Philosophy for Gardeners: a review

by frankbeswick

Philosophy for gardeners is a unique and enjoyable book well worth reading for its high quality writing and its breadth of knowledge, expressed in clear, coherent English.

Philosophy for Gardeners came as a Christmas present. It is a well-written book that subtly blends the author's knowledge of philosophy with her grasp of modern physics and biology along with her experience of gardening. The book is in clear English, easy to read, but while it is easily comprehensible and quite entertaining, it never compromises on its quality of language. Philosophical writing has to pass between the Scylla of over-simplification and the Charybdis of incomprehensible complexity. The book does this well.

Image courtesy of GoldenVolinist, of Pixabay

The Narrow Path.

I feel an affinity with the author. We are both in possession of master's degrees in Philosophy, and we are both lovers of gardening, though in my case disability hampers me from doing what I would like to  do in the garden. As a retired teacher I have a professional interest in clear writing, and I believe that  the greatest enemy of philosophy is the perplexing labyrinth of technical language spun by philosophers as they stumble to work out their ideas on paper. My ideal philosophical writer is Bertrand Russell, whose written language is a paragon of simplicity and  clarity, the fruit of a high quality mind that has clearly thought out what it wants to say. Kate Collyns lives up to Russell's high standards, and I am pleased to say  that her work is always crystal clear.    

It is difficult to say whether this is a book on philosophy or gardening, so perhaps it might be correct to say that it is both.Yet there are elements in the book that cover matters scientific, and besides these the author displays knowledge of world religions, especially where their teachings have philosophical implications. She dips significantly into ethics and aesthetics, raising some pertinent questions, such as the ethics of killing slugs which are attacking ornamental that humans do not eat. 

The book is divided into a number of self contained essays, each of which covers a distinct philosophical subject, then maybe moves into pertinent matters scientific. Sometimes Collyns illustrates philosophical points with examples drawn from gardening,but at other times she tackles a gardening question, but she never strays from her high standard of linguistic clarity.

This is a book that reveals a high quality mind cultivated by serious study and reflection let loose in the garden. It is an enjoyable work that benefits readers seeking philosophical and horticultural knowledge. Collyn's love of gardening shines out in her work and stimulates the readers.


One of the great mistakes of supposedly practical people is to dismiss philosophy as the resort of impractical dreamers. Collins stands up for her subject, adamant that underlying all thought there is a foundation of philosophical assumptions. Behind every practical man there is a defunct philosopher, goes the saying. 

The book is divided into four sections,each containing a few essays. Naturally, it begins with Plato. She takes Plato's simile of the cave, which is enormously significant in philosophy of knowledge, and adapts the discussion into an analysis of how we deal with problems of the complexities of dealing with pests in complex ecological systems. This is a clever and original application of a key element in philosophical tradition, and I am impressed.

Collyns then deals with the philosophical  principles of how far we gardeners are entitled to rule our gardens, should we see ourselves as masters of our patch or should we go with the flow, accepting the power and mastery of nature. She looks at this through the lens of existentialism and also draws on Eastern religions, such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism. These seem to appeal to her. She also draws upon Islam's use of geometric design. Sadly, Christianity with its rich gardening tradition is overlooked. A separate essay deals with oneness with nature, and this draws upon the Taoist principle of balancing of various factors which is at the heart of productive gardening.

An important essay is on the progress of classification systems, known as taxonomies, in botany. While classification is at root a philosophical issue, much of the discussion is at the scientific level, but she does not draw upon rare plants for her examples she focuses on common garden plants.

Collyns gives a knowledgeable account of the progress of taxonomy from its Aristotelian origins,through the contribution of Linnaeus up to modern DNA based systems. This is an essay of significant value to thoughtful gardeners, but she does not overwhelm readers with technical complexity.


The subject of nature plays an important part of the book. One essay covers the issue of nature versus nurture, a long-standing philosophical issue that has caused arguments between left and right and which was a key element in Marxist philosophy. True to form, Collyns looks at the issue in terms of the apparent differences in talent displayed by various gardeners, the issue which is at the basis of the claim that some are greenfingered. This maintains the focus of the book on gardening.The essay goes into the philosophical history of this false conflict, and she comes down on the side of a combination of both factors.

The section on growth pays attention to the theory of evolution, specifically focusing on the evolutionary arms race, using the example of the relationship between wasps and figs. This is an interesting essay well worth reading. The same section maintains the balance of the discussion by giving an interesting account of the relatively newly discovered propensity of plants of the same,e species to communicate and co-operate with each other, responding by co-operative action to environmental threats. 

Issues of knowledge

Collyns asks pertinent questions about how we experience the garden. She raises the question of how we know what species a plant is. The issue of what are the defining characteristics of a concept and how we determine whether two plants are the same species rather than related species,or not related at all is an issue which she analyses by examining tomatoes. This is a good technical discussion which I found interesting.It is also an issue of some relevance. A similar discussion deals with the question of how far we can rely on our senses as a reliable