Book Review: Mentors In The Garden Of Life

I’ve always had a green thumb, and I’ve always wondered from where did it come?  Is it something that sits quietly on a strand of DNA, inherited through the millennia courtesy of an ancestral gatherer, Neandernittygritty erectus?  Or is it something learned, passed down through several generations – a horti-oral tradition, if you will?  Or is it information picked up and shared along the gardening path?  Is it perhaps a combination of all three theories?

These were the questions rolling around in my head when I was introduced to an amazing memoir, Mentors In The Garden Of Life, by Colleen Plimpton.  In short, if I ever write a book, this is the book that I would love to write.

In a style that is both poetic and insightful, Ms. Plimpton takes the reader down her own personal gardening path, from her childhood years in rural upstate New York to present day Connecticut.  Every chapter reads like a wonderful short story, each one dedicated to a family member, friend, colleague, someone who not only had an impact on her as a person, but as a gardener, as well. 

I especially appreciate the author’s efforts to not only share her life but to connect her tributes with a particular plant.  Chapter 3, for example, is about Ms. Plimpton’s grandfather, William Kennett and an apple tree.  When the young Colleen and her siblings were climbing the tree, they decided to mark their branch by peeling off the bark, only to be caught by Grandpa.

She writes: “Grandpa spoke slowly.  ‘You’ll kill this tree with your shenanigans.’  He pulled his bandana handkerchief out if his back overalls and wiped his brow.  ‘I don’t think you want to do that.  Each branch needs to be connected to the trunk; it breathes through the bark.  What you’ve done here, you’ve stopped this branch from breathing . . . I know you kids can figure out a way to play without a hurting a tree that’s older than the lot of you together.  Now do it.  Make me proud.’”

A teachable moment before there was such a phrase – and it’s a lesson that has lasted a lifetime for the author.  To finish each chapter, Ms. Plimpton then adds a page or two of facts about that chapter’s particular plant.

The gift of the book is more than just words on a page or lessons shared.  Mentors In The Garden Of Life also triggered my own thoughts about my green thumb and the design of my own gardening path.

I wondered about the gardens planted by my ancestors when they first set foot in North America in 1675.  What did they grow?  What hardships did they face?

I thought of my grandmother’s garden in Queens, NY, a rectangle of dirt surrounded by patio bricks.  I remember hyacinths and petunias and wooden cutouts of a Dutch boy and girl and azaleas.  And then I “saw” the azaleas in my grandmother’s neighbor’s yard.  They were huge.

I had flashes of my grandfather’s garden in Louisiana, and the vague sense of him talking to his fruit trees, patting their branches.  I do believe he spoke a special language with his plants and his animals – and they spoke back.

If each chapter in Mentors In The Garden Of Life is a single stepping stone, when taken as a whole, they are a beautiful garden path – but it’s a path that’s still being built.  As gardeners, we are still always growing.  As humans, we are always learning.  And we never know when a mentor enters our life – we just have to know how to listen.

Colleen Plimpton, who is a retired social worker and now a garden communicator, knows how to listen.  And thanks to her, she and her mentors have become my mentors, as well.

16 thoughts on “Book Review: Mentors In The Garden Of Life

  1. I do think genetics has a part in it. In fact, I think we are all genetically engineered to become gardeners, if given a plot of ground and the incentive or opportunity. The book sounds like a good read. The teachable moment with the tree reminds me of when I caught my boys climbing a young Japanese maple. I fussed at them, but I don’t think they learned anything except to do it when I wasn’t watching!

    • Deb, I’m not sure if I should chuckle or weep over the story of your boys in the Japanese maple. Probably a little of both. I agree that genetics must play a role for some of us, and maybe a little of the traditions that are passed down — which is why your boys will “get it” eventually. 🙂

  2. This book sounds great. I know behind every gardener there is someone who taught and grew and coached and passed on all that garden happiness. For me it is my mom.

    • It’s an amazing book, Elaine. And I think what I love the most about it is that it is one woman’s love story and personal journey — a true gift to gardeners everywhere. Enjoy!

  3. I agree with Elaine…. and for me it was both my mom and my grandmother, although we each have had our own very different gardening styles and plants. The book sounds like a wonderful read for a rainy day… it’s definitely going to make it on my Wish List!

  4. I was ‘dragged’ as a child, moaning and muttering under my breath, to what seemed to be every garden centre on the planet to get ANOTHER conifer! My parents obsession puzzled me & drove me a little nuts (which in itself explains a lot!!). Still, I guess that’s where the passion for gardening came from.

    • Maybe it’s wasn’t the garden center but more the fact that you were dragged. Getting dragged anywhere wouldn’t be fun — but the chance to wander and get lost in a garden center — now that’s fun!

  5. Gardening brings back such wonderful and warm feelings of my childhood that although I am not a very good gardener it is still a passion. On both sides of my family they were wonderful gardeners and had to be to eat throughout the year. We all got together when it came time to planting a huge potato garden each year. Grandpa and I would always be the ones to hoe the dirt back over the potatoes and make the hills. Each year when we finished he would always hit his hoe against my hoe and say “now we will be planting potatoes together next year”. 🙂 Today it is a lovely memory of gardening with him.
    Sorry to run long.. The book sounds like a wonderful read and one that I would enjoy.

    • Lona, that is a wonderful story. Very sweet — and a lovely memory. Thanks for sharing it. (And for the record, you are a very good and passionate gardener — I’m just saying.)

  6. What a good book review…for a really interesting book. I know I’d enjoy reading this. I know I am at least influenced by early memories of my family working in the garden. I would say this is particularly true of vegetable garden. My grandparents and great-grandparents introduced me to the joy of an early summer tomato, and I think from that point on I was a little hooked. I am so glad you shared the book, as well as a little bit more about yourself! Debra

    • Debra, glad I was able to conjure up some happy memories. Gardening touches all of the senses, which seems to make our recollections so much richer. Hope you find some time to enjoy the book.

  7. Sorry for being absent for such a long time, I am slowly trying to catch up with things, visiting your blog included 🙂

    Kevin, you are one of my favourite bloggers, so I want to nominate you for the Illuminating Blogger Award for illuminating, informative blog content.
    Here are the details:

    Awards like this one are a nice way link blogs and meet other bloggers 🙂

    Take care.

    • Helene, I now have to offer you my apologies. Your comment somehow ended up in a spam folder — which I had neglected — until this moment. So I have rescued you from spam and I wanted to thank you for this award. I will get on this ASAP!! Thanks for your kind words and support — and I hope you know I feel the same about your site. Be well!

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