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As promised, here’s a follow-up to Ruth Kassinger’s guest rant.  She wrote the very popular Paradise Under Glass and now A Garden of Marvels, which was published just this week.

I don’t review many garden books because I passed the learning-to-garden phase years ago and of the few books I try, I rarely like one well enough to recommend it.   But Ruth doesn’t write how-to books; she’s a storyteller.  (Like our Amy.)  And stories, if they’re this well written, I enjoy.

A Garden of Marvels is subtitled “The Discovery that Flowers have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of the Way Plants Work” and that’s a tip-off to the good news that this is no Botany for Gardeners, which was about as readable as an outdated textbook.  (Sorry!)

In contrast, A Garden of Marvels is thought-provoking and a delight to read, and the reviewers seem to agree.  Some of my favorite parts of it cover:

– How early scientists gleaned their misunderstandings of how plants work through reason, rather than observation, an approach that was “embraced and interpreted by the medieval Catholic Church and then the late-medieval universities.”  Thus, knowledge of botany progressed not at all from the third century B.C. to the 17th century!

– The “extreme gardeners” who compete to grow the largest pumpkin use gardening tips unknown to us regular gardeners:  “So, many growers cap their emergent female flowers with a plastic cup or a sock – a sort of pumpkin condom – so that some randy flower on some loser vine won’t knock up their pedigreed virgins.”

– I’m considerably more respectful of roots after reading that: “It takes an extensive root system with trillions of bacteria supplying billions of root hairs to gather sufficient nitrogen, as well as water and other minerals, to support even a small plant.”

– The search for a perennial substitute for the easy-to-harvest but resource-intensive annual wheat species that dominates agriculture.

– The “amazing grasses” that may be the biofuel of tomorrow, especially Miscanthus giganteus, which grows to 15 feet tall and produces twice the biomass per acre as switchgrass.

– The chapter on “Cheap Sex” that sent me to this Youtube video of a bee “pseudocopulating” with an orchid.

– The author’s own journey from writing poetry to international reports for federal agencies and finally to freelance writing anything and everything that needed to be written.  But with a growing portfolio, mere pamphlets turned into books, especially science books for young readers, and finally two plant-centric books for adults.  And what she’ll do next is anybody’s guess.

– And why Ruth Kassinger is an indoors-only gardener. “No outdoor gardening with dog’s-breath heat and humidity, murderous mosquitoes, and horrible hundred-legged beasties for me.”  But Ruth, how do you really feel about the outdoors?

Win a  Copy

Just leave a comment here and we’ll choose one at random to receive a copy of A Garden of Marvels.  Contest ends Friday March 7.

Ruth’s Famous Greenhouse Revealed!

After reading the book I boldly contacted the author to invite myself to meet her on her home turf so that I could see her “paradise under glass.   Hey, it was January and I  needed a plant fix – at least that was my excuse.  And it turns out that her version of a greenhouse is prettier and more homey than the usual type because it’s a large addition that flows naturally into the living room but can be closed off to retain moisture and the right temperature.  Here’s a quick video, followed by photos.


Ruth sent me home with kumquats and Meyer lemons.  They’re so much tastier than the ones shipped up from Florida in winter.

Posted by

Susan Harris
on February 28, 2014 at 7:43 am, in the category Science Says.