The Case of a Good Book, in the Case of Laetitia Maklouf’s “The Virgin Gardener”

A review I wrote many moons ago on another blog site I created during my varsity days… Felt it fitting for this beautiful sunny day, surrounded as I am by lovely plants on my balcony… Thanks to this woman and her very special book…

There are books that hold literary merit, that leave the mind notoriously ponder-some. They go on to make for bohemian-inspired (and still ponder-some) conversations over the umpteenth glass of wine, between bored nibbles from a generous cheese spread (for the non-lactose-intolerant, of course). These are Great Books.

A good book, I think, is a slightly different cultivar. It might never make it to the dinner table or be the cause of some or other betwixt expression. And while we’re on the subject, it is very unlikely to sacrifice its heroine’s tragically pretty-but-proud head to an oncoming train.

The good book is more akin to that strange auntie with the interminable warm smile (the kind that makes her seem a little loopy, let’s be honest). Cynicism being the new ‘cool’ (‘kewl’…?) since word got out that smoking kills, we try to resist her strange brand of charm. We arm ourselves with the strategic and artful yawn, not to mention a set of opposable thumbs ready to strike at our cell phone’s keypad.

And no, we can’t possibly stay for a pot of tea, you daft bat!But our resistance is short-lived as that first sip of lovingly steeped, fragrant tea confirms that, yup, no doubt about it…what we do know is very little.

Well, Laetitia Maklouf is that daft, batty aunt (albeit in an uncharacteristically alluring package) and her book, The Virgin Gardener, is as fragrant and lovely a pot of tea as ever I’ve chanced upon.

And to think it all started with a virgin-esque flirtation of my own…

Demurely making eyes at me from the gardening section of Fogarty’s Bookshop, there was the author sitting sweet as a posy in a pair of cocktail-umbrella-pink suede boots (entering the ‘shabby-chic’ stage of their shoe-life), surrounded by potted plants, twine, and a floral hand-trowel. Unlike your usual gardening-book affair, there were no pristine lawns in sight, nor was she framed by one of those extensive vegetable gardens (you know the kind… the kind that looks like it could single-handedly supply the local greengrocer.)

virgin gardener

Instead, this smiling gardener was off-set only by a climb of concrete steps and promising “Inspiration for the first-time gardener.” Turning to the blurb at the back presented further intrigue with a pair of army-green gumboots (and the sort that have seen some genuine soil-action, no less, not those plaid yummy-mummy ones!) befriended by some (again) undeniably pink, patent leather peep-toes. This time, the book assured it would show me “how to get intimate with plants and sex up [my] living space.”

Curiouser and curiouser….

I’m a fan of the pretty and the quirky, so let’s just say that by this point Maklouf and her team at Bloomsbury Publishing were beginning to ‘ding ding ding’ like three cherries in a line-up.

But the real bait was this one single and simple promise that I will be forever grateful for:  Maklouf’s promise to offer the gift of gardening “without the complicated jargon and off-putting diagrams.” And I thank her most because –as is so often emphatically NOT the case –this was a promise made and kept.

I could pretend that such a promise would underestimate (or worse, that dreaded passive-aggressive verb: patronise!) me. But this would be a big fat lie. In fact, I’ll admit it, gardening can be a little scary, and the nursery is really just a place for people who know what they’re doing to show-off with a vast plethora of stuff that is vaguely familiar but really quite incomprehensible to me.

(Disclaimer: I know this is unfair to nurseries, and that there are many out there representing the life’s work of knowledgeable people who well-and-truly want to share it so that we can all come to know the pleasures of gardening – which feels not unlike world peace. In their defence, my fear of a choice of four different potting soils is not a rational one.)

But just like many others, I was once enchanted by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, where the sour-faced and recently orphaned Mary discovers a magical world within the walls of a hidden and neglected garden. Alright, so I didn’t have a brooding but ultimately very kind uncle/benefactor, or a pseudo-crippled cousin whom no one liked because he was a lonely but selfish boy or – now that you mention it – a cheery, heath-wandering ragamuffin prone to fancy-free banter with an inquisitive red-breasted robin…

But didn’t I, too, deserve my very own patch of earth in which to watch little green things spring up as if to say ‘peekaboo’?

77057-S3_FP164.tif

And something about this book seemed to agree with me, nodding enthusiastically Yes, yes, you do.

Upon a closer inspection, it was also apparently okay to want these things even if I didn’t remotely possess a space one could call a ‘garden’ – or, at least not unless one was liberally experimenting with the word in the broadest metaphorical sense. Contrariwise, Maklouf was revealed by the bio as “a sassy girl-about-town and self-confessed plant-murderer who fell in love with plants a few years ago […] and dreams of having a garden of her own one day.” This instantly made hers, in my (im)modest opinion, one of the most refreshing gardening books around.

