10 December 2007

Gardener's Library: Playing in the Sandbox

Tis the season to be really, really busy, both with deadlines and with other obligations leading up to Christmas. And wouldn't you know it, tis also the season to get clobbered with a cold or flu or somesuch crud. So because we're in the Christmas shopping mode, I've decided to run a few reviews of books I particularly like and recommend.

Among the bookshelf full of garden writers I consider both informative and inspiring, Mark Cullen is near the top. Although I’ve never met him, and would probably fall down murmuring, “I’m not worthy” at his feet, I feel like I’ve talked with a good friend whenever I read anything he’s written. Pithy, funny, wise and pragmatic, Cullen loves gardening, and loves being a garden communicator, a person who encourages others to bloom where they are planted.

With A Sandbox of a Different Kind, his latest book, Cullen takes a departure from his usual ‘how to garden’ volumes. This little book holds 52 short essays—one for every week of the year—essays that are less about how to garden than about the wherefore and why of gardening. Cullen calls them lessons learned from family, friends and other gardeners over his 25-year career. He calls it a celebration of our collective horticultural history, a way to look back at the past and consider the future.

In numerousreviews over the years, I’ve made mention of the style of garden writing that most appeals to me; the down-to-earth (pun intentional), easy-going conversational type that encourages others, and doesn’t talk down to them. Mark Cullen has perfected this style, and though I don’t see him on television or hear him on radio, I ‘hear’ his voice as I read the short essays.

The essay topics are many and varied. One muses on the gift of sharing perennials with others. Another talks about using apples to create “green energy”, while another stresses that there is no such thing as failure in the garden, “just good composting opportunities.” Some chapters are poignant to the point of making the reader a bit weepy, as with his story about a favourite shovel given to him by his father. Others will make readers chuckle, and all are pretty much guaranteed to make us think about the joys of gardening. As he observes in quoting another writer, one of the reasons gardening continues to become more popular is that “Hope is in insufficient supply these days.”

Not all the pieces are philosophical: some are very practical, whether discussing how to go on an open garden tour (or to host one), enlightening the reader about that living concoction known as soil, or contemplating the value of native plants in the garden.

One of my favourite chapters talks about being a small-O organic gardener. Cullen does use some synthetic garden products to control weeds, and a type of non-organic lawn fertilizer that he really likes for being organic-based and very slow-release. He reminds us that just because something is “natural”, that doesn’t mean that it’s safe, offering as examples several poisonous plants as well as the natural—but very toxic—nicotine sulphate, a formerly-used pesticide.

“…Any policy based purely on black-and-white thinking is dangerous,” he says. Given some of the discussion we've seen lately on neighbourhood covenants, native plants, and other hot-trigger topics, I couldn’t agree more.

Cullen is a gardener who cares deeply about the world around him. Even the publishing of this book reflects his caring and commitment. A dollar from the purchase of each book goes to SHARE Agricultural Foundation, a volunteer-driven charity that works in Central and South America to provide “a hand up, not a hand out” to others. The book has been printed on environmentally friendly paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and created using biogas energy. Cullen even breaks down the results of using this paper:
“Based on a print run of 10,000 books, the following resources were saved… 51 trees, 36 million BTUs of energy, 4, 482 pounds of greenhouse gases, 18,603 gallons of water, 2,389 pounds of solid waste.”

I really like that he doesn’t just play at being green, but actually works at it.

A Sandbox of a Different Kind is the sort of book that we should have several copies of: one for our own library, and a couple to give as gifts to people we care about. It’s a book that I’ll keep near to hand for those days when the goutweed irritates me or a favourite rose has died—to remember that there are no failures in gardening, but there are countless joys.


  1. Oh Jodi I hate to hear you have been puny. A terrible inconvience this time of year of Parties and deadlines.

    I almost hate for you to be doing these wonderful book reviews. I don't have much disposable income now days. I guess that is what I get for retiring at 44. I won't complain...much, tho because I love my life. I just always want all the good stuff like book, plants and more books and plants and more plants and books. :)

    I know you are keeping busy but stay warm and get healthy.

  2. Thanks for both book reviews I've enjoyed reading them and both books sound as must haves to me. ;-)

    For me the winter season is partially the dream-gardening season as I am able to garden all year round. How? Well, all is revealed on Bliss today. ;-)

    I forgot to mention earlier that I love that 1000 pound kid of yours prancing and dancing in the snow. He's gorgeous, I'm jealous. ;-)

    BTW I love that expression: that failure in the garden is just a good composting opportunity. :-)

  3. Jodi, great review. This book sounds right up my alley. Up until reading your review, I was only familiar with his how-to books. I used to watch him faithfully on TV but we no longer get that channel so I haven't been able to watch him in ages. I always enjoyed his "down-to-earth" style and enthusiasm. I didn't realize his stand on, "...purely on black-and-white thinking is dangerous,” -- boy am I pleased to learn that! That's just exactly how I feel about nearly everything. I'll have to put this one on my "to-be-purchased" list. Thank you,

    Diane, Sand to Glass

  4. Jodi: I'm going to have to check out these two books! More for the library!

  5. Jodi - is Cullen Canadian? I've never heard of him or encountered his books. Now I have to seek them out. I too love that euphemism "composting opportunities."

  6. Thank you Jodi for a great review it's a perfect tip for Christmas.
    Very good last sentence - 'Remember that there are no failure in gardening, but there are countless joys', brilliant.

  7. You do make Playing in the Sandbox sound like a great read, Jodi - and although I can't buy it right now,it can go on the someday list.

    I also appreciated the way you put "“…Any policy based purely on black-and-white thinking is dangerous,” in bold text.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  8. I was so excited about the "Sandbox" book I immediately went to Amazon.com and lo! they don't have that book. I could not find anyplace to get it. I really want that book for my best friend (and I wouldn't object to one for myself, of course). Where can I get it? Where did you get it? I haven't tried brick and mortar stores yet. That must be the problem -- I need to go out. Hmmm.
    I love your blog, read it all the time and send people to it when I can.

  9. I found it at Black Bond Books (Canadian online bookstore). Thanks for responding.

  10. One more spate of replies before I retire to bed with the Buckleys and Riccolo....
    Thanks for the get well wishes, Lisa. And with the books, perhaps your local library will have them, or at least the Whiteside one. Or you can get used ones via Amazon, etc. (I'm lucky...I get sent books to review.)
    Yolanda, Leggo is a cutie...naughty by times, though it was the donkey who got out after Leggo opened the lower strand of the gate yesterday....
    Diane, I don't watch garden shows, but I like Cullen's writing style and encouraging way of being.
    MMR, yes, Mark Cullen is Canadian; you can see his website at www.markcullen.com. Composting opportunities abound, don't they?
    Tyra, exactly, countless joys in the garden are what it's all about!
    Annie, there are just so many books, for sure...I have some on MY someday list too. And yes, I get cranky about absolutism in most things, but especially in gardening.
    Cathy, thanks for the note, and I'm glad you found the book afterwards at an online bookstore. The annoying thing about shipping books to the US is that our freakin' postal service charges absurd amounts. But it's not a heavy book, so it shouldn't be too bad!

    There, it's time to take the Buckleys, and hit the hay! Thjank you to everyone for taking the time to write.


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