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The Gardener’s Year
by Yvonne Cunnington
by Yvonne Cunnington

I am a garden writer and photographer living near Hamilton, Ont. My articles have appeared in Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Canadian Gardening and Gardening Life magazines. My book for beginner gardeners, Clueless in the Garden: A Guide for the Horticulturally Helpless (Key Porter Books) was published in 2003.

My husband and I tend a large country garden, which has been featured on TV’s Gardeners Journal and in Gardening Life magazine. We have had numerous bus tours visit our garden.

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March 22, 2002

While reading Eric Grissel’s excellent Insects and Gardens (Timber Press, 2001) I was intrigued to come across a book titled A Gardener’s Year, which Grissel describes as “possibility the best gardening book ever written.” The author Karel Capek was unknown to me, but given such high praise, how could I resist? Through an search, I soon found a good used copy so I could to see for myself.

Karel Capek(pronounced Chop-ek), I discovered, was a Czech writer and man of letters born in 1890. Capek is known for coining of the word “robot” from the Czech robota, meaning work, in a play about robots taking over the world. Another of his dramatic works The Insect Play was performed to acclaim in London and New York. The Gardener’s Year was published in 1929. (Modern Library has just brought out a new English edition for spring 2002.)

By the late 1930s, Capek was working tirelessly to use his influence and international connections as a leading Czech writer to forestall the German takeover of his country’s border regions near Germany. His health failing, he died of influenza on Christmas day in 1938, just months before Nazi tanks would invade of his beloved country. Had illness not taken him at that time, he undoubtedly would have met the same fate as his artist brother Josef, who died in a Nazi concentration camp.

Capek was evidently also a passionate gardener and in The Gardener’s Year (with clever line drawings by Josef), he celebrates gardeners in all their contradictions. Anyone who has gardened or loves someone who does will laugh in recognition. There is the bum in the air – why should a gardener even have back, Capek asks. Would it not be more practical to be some kind of invertebrate? 

The book is made up of a series of humorous and wise essays that take us from January, the month when gardeners have little else to do but “cultivate the weather,” through the adventures of the growing season with all its highs and lows. 

There is April, when the gardener pot in hand “runs around his little garden twenty times looking for an inch of soil where nothing is growing.” Soon, there is the fretting that starts after a week of fine days, when “we look anxiously at the sky and say to one another as we meet, ‘It ought to rain.’” Of course, the terrible peony smashing downpours of June follow: “Next day the newspapers describe the catastrophic cloud-burst which has caused terrible damage to the new crops; but they do not say that it has caused heavy damage especially to the lilies, or that it has ruined the Papaver orientale. We gardeners are always neglected.” 

In summer there is the experiment with the vegetable garden, quickly abandoned in favor in of the local farmers market: “In due time it was obvious that I must crunch every day one hundred and twenty radishes, because nobody else in the house would eat them; the next day I was drowning in savoys, and then the orgies in kohlrabi followed… There were weeks when I was forced to chew lettuce three times a day, to avoid throwing it away.” 

Through the book, the passing of time provides a poignant undercurrent to the gardener’s days. “What a pity, my sweet beauty (I am talking of flowers), what a pity that time is so fleeting; beauty comes to an end, and only the gardener remains,” he writes, adding with some truth that “the gardener’s autumn begins in March with the first faded snowdrop.” 

However, gardeners who get depressed each autumn contemplating the onslaught of winter would do well to match Capek's optimistic outlook. For him this is a time of promise because it already embodies the coming spring: “Leaves wither because winter begins; but they also wither because spring is already beginning, because new buds are being made, as tiny as percussion caps out of which the spring will crack.”

Capek's understanding of gardeners’ psychology (or is it our psychopathology?) is astute: “We gardeners live somehow for the future,” he declares. “If the roses are in flower, we think that next year they will flower better; and in some few years this little spruce will become a tree—if only those few years behind me! I should like to see what those birches will be like in fifty years….the best is in front of us. Each successive year will add growth and beauty. Thank God that again we shall be one year farther on!” 

So gardeners: be careful what you wish for. We will soon all be a year older in any case. And if we’re lucky, we’ll be there in 10 and then in 20 years to marvel at how the saplings we planted last year have grown. 

Yvonne Cunnington is a garden writer from Ancaster, Ont., who can't wait to see what the 50 bare root trees she and husband planted last year will look like in 20 years. 

Yvonne Cunnington© All rights reserved. 


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