Garden Bloggers Book Club: Second Nature

blog-pollan.jpg For the months of February and March, the Garden Bloggers’ Book Club read Second Nature, by Michael Pollan. The book details Pollan’s attempts to grow a garden on the old dairy farm he and his wife purchased in Connecticut in 1983. When, at the beginning of his enterprise, Pollan quoted Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, I thought, “uh-oh.” In college, I, too, was heavily influenced by Walden, and tried Thoreau’s method of gardening without much success. It should be noted that Thoreau’s bean field wasn’t very successful either. At first, Pollan is a sympathetic protagonist against the various critters who want his tasty vegetables for themselves. I laughed aloud when he wouldn’t fence his garden against a marauding woodchuck. When the woodchuck nearly drives him to firebombing its burrow, he realizes he must revise some of his gardening ideals. In the process, he discovers that, at Walden, Thoreau wasn’t so much gardening as he was engaging with nature.

Second Nature was copyrighted in 1991, so I found the information on roses, although amusing and accurate for its time, quite dated. Since the late 90s, rose hybridizers and developers have moved away from pursuing only the Hybrid Tea form. More and more, they are working to create roses with great bloom, easy care and disease resistance. Pollan’s foray into antique varieties resembled my own, and I also once believed that old roses were simply better. However, after much time and investment, I can no longer agree that antique roses are especially hardier and disease resistant as a group. Old roses come from any different classes, something which Pollan touches upon in Second Nature. Some classes are more disease resistant and hardier than others. I wonder how his rose garden has fared over the last seventeen years. It would make interesting reading.

My favorite chapter was “Planting a Tree,” in which Pollan discusses the great tree movements of England and America, including their political and sociological denouements. On the American side, this is where John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau became statesman for the preservation of forests and wild places. Pollan acknowledges their contributions and expounds upon them.

Someone said novice gardeners start out planting annuals for instant gratification. Once they get a little experience under their belts, they move on to perennials and shrubs. Finally, they put down roots and think about planting trees. Trees are an investment in the future. Pollan, like all of us, isn’t sure what that future may be, but he did plant a tree, a Norway maple . He wrote:

To embark on a project that would outlast me, to plant a tree whose crown would never shade me but my children or, more likely, the children of strangers? Tree planting is always a utopian enterprise, it seems to me, a wager on a future the planter doesn’t necessarily expect to see.

This is a wager we should all take; novice or experienced gardeners, we shouldn’t wait. After going to a good nursery, be brave and ask for help in choosing the best tree for your little plot of land. (One note: I try to go to nurseries early in the morning when they aren’t as busy. As with doctors, I’ve found I get much better service when the experts aren’t frazzled.)

It takes years to realize the growth of a tree, so I would purchase the largest specimen I could afford. Once the dollar amount is announced, we should close our eyes, take a deep, cleansing breath and plunk our money down on the counter as an investment in the future. It’s an easy way to go green.


  1. Commonweeder says:

    I really enjoyed your review of the book. As a grower of old and hardy roses I didn’t much enjoy his comments about roses and rose growers. I am so happy I came to my roses out of necessity – a cold and windy site. They are beautiful and tough. Also its too bad that he planted a Norway maple that is so invasive they finally ripped them all out of Central Park in NYC and other public parks. We’ve learned a lot about invasives since he wrote his book.

    His information about roses was just his observations from stuff he read at the time, I bet. I read those same books and articles too. LOL. Now, we know better, don’t we?~~Dee

  2. kate says:

    I enjoyed your review as I did the book. Pollan now lives in California and I wonder if he ever goes back to see his tree. Reading his more recent works, I suspect he would deal with many of the topics differently now than he did in 1991.

    Thanks Kate. I liked your review too. I’m amazed at how different all the reviews are.~~Dee

  3. I’m in the plant a tree camp also, but I cringed at his choice of tree. There were so many better choices, including native maples, rather than what he chose.

    MMD, I have to honest. I don’t know that variety of maple. I do know the three maples (silver before I knew better) and one red, all split and died. I think I would be very careful before I planted another maple of any sort. I would ask lots of questions.~~Dee

  4. I just finished Susan Cheever’s book “The American Bloomsbury” which takes an unvarnished look at the Concord transcendentalist families of Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott,etc. Cheever presents my heroes as dilitants and loafers with only Emerson and eventually L. A. Alcott as responsible adults. Yes, this time around I said “Uh Oh” too! I took Second Nature for what it was – a period memoir. I do think, given the other books he’s written, that Pollan has a few more updated chapters in his gardening experience that would change the book today

    Thanks for the review.

    Kathryn, how interesting your thoughts are. I wonder how you felt about having your heroes unvarnished. It’s difficult when that happens. About Pollan, I think you’re right.~~Dee

  5. Gail says:


    Great review…and so true about a tree.


    Thanks, Gail.~~Dee

  6. Dee, Thanks for joining in the book club with this post. It’s interesting how different bloggers found different chapters that “spoke” to them. I agree, the sooner you plant a tree, the better.

    Carol, thank you for thinking of the book club in the first place. I am grateful for the chance to read what others think of the same book.~~Dee

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