Malacology is cool

File this one under learn-something-new-every-day.

It’s not often that a book rocks my little world. Which is saying something considering I’ve been a book addict ever since the code was revealed, and now that I work part-time in a library, I cross paths with life-altering literature at least twice a week. But a few weeks ago a friend pushed book I’d never seen before across her kitchen table saying, “You might enjoy this.”


She was right. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey is a deceptively diminutive book about one of the world’s most ubiquitous and tiny creatures: a common forest snail. But I didn’t just enjoy the book. I loved it. I loved it because it’s beautifully written; straightforward and without superfluous adjectivery, yet rhapsodic. And because I learned more than I ever knew I wanted to know about gastropods.

Bailey, a Mainer and gardener rendered horizontal and practically paralyzed by a mysterious illness most likely contracted during a European vacation, was given a peculiar gift: a terrestrial snail harbored in a potted violet. Over the course of a bedridden year when she could do nothing more strenuous than watch time slip away, Bailey observed the snail go about its own life in slippery minutiae and delved into the its fascinating life history and cycle, and its impact on her life. She eventually gave it a home (in a terrarium) so welcoming it produced 118 offspring. In the years that followed the snails’ release back into the woods, as Bailey’s health allowed and improved, she researched mollusks and wrote a book that deserves a place on every gardener’s shelf. (Says a gardener with a copy she doesn’t want to give back.)

Have you read it? Do you have a newfound admiration for snails now too?

Down to earth – Give your gardener inspiration for Christmas

This Christmas your family and friends might be wondering what to get the gardener who already has everything. Because, if you’re like me, you have already amassed a shed full of tools.

You’re probably all set for bird feeders — any more and they’ll eat you out of house and home. You’ve got a birdbath too, plugged in for the winter and no need for another, and your garden might be pleasingly saturated in objet d’art as it is. I’m pretty sure you’d prefer to pick out your own seeds, and in any case, are looking forward to spending the next month or two after the holidays poring over catalogs.

But what you can never have enough of is inspiration.

There’s certainly no such thing as too many gardening books. Sure, shelf space might get tight, but I can avow that they stack quite tidily on the floor when necessary. One of the latest titles released from Timber Press rates a place of honor on your coffee table anyhow. “The Layered Garden” by David Culp is probably the prettiest book published in at least the last year or two, about one of the prettiest private gardens in this country. Exquisite photographs by Rob Cardillo, taken over the course of two years in Culp’s Pennsylvania garden, show rich living tapestries in beds and borders — even tucked in stonewall corners — that celebrate all seasons in riots of color and texture.

But it’s not just a picture book. Subtitled “Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage,” it’s also full of practical advice on exactly how to achieve those divine Brandywine layers. Even if, like me, you don’t own acres of former farmland and woods. (Though, like me, you might rediscover a deep-seated desire for garden views unmarred by telephone wires, parked cars or your own house’s vile vinyl siding.)

What makes the information accessible, no matter how big or small, urban or rural your garden is, is Culp’s writing, which is as textured as his garden, and his approach, which is hands off only in terms of not making drastic and cost-prohibitive alterations to his landscape. Otherwise he’s as hands-on as any obsessed gardener and clearly willing to spend his vacation budget on plants (he is a self-confessed plant-aholic). But he expects them to survive and thrive with minimal to nil life support in the form of supplemental watering, fertilizers and pesticides. That’s the kind of gardening I can relate to. There are even whole pages dedicated to the gorgeous critters and creepy-crawlies that call his garden home. He’s definitely my kind of people.

Andrew Keys is also my kind of people and I’m not just saying that because he’s a friend. His first book, “Why Grow That When You Can Grow This?: 255 Extraordinary Alternatives to Everyday Problem Plants,” was also just released by Timber Press and is the perfect the potting bench companion to every pretty coffee-table book we already own. The plants listed are actually eye-openers to the world of choices open to us, local and exotic.

But it’s his descriptions of the “problem” plants (some are invasive, others just high maintenance or boring) that make for wicked-entertaining reading. For instance, Henry Lauder’s walking stick, which we would plant for its sculpturally twisted branches, is, “at summer’s end … like a plant that just rolled out of bed, his leaves all shabby and rumpled.” Too true! Why not plant a contorted flowering quince instead?

What makes this book truly useful as well as inspiring is Key’s own nuts-and-bolts advice on how to choose the best plants for our gardens based on the kind of conditions (soil, light, climate) our garden has on offer. After all, the most inspiring gardens are full of carefully curated and edited plants that thrive under nature’s care.

If you already have all the weeding tools and birdbaths you need, try leaving this page open on the counter where your chef chops veggies or in the bathroom magazine basket. With any luck, this Christmas you’ll get some great ideas instead.

Head over to Andrew’s blog, Garden Smackdown in the next couple of days for a chance to win a copy!