The Anti-Martha

June 11 1998 3:30 AM

The Anti-Martha

The late, great Henry Mitchell.

Henry Mitchell on Gardening
Houghton Mifflin Co.; 243 pages; $24

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Soon, my garden will betray me. It will seem as if one day, things are going along just fine--fresh, new leaves and flowers--and the next, I haven't finished with this, I forgot about that, I neglected this, I left that out in the rain, that should have been moved, that is overgrown, that is dead, and the weeds are taking over. Taking to bed with Henry Mitchell is the surest palliative I know. He understands that I may feel like a genius in May and a wretch by July.

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For 20 years, until his death in November 1993, Henry wrote a gardening column called "The Earthman" for the Washington Post. During his lifetime, these pieces were collected in The Essential Earthman (1981) and One Man's Garden (1992). A third, posthumous, collection of Henry's work titled Henry Mitchell on Gardening has just been published.

Henry was one of the few garden writers to admit that misery is a major operating principle in the life of the gardener, which is one "of unexpected failures and sorrows, somewhat redeemed by unexpected and utterly accidental triumphs." Devastating winds, early frosts, late frosts, killing storms, bad luck, bad timing, and general human stupidity are the norm. Over the years, I learned many things from Henry, such as the lesson of dividing up a small space to make it seem bigger; the importance of small bodies of water in a garden; and how to nurture tender plants through the winter. But mostly I learned to get over myself.

It is surely unfair to Henry, who is probably the smartest, funniest, most literate American garden writer, but I read and reread him mostly for self-help, as if he were a sort of garden shrink. I read not as much for how to do this or that in the garden as for how to be a better gardening person. He provides a sense of comfort, much like the feeling you get from a cookbook when you have no intention of making any of the dishes. He had scores of devoted readers with little or no interest in gardening.

Henry had the remarkable ability to delight in a single flower in bloom, however many weeds and catastrophes surrounded it. Because when he wrote "my garden is a mess," he meant it. The overgrown façade of his house was legendary in Washington, as were the garden's weeds, mud, and the black plastic pond tubs he never bothered to sink into the ground. The photo on the cover of One Man'sGarden shows him in front of his green, murky pond. A big piece of tape seems to hold up some vine, dead stems of which obscure his feet.

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I f philosophies of gardening were on a continuum, on one side you'd find Henry, the cynical optimist, and on the other Martha Stewart, the stern gardening Übermensch. He would have hated her, and she would be appalled by him. In Martha's charmed garden world, there are no weeds and no storms. Plans are made, schedules followed, and order kept. Martha's picture-perfect house porn engages your fantasy life while you peruse, then makes you feel bad afterward.

Henry never wagged his finger at you saying now is the time to do such or other. How could he? He was one of us, forever late--ordering his bulbs, planting them, moving them, or bringing in his tender plants for winter, and lugging them out again in spring. (He was never sure how someone who hated houseplants as much as he did could end up with a living room so full of plants each winter that it was impossible to walk or sit anywhere without being poked.) He recognized that the best-laid plans often fail and that the surest way to make a plant thrive was to plant it where it didn't belong. Sometimes even his beloved irises refused to bloom. His garden was plagued with bindweed. He didn't let it get him down.

To Henry the garden seemed the ideal place to witness the charms and vagaries of the natural world. He was coyly gleeful about how lucky we are to toil in this chaos: to see the early snowdrops pushing up from the snow year after year or some flower graciously volunteering where you never would have been clever enough to plant it; or just to watch a couple of dragonflies having sex on a hot summer day. (He rigged up a landing strip for the dragonflies at the edge of his pond after seeing one drown.)

In print and in life, Henry was as amusing as he was easily amused. He would entertain the Post newsroom (where I worked) with his stories--his rough, sonorous voice; his slow drawl; his erudition and love affair with the language; his cigarette ash building up until it rolled, unnoticed by him, down the front of his shirt. He always acted as if he were getting away with something or sneaking around like a mischievous child where he didn't actually belong.

It's not that Henry was soft on things. On the contrary, he could be quite cantankerous. He reproached the much beloved garden at Dumbarton Oaks for its limited plant palate, especially what he referred to as the "forsythia mess"--a hillside covered in the yellow, early spring flowering shrub that others consider a bold sweep of color. He had little patience for people who want their flowers to be foolproof and in continuous bloom. A foolproof flower, such as the stiff, relentless black-eyed Susan, can never break your heart. Henry liked flowers that could "make a lady squeal." He loved his bearded irises, old roses, and peonies. He thought they bloomed for just the right length of time, smartly disappearing before you can tire of them. If you bemoaned that a particular rose only flowered once a year and for such a short period, he would advise you to take a vacation from work in order to stay at home and watch it bloom. He did.

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