Discoveries in the garden by James Nardi, 2018. University of Chicago Press.
I must have reached some level of fame because a few weeks ago a copy of Discoveries in the Garden by James Nardi arrived in my pigeon hole at work. Although it contained no specific instructions as to what I was supposed to do with the book, it had the hallmarks of an item sent out for review, i.e. it contained the press release from the publisher about the book. Anyway, as surprising as it was unsolicited, this book merits attention – even if at first sight it’s not entirely clear what audience it works best for.
Its title and charming cover illustrations might suggest it is intended for the gardening community. However, chapter titles such as: Stem Cells and Meristems: Growing Up, Down, and Out; Movements of Vines and Tendrils; Plant Colors [yes, it’s American…]; and Plant Odors and Oils hint at something else, something more academic than one might expect in a ‘gardening book’. Yet, Nardi’s writing style is rather more anthropomorphic than one might expect to find in an academic text (but that’s part of its charm and one can allow it). Furthermore, it’s described on its back cover as “an enlightening romp through the natural history, science, beauty, and wonder of these essential green spaces [gardens]”. So, what is it: Gardening manual, academic text, natural history book, or what?
Arguably, Discoveries in the Garden is a bit of all of those. It aims to enlighten the reader to what plants do and maybe cause us to wonder at their intricacy, beauty and tenacity to survive. Anybody who has the capacity to be amazed by plants should get that out of it. It also holds the view that by providing understanding and explanations – where they are known, it doesn’t shy away from saying what we don’t yet know – our respect for, and understanding of, plants is thereby increased. It encourages readers to experiment as well, and see the vegetable world as a scientist does. But this isn’t just a few suggestions of ‘other activities’ you could do as some sort of after-thought at the end of the book. Oh no! This is right up-front, in your face, and looms large in every chapter except the first. Whilst experimentation and hypothesis-testing is to be encouraged as a brilliant way of understanding how plants work, I have to say that I found this a little too much for the book I was expecting this to be. On almost every page we are urged and encouraged to Observe and to Hypothesize, which moved the book far away from one to sit down with and pass some time delving into the mysteries of the botanical world. That, and the rather heavy-going chapter 4 “Energy from the Sun and Nutrients from the Soil”, which went into far too much biochemical detail of photosynthesis – the intricacies of C4 in addition to C3 – than seemed warranted in a ‘gardening text’. And that’s when it struck me who the ideal audience is for the book.
Discoveries in the Garden is the ideal companion to a more formal, traditional botany textbook. It has both the literary style of a readable ‘book’ – it tells a story in each of its plant-based chapters. It also has more than enough academic rigour to benefit undergraduates and younger students. Yet, it also contains hundreds of ideas for experiments to satisfy a legion of undergraduates undertaking projects and dissertations. By extension, Discoveries in the Garden is also ideal for those who attempt to teach those students and who can only benefit from the project or lesson ideas it contains. That’s not to say that Discoveries in the Garden isn’t suitable for a more general audience, it just seems even better as an adjunct to a more traditional textbook of plant biology.
With Discoveries in the Garden, James Nardi aims to educate and instil enthusiasm for plants and it is a spirited attempt at eradicating plant blindness (and which is to be applauded). And it’s all done with an engaging writing style – which is even better!