As the heart grows

Gardeners who follow seven principles cultivate land and souls

CorrespondentMarch 23, 2008 

  • Gardening at the Dragon's Gate

    Wendy Johnson

    Bantam, 447 pages

Spring, and the fancies of many of us turn to the garden, to mouthwatering thoughts of vegetable bounty, to the immense satisfaction of getting our hands dirty, to the anticipation of eating homegrown vegetables. "Eat locally" is the mantra today, and what could be more local than a backyard? Wendy Johnson's knowledgeable book, "Gardening at the Dragon's Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World," is just the book for us.

The dragon's gate describes Green Gulch Farm on the California coast near San Francisco, where Johnson presided over a sizable organic garden, cultivated according to Zen principles, for more than 25 years. The farm has a second name -- Green Dragon Zen Temple -- "a name," she writes, "that so deftly describes the sinuous valley of Green Gulch, which uncoils between high, dry hills like an ancient green dragon with its tail stirring the sea and its fire-breathing head held high in the mysterious clouds that rise from the coastal mountains."

Her gardening has always proceeded according to seven principles, which give structure to her book: to stay in touch with wilderness and the knowledge imparted by native plants while cultivating the domestic garden; to garden organically; to know intimately the soil in which she works; to feed the soil and build fertility in the earth as well as growing crops; to welcome diversity; to "slow down and invite the unknown, the unwelcome, and the failed into the life of the garden"; and to be generous with the garden's cornucopious produce.

Chapter by chapter, "Gardening at the Dragon's Gate" could serve as a handbook for a master gardener. But unlike the dry, factual material presented in such handbooks, the instructions that Johnson gives are often lyrical. Chapter one deals with the desirability of learning as much as possible about the history and prehistory of the garden. How was the land formed? What animals and what peoples lived there over the millennia? Johnson writes also about her teachers, both those who transmitted their gardening know-how and those who taught her to meditate and root herself in Zen practices.

The second chapter, "The Garden Makes the Gardener," explores not only botany -- parts of a plant, sprouting of seeds, functions of roots, dividing and transplanting of perennials -- but also the ways in which garden and gardener intertwine. She advocates standing still amid the plants and listening to them. "I have never met, nor hope to meet, a metaphoric garden or a symbolic plant. Gardens and plants are unmanageably alive, speaking with long grass-green tongues in their distinct language woven out of sunlight and matted roots."

"The Living Soil" offers a complete text on soil, its formation, acidity or alkalinity, chemistry, cation exchange capacity and more. These topics are treated in a seductively readable fashion. On cultivation, for example, she quotes one of her teachers: "When you cultivate the earth, you are opening the ground to starlight." The next chapter, "Tending the Garden," deals with just that -- irrigation, weeding, pruning -- with instructions to accompany each topic. Regarding weeds, she says this: "By staying close to the weeds, you can see how to work the land that you are gardening. They are made of the soil you cultivate."

Chapters on the insect and animal tenants of gardens (both pests and guests), plant propagation, garden design and the harvest follow. Her thoughts on the creatures with which we share our gardens are well worth noting: "Even though it is dangerous to your credibility as the dominant upright species in garden, the smartest thing you can do is acknowledge that you are ridiculous: you have been outmaneuvered again by a crafty masked raccoon and have stooped to vaudeville routines and Rube Goldberg devices while trying to get rid of pests."

On propagation and the harvest, she writes: "Keep a measure of seed and divisible plant material for your home garden and then give the rest of it, and all of it, away. Give with gift-bestowing hands to the lonely and the stranger, to wandering gardeners and to old friends. For the benefit of all beings, give the harvest away." She tells, too, of the schoolchildren whom she has taught not only to garden but to love gardening. And she knows that if a child grows something edible, then, by golly, no matter what it is, the child will eat it.

Many useful sidebars, highlighted by a green background, are sprinkled like seeds. They cover a fine gallimaufry of topics: making raised garden beds, making compost and composting with earthworms, concocting liquid fertilizers and garden sprays, fencing materials, designing a family circle garden, a myth about rosemary and lavender, making potting mixes, microorganisms that cause plant disease, beneficial insects, and, last but not least, recipes.

The book is made glorious by its text and doubly so by its pictures. Lithographer Davis Te Selle has contributed more than a hundred illustrations. Among them, we see a hand holding a bunch of beets, a dragonfly, a box of blackberries and a basket of potatoes, raccoons rooting through a pumpkin patch and a Buddhist sculpture beneath a bamboo stand in the farm's Altar Garden.

Johnson has given us a book that brims over with joy, wisdom and a contagious energy.

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