It’s simple really. No matter where you live and how you live, no matter the size of your window-ledge or patch of outwardly-inclined land, The Virgin Gardener wholeheartedly confirms that you can grow your tomato and eat it.

“One perfect mouthful, one slow squeeze…one sweet explosion inside the mouth. I know everyone says it, but a tomato tastes even better if it’s home-grown”

The Virgin Gardener

By way of an introduction, the author tells of her early twenties and notions of “the Outside” at the time, as “what [she] ventured through on [her] way somewhere, usually to a party after dark.” With no particular interest in green spaces, it was only when her mother gave her a packet of seeds that Maklouf – “to alleviate the boredom of [her] office job”- planted them and became Forever After a changed woman. So changed in fact, that she quit her job the second her seedlings sprouted and enrolled on a horticultural course at the Chelsea Physics Garden in London, “instantly and irretrievably hooked on gardening.”

However, while those around her had gardens of varying (and very literal) description, Maklouf had none, and set about researching what she would have to do in order to “create the garden [she] was learning about and dreaming of: cool, damp, ferny glades; walkways heaving with scented roses; luscious banks of white gladioli […] and hidden rockeries with fuzzy, moss-covered stones.” But it wasn’t long and the initial jargon and “sheer volume of information” had already “overwhelmed her.”

Although my imagined ‘garden’ (if you’ll forgive this small misrepresentation) heaves with the scent of pots of flourishing thyme, I nonetheless shared in Maklouf’s dilemma. I had browsed through my grandmother’s gardening books and this was heavy-weight business. An officious-looking kit to test for alkaline/acidic soil so you would know to whether to buy ericaceous compost or lime… Come again? How to transform your garden into a hexagon…? Oh dear. And a great deal about all the awful things that can attack, eat, invade, and overcome your fresh attempt at a greener lifestyle.

So of course I was beyond delighted to turn the page with the heading, “How to grow plants,” and discover that Maklouf was swooning over-and-on-to the next point without any further hesitation. What had come to represent a special brand of alchemy for me was suddenly (and somewhat brazenly it seemed at first) reduced to three basic principles:

1) Find out where your plant originates (I heart you, Google!), and use a little bit of your imagination

2) Find out the hardiness of the plant. (Again here, Maklouf recommends making ample use of that clever and instinctive imagination.)

3) And I’m not even going to bother paraphrasing on this one: “Supply the plant with the following:

Water Light Nutrients”

“In fact,” she confides, “even if you don’t do 1 and 2, just do this, and your plant will grow.”And when the book does occasionally get a little on the technical side, our gardening guide is never anything if not unfailingly encouraging, reminding the reader that “plants want to grow, and [perhaps in spite of us] most of them will find a way.” “They do not have inhibitions or whimsical insecurities. They are not callous or contrary. Unlike us, they do not suffer from bad hair days or sulkiness. All they care about is survival and sex.” So while I personally like to suspect my baby basils of being absurdly comforted to see me when I come to say ‘hello’, such bouts of flagrant myth-dispelling nevertheless thrill me!

Thrill-seeking aside though, and most rewarding in the end, is that The Virgin Gardener has become a read I want to return to time and time again.

On a practical level, the book achieves its objective of “essentially a plant ‘cookbook’ of easy and accessible projects for virgin gardeners.” On an affective level though, it is not only that her tips and suggestions are “easy, inexpensive and perfect for virgins: the sort of ideas that would have seduced [a prior Maklouf herself] into an afternoon with plants.”

They seduce because, after what has really felt like countless afternoons spent with its author, I will never think of a sweetly charming violet or sexy gooseberry the same. And when my latest addition – a beautiful, young lime tree –hopefully grows to be strong and fruitful one day and produces her first limes, I will honour the original virgin gardener and “always drink [my] gin and tonic sitting next to the tree that gave [me] that lovely slice.”

Plainly, The Virgin Gardener by Laetitia Maklouf is a joy in itself, and one that has only made possible for me one small and precious joy after the other. Like The Secret Garden has continued to do after countless and age-irrelevant reads, Maklouf has woven an utterly enchanting spell and – if you read between the lines – declared hers an unequivocally and decadently Good Book.

 

maklouf and apples

 

To read more of Laetitia’s beautiful writing and handy gardening tips: http://laetitiamaklouf.com/

For more of my older blog posts on the reviewing site I was started in my varsity days…

General book reviews: http://atticdoorlovesbooks.blogspot.co.za/

Cook book reviews: http://thepantrydoor.blogspot.co.za/

Chidlren’s book reviews (the inner child in me never grew up… as they say, Don’t grow up! It’s a trap!): http://littleatticbooks.blogspot.co.za/

 

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