Last week I began a series of columns on items that I think you might like to give or get this year for the holidays. At first I’d planned on two columns, but it now looks as if it may stretch to three.But not to worry—I’ve timed everything so that by the time you read the last column you’ll still have plenty of time to get any or all of these presents.
One of the items I’ve peddled as a holiday gift is orchids. In fact for several years I’ve been suggesting that they can make great gifts, as you can find orchids for everyone from novice plant lovers to the most advanced and at just about every price point. But this time my gift suggestion is a book that seems to be about orchids, but is actually one of, if not the most, humorous books about gardening that I’ve ever read. The book is by Tom Powell and it’s “Aphid in My Eye: Adventures in the Orchid Trade” (2012, B.B. Mackey Books). It’s available both as a paperback and for a Kindle.
Now, based on the title you might think this book is about searching the rain forests of South America or tropical Asia for the rarest of orchids and the daring exploits to bring them back to propagate for the houseplant trade. It’s not. You might think the book is about how Mr. Powell singlehandedly developed the method for producing millions of orchids and that’s why we find them to be so commonplace in the garden trade these days. It’s not.
First though, how I know Tom Powell and how I found out about this book. Many years ago I wrote and published four titles on garden design. At the same time Tom Powell was publishing a really great horticultural newsletter called The Avant Gardener that I often referred to in this column. Much to my surprise and delight, Tom reviewed our books, which certainly helped sales. The Avant Gardener continued until a few years ago, when I got the news that Tom was giving up the newsletter. It was ultimately sold, and it continues to be published. But I thought that was the end of Thomas Powell.
Then one day last spring I was reading something about a Tom Powell who had just written a book. I contacted the publisher and sure enough … same Tom Powell. But was I in for a surprise. From the first pages of the book I learned that Tom and his wife had lived in an orchid-filled Upper East Side Manhattan apartment in the mid-1950s when I was an infant right around the corner. Tom talks about “Chlorophyll in the veins. Some of us have it; the rest must make do with red or blue blood,” but I think there must have been chlorophyll in the neighborhood water also, or it was contagious.
At the time the Powells were growing their orchids and doing horticultural editing, writing and pushing gardening products. The book chronicles this a bit, but then moves on to their fateful rendezvous with the business of orchids and a cast of the strangest characters that only fiction could create. But it’s not fiction; they’re real … and in Connecticut.
The book is divided into 12 short chapters that follow the trails and trials of the Powells as they first find, then explore and eventually end up, buying the Birst & Borpling orchid nursery, but not before a full and complete exposure to the proprietor Albert Andrew Borpling, who is the consummate schemer and dealer in this warped and wacky garden of Eden.
In a flash the couple had gone from a collection of 400 orchids in their Manhattan apartment to 40,000 specimens where “We would have eight hours off every second Sunday, and our nights would be free except for a little attention to the boiler, greenhouse vents, and other minor ‘security measures.’ And of course, we would have the prestige of managing world-renowned Birst & Borpling, which had been many connoisseurs’ delights with the finest orchids since just after the Civil War.”
Among the cast of characters there’s Patsy, the head and only grower, who resembles Paul Bunyan “at least on one side.” There’s Rocco, “the runt of the B&B litter,” who could “leap the length of the potting shed and catch a falling pot before it was half way to the floor.” And the second assistant, Gregory, who is tall and handsome.
There is intrigue, suspense and comic horticulture that will split your sides and leave you and whomever you gift this book to with full-faced grins and giggles. Each chapter is divided into little subchapters that contain vignettes and in an afternoon you can travel through all their trials and tribulations from garden club lectures renowned for the great food that follows (and the food poisoning) which they hastily escape from to the elite suburban deacon and his wife who invite Tom and Betty over for dinner and a chat about orchids that nearly ends up with everyone naked and about to … .
This is really a wonderful, crazy and thoroughly enjoyable book that will make any gardener chuckle at the twists and turns of a journey from an Upper East Side plant collection to a couple’s travels through the ways of the wealthy, the dirty and the sublime, all of whom claim to be lovers of plants. As the PR says, “This is a story of the heights of Mother Nature and the wild ways of human nature.” What a treat. Again, the book is “Aphid In My Eye” by Tom Powell.
I’m a big proponent for documenting what you do in your garden. This can take the form of a simple garden diary or be as complex as a computer-based database. But no matter how fastidious you are about keeping your notes and records, they can be of only so much value if you don’t have pictures to back them up. Saved data can tell you how tall a plant is, where you bought it, how many you planted, who you got them from and what you paid for them. But only a picture can tell and remind you about that plant’s relationship to the garden, what the plant looks like at various times of the year and even exactly where it is as it relates to other plants or markers in your landscape.
My earlier recommendations for a camera that I felt was up to this task were in the Panasonic LX family, with the most recent recommendation being the LX7. This is a fairly sophisticated point-and-shoot camera that is small, easy to use and versatile. But a camera used in the garden can and should have more attributes, so this year I’m recommending the Olympus Tough TG-2 and the TG-3. These are both point-and-shoot-type cameras and the differences between them are not great, with the “3” being slightly newer and a slightly upgraded model.
But what makes these cameras great for documenting your garden? Simple, they’re tough. These cameras are waterproof, even if submerged, so you can use them in the rain, after the rain or in a garden covered with dew. They are also crush-proof, so in theory you can step on them or roll something over them and they’ll keep on clicking. They both have a fast zoom lens that allows you to get up close to a flower or bug, really close for macro shots (up to 1 centimeter close) or take a distant wide shot to get the whole plant or garden. Both have built in GPS, which means that each shot you take has an electronic marker on it that allows you to go right back to the exact same spot, garden or wildflower in the woods to find it again at a later date or even on Google Maps or Earth. Both weigh just more than 8 ounces, and the TG-3 model can be set up in the garden and the camera activated by your smart phone, using it as a remote trigger so you can capture those birds, butterflies and other critters without spooking them.
These cameras are available for about $350, and while not the most sophisticated cameras on the planet, either would make a great gift for a gardener who wants to capture that special shot in any weather and not have to worry about the camera.
Next week, another book review, my favorite garden gloves, which make a great gift and, yes, the much promised new way to get high in the garden. Keep growing.