a deadpan delivery. Gerritsen also has some excellent advice garden design and the appropriate placement of exotic plants in a the garden.

Essays on Gardening is a very timely book that I believe will become a garden classic. It is written in an original and often humorous voice and is filled with practical information and stunning photographs. It gives excellent advice on garden design and the appropriate placement of exotic plants with a cutting edge gardening philosophy about plant ecologies. At the end of the introduction, he says "I will no longer be at a loss for words when someone asks me for the umpteenth time to explain what kind of garden I have... now I can refer all inquiries to this book." Henk Gerritsen died in 2008, several months before the book became available in English in the United States. Lucky for us, Essay on Gardening is here to answer our inquiries.


  1. Michael:
    Seems I just get one book finished, and there is another one waiting in the wings.... thanks for the suggestion!

  2. I've wanted to read this book but, with the long list I have, and the rather high price, haven't gotten it yet. Your review is helpful. I wonder if Henk's advice about pulling weeds will work for Rosa multiflora. Thanks.

  3. Teza,
    Essay on Gardening would be a fine compliment to Rick Darke's edition of Robinson's The Wild Garden. I wrote this post when it was cold and raining. This looks to be a warm and sunny weekend-hard to imagine finding time to read now!

    I'm sure you would appreciate Gerritsen's sensibility. It belive it would be very consistent with your gardening philosophy. Keep it on your list. Howver, I don't think "gardening like a cow" will work with Rosa multiflora very quickly!



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