A Trove of Garden Insight from Katharine White

We’re spending some time in Brooklin this month, where I lived for a while in the early 90s and to which I have returned most every summer since, at least for a few days.

Regular readers of this blog likely are aware of my deep appreciation for the work of E.B. White, who lived around the cove from the cottage where we often stay. But today I’m thinking about his spouse, Katharine S. White (1892-1977), who joined Harold Ross at The New Yorker six months after its founding and was enormously influential in many roles, primarily as its first fiction editor.  In that position, she edited the short fiction and poetry of Vladimir Nabokov, Nadine Gordimer, Mary McCarthy, John Cheever, Marianne Moore, John Updike and Ogden Nash, among others.

Katharine White also was passionate about gardening.

In 1958, in addition to her editorial duties at the New Yorker, she took up the pen herself and wrote a column called Onward and Upward in the Garden, examining the content and style of garden, seed and nursery catalogues in the same manner as a reviewer of literature examines the plot and structure of a novel. No one had taken critical notice of catalogues before, and her first column—called A Romp in the Catalogues—won deserved attention. In the next dozen years, she wrote thirteen more Onward and Upward columns, all of which are collected in a book published in 1979, with a lovely introduction by her husband.


Here are a couple of passages that give the flavor of Katharine White’s strongly-held views about all things garden-related.

From the first Onward and Upward in the Garden column, published in March, 1958:

          The Burpee people go for ruffles in anything. To me a ruffled petunia is occasionally a delight but a ruffled snapdragon is an abomination. The snapdragon is a very complicated flower form to start with, and it has style. Fuss it up and it becomes overdressed.

Snapdragons, complex enough without hybridizing them to add frills, Katharine White said. I must agree.

In a column dated June 6, 1962, she ruminated on wild blueberries, Maine’s favored fruit, and the degradation that is wrought by chemical spraying of the crop:

         Blueberries . . . can be grown from Maine to North Carolina, from Michigan to Missouri, but if you live in Maine, where the wild blueberry is one of the main crops, it just doesn’t occur to you to plant the large cultivated blueberry, which has less flavor . . . Every market in our region sells wild berries in season, and the stores conscientiously try to have them picked by hand from unsprayed bushes. But in the cities one can’t be sure. Some berries may have been raked in commercial blueberry barrens where the bushes are heavily dusted or sprayed with chemicals to keep down the blueberry maggot and other pests. . . I’d rather eat a maggoty blueberry any day than a sprayed blueberry. Rayner [a Maryland nursery] lists one variety that is “from a wild type,” the Rubel. It won’t be the same, though, for it is a huckleberry, and every resident of Maine knows that the huckleberry can’t compare with the wild low-bush blueberry.

Full of helpful information, decided opinion and wit, Onward and Upward in the Garden is a pleasure from start to finish, because it was written by a woman who not only loved gardening, but revered clear, lucid writing. In the introduction by E.B. White, another reason to treasure this book, he reveals her writing process was actually intense and laborious. In her heart, Katharine White was an editor, and he says she found it difficult to don the hat of a writer:

        The editor in her fought the writer every inch of the way; the struggle was felt all through the house. She would write eight or ten words, then draw her gun and shoot them down. This made for slow and torturous going. It was simple warfare—the editor ready to nip the writer before she committed all the sins and errors the editor clearly foresaw.

We’re fortunate that she stuck with it, because Onward and Upward in the Garden is a treasure that stands the test of time. When the world feels upside down, as it certainly does this summer, it’s a pleasure to dip into Katharine White’s vibrant, uncluttered prose about flower arranging, rose cultivation and right-thinking (as well as wrong-headed) seed merchants who preserve (or threaten in the name of innovation) our horticultural history.


Speaking of libraries, Katharine White’s son from her first marriage, the author, editor and baseball writer par excellence Roger Angell, is being celebrated by the Friend Memorial Library in Brooklin tomorrow morning on the occasion of his 100th birthday.

It’s appropriate that his birthday bash—which will include balloons, brief remarks, music by a band called the Treble Makers and a mini-parade featuring vintage cars and fire trucks—is being organized by the library, because Katharine White was a longtime trustee of Friend Memorial and one of its fiercest champions.

It is also appropriate that outside the library’s side door is the E.B. and Katharine White Memorial Garden, a wonderful place of respite for not only bookish sorts but the entire community, in celebratory times and worrisome ones, too.

Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available everywhere e-books are sold.  These days she’s hard at work on new projects. FMI: http://brendabuchananwrites.com

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4 Responses to A Trove of Garden Insight from Katharine White

  1. Lovely post. I’m sure my late mother would devour every word.

  2. Kate Flora says:

    Wonderful post, Brenda. As a garden writer’s daughter, I realize I should read the book. At dinner last night, Janet Mills was talking about Roger Angell and what a delight he is. Must be fun to spend your vacation in a place so steeped in writing and writers. Enjoy.


  3. Gretchen Asam says:

    Thank you for publicizing one of my favorite books!

  4. Reine says:

    This is beautiful, Brenda.

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