Kathryn Rathke
Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest
Valerie Easton
(Sasquatch Books) $19.95

Valerie Easton's new book, Plant Life, is a collection of pieces from her gardening column in the Pacific Northwest magazine of the Sunday Seattle Times. Its contents are organized by season and by month, with a variety of two-page instructive and personal essays on gardening. Twelve "Now in Bloom" sections feature stunning photographs of perfectly efflorescent plants in the author's own garden.

This book looks ordinary: The cover sports a garish photograph of lavender hydrangea blooms, its spine is green, and the title says exactly what the book is about, the life of plants. It's the sort of book that seems, on the surface, particularly useless and frivolous to the typical apartment dweller or tight-budgetedhouse owner. But because of its subject matter, and its keen dedication to that subject matter, the book transcends this very limited view of its purpose.

Plant Life is revolutionist material--made widely available by SasquatchBooks--a manifesto/manual that nudges the actions of Pacific Northwest gardeners toward a more organic, chemical-free, and natural approach to gardening.

Large amounts of Pacific Northwest capital are traded to create urban legends, exchanging currency for potential. Adding in extreme amounts of dedicated workmanship, we've got a one-man economy of perfection, designed around the pleasures of production, of land-keeping, of space-hoarding, of primping, of dreaming, of domestic discoveries, of secret-trading, and of endless maintenance. Constant removal and replacement. This is the "natural gardener."

Easton never overtly states her terms and her tastes, but defines them by describing what her kind of gardening is not: It is not indigenous, nor is she concerned with a return to any native Eden. She is, on the surface, just concerned with experiencing the widest variety of fragrance, texture, density, and color available to her in her climate. But the pleasure she derives from honest hard work--research and muscles and tools and blunders and experiments--is what makes her a natural gardener of the first order.

Natural gardeners, as a group, can achieve unity not only through communion with the great cycle of events, or with their meetings and programs and conventions, but now with this new text, Plant Life. You may know them: the plotters and the soilers. The horticulturists and horrible cultured botanists. The urban outdoorsmen, the radical, miniature creationists. They fall and rise with the seasons, grow to full power in spring. Green-thumbing their way around day beginnings and day ends, natural gardeners dream up the perfect space in which to hunker down and reflect upon the natural. Natural gardeners design the natural to contemplate the natural.

The natural gardener is an essential, ubiquitous presence in her own garden; the realization of her ideal garden requires constant work. It is ever evolving, requiring perpetual revision. She is both the author of and a character in her entire one-acre plot. She breathes life into the design, allows its mutability under certain conditions, keeping a careful and close watch on its natural course. It is the act of gardening, of designing, and of enjoying what makes this natural space a garden. A natural garden without perimeters and without a gardener is no garden. The act of its creation--an interminable endeavor-- defines it.

The natural gardener is the conservative, high-end cosmetologist of the natural world. She is old-fashioned but innovative in her nomenclature, upholding traditional sexual stereotypes in her selection of names. Her garden is overrun with the love-lost pinks, the lovelorn pastels, bold and determined red figures. Repetitive romantic melodramas are fated by pruning shears or bad weather.

They hybridize perfect combinations of fragrance, color, and delicacy in order to shade, line, or decorate with these manufactured exotics. The perfect space emerges. Water this wall three times a week. Dig deeply in this footrest for largest shoots and leaves. Plant yourself into the subterranean metropolis.

The non-natural gardener, or natural non-gardener, who happens upon Plant Life will be lotus-lulled by the keenness of its photographs (by Richard Hartlage), the beauty of its layout, and the simplicity of a page with two words against a brilliant green leaf. Indeed, a casual glance at the unassuming, babbling names of flowers and shrubbery will inspire the non-natural gardeners to produce poetry.

A sample follows: haiku of plant names mentioned in Plant Life.

Maiden grass, weeper

Frothy foamflower, blood sedge

Rue love-in-a-mist

The premier. Fascin-

ation, fantasy. Sweet box.

Cowslips: Peegee rose.

Bijou--dark loosestrife--

Miss Willmott's ghost--

Spurge, stinking hellebore!