Book Review: Back In The Garden With Dulcy

Back In The Garden With Dulcy: The Best Of The Oregonian Garden Writer Dulcy Mahar, compiled and edited by Ted Mahar

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Carpe Diem Books in exchange for an honest review.]

Dulcy Mahar, longtime weekly gardening columnist for The Oregonian, died after a long battle with cancer before I moved to the Portland area. This book was compiled as a labor of love by her widower, with a thoughtful memoir at the beginning of the book that is deeply moving and also humorous. The resulting book shows that Mrs. Mahar likely would have been someone I would have enjoyed reading and perhaps even getting to know, despite the fact that taking care of a brown desert terrarium is about the extent of my ability of taking care of plants, and that my tastes in gardening, such as they are, tend to revolve mostly around my logistical concerns about food supply, even if I do appreciate the beautiful gardens I have had the chance to see from time to time [1]. This is a book filled with enthusiasm and self-effacing humor, and a great deal of candor about plant lust, the delicate tension that results from artistic relationships with others of a different vision, or the social life of people who are plant lovers, which resembles the social life of anyone with a peculiar interest—long conversations with people who share the interest and a lot of bored people who simply do not understand one’s passions.

In terms of its contents, this book is made up of about 150 gardening columns liberally sprinkled with photos, many of them by the Dulcy herself, divided into several parts. First there come the acknowledgements, forward, preface, and introduction filled with appreciation for the author. After this the book is divided into eight unequal sections that feature columns on plant lust, the gardener in the reader, garden design, diseases and snakes and slugs, the restless months of winter, mistakes, mishaps, and do-overs, shrubs and trees, and the Dulcy touch. There are lots of comments about traveling to see gardens, about Dulcy’s plebian tastes, about kitschy items like pink flamingos straight out of Florida and garden gnomes, cats, and candid and humorous comments about the author’s spontaneous and experimental ways when it came to plants. The writing is full of gentle, witty humor and sometimes ironic barbs, and it is clear that those who read this column regularly felt like they knew the author and appreciated the person behind the weekly columns, even if many of the same stories are referred to over and over again, like the teenager who put too much fish fertilizer just before an open garden party, or the author’s bad experiences with aphid pee. Gardening is not for the overly delicate, those afraid of butchering slugs, for example.

Among the most beautiful aspects of this book is the way that Dulcy shows herself in her articles to have been a friendly neighbor, unless one stares at her mistaking her for a bag lady or doubling the amount of cats while gossiping with others—one never slanders writers, their pen or keyboard makes for lasting and painful vengeance—and also a warm mentor for others wishing to garden, such as her comment that “a novice gardener is to be nurtured and treasured like a fledgling chick, not someone to be left out of the “in” group (85).” Her candor and warm humanity made her a friend not only to gardening, with her wide knowledge, but also a friend to gardeners who could admit their own struggles with particular plants, or their own laziness in letting their dahlias run rampant year after year, to use an example at random. It is a shame that there will no longer be any articles from this dear woman and witty columnist, but for those of us who did not get the chance to meet her, at least we can read the articles of hers collected here, and carry on that imaginary sort of friendship that all too easily happens between those who write well and those who enjoy reading, even if they are more than a little bit timid about gardening itself.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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