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BOOK REVIEW: Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World

By Wendy Johnson Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh.

One of the good things about reviewing garden books is the variety of subjects that fit under that general description. Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate fits, but is different from any other book I’ve read for this column. Wendy Johnson, the author, is a practicing Buddhist and is also one of the founders of the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County. She’s had a lifetime of teaching Zen Buddhist meditation and organic gardening in the Bay Area.

She has skillfully woven her understanding of Buddhism and of meditation into her understandings of how to garden in a way that is both organic and ecologically sound and now shares that with us. I considered writing that her understandings about gardening were more practical when compared to her understandings about Buddhism, but I think she’d argue that point. She sees them and lives them intertwined in such a way that they couldn’t be teased out separately.

The book, part memoir and part how-to, is a little slow to start as she brings us up to speed on why she is a Buddhist. It’s definitely worth persevering, though. You might even consider it a kind of meditation as she slows us down a little so that we can experience her world as she does.

Her chapters are what you would expect to find in a good book on gardening. She covers topics such as the nature of soil—but she sees the long perspective, from the first appearance of soil in primordial times to the nature of the soil in her garden. When she discusses composting, she looks at the cycle of life to death to life again. In everything she writes, she considers her (and our) responsibility of stewardship to the earth.

Other chapters cover such topics as the art and practice of watering; dealing with weeds, diseases, pests, and guests (beneficial insects and animals); planting and propagating seeds; pruning; and harvesting. She even includes some poetry and some interesting vegetarian recipes for using the products of the garden.

Pleasing drawings by printmaker Davis Te Selle enhance the pages, and a comprehensive list of resources, including books, organizations and publications, nurseries, and seed companies follows the four hundred pages of text.

This isn’t the kind of book you will rush through for practical advice. It gently leads you to consider aspects of your garden and gardening that may not have occurred to you before. It’s the kind of book you’ll keep on your shelf for many years. As you’re looking for something else, your hand will find it, and you won’t be able to keep from opening it for just a few minutes. I can’t recommend this book too highly.

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