Full Steam Ahead and Damn the Torpedoes

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Even today, most garden writing in Britain is still haunted by the ghosts of Percy Thrower and Arthur Hellyer. It is nuts and bolts stuff – professionals telling amateurs what to plant or build and why and how and when. The American garden writer Henry Mitchell, however, was something else.

Above all, he was as much a writer as a gardener: and a good one. Know a man by his friends – and Mitchell’s included the novelist Eudora Welty and the New Yorker essayist E. B. White (who also wrote the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). Like Welty, Mitchell was a Southerner and proud of it. A privileged Southerner, too. Born in 1923, the son of a prominent Memphis physician, he was educated at the best schools, then at the University of Virginia, and reminiscences of his youth in the inter-war South permeated his writing until his death seventy years later. Favourite places and characters appear and reappear, like fragments of the novels and short stories he never wrote. The man who rollerskated across Texas. The tenant farmers who grew portulaca ‘in washpans and other ingenious containers on the sagging wood porches of their shacks, commonly flanked with hounds who woke up occasionally to snap at bees’. His formidable aunts, Marie Trigg and Frances Bodley. The hot tamale shop a few blocks from his boyhood home, which Aunt Frances forbade him to visit because ‘it was an utter den of utter iniquity’. The huge and beautiful sunflowers along the railway by the tamale shop, which made the visits she forbade irresistible. The holly grove into which as a young man, when working on a cotton farm one winter, he drove his first car, an open-topped Jeep, to get warm in the grove’s shelter – and as a result learned to love hollies. The house called Ashlar Hall ‘which I suppose startled people who were not expecting a Norman castle on the Tennessee-Mississippi border’, a house whose ‘châteleine was remar

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About the contributor

Faithfully following Henry Mitchell’s advice, Tim Longville attempts to surmount his despair at the state of his own garden by verbalizing about other people’s.

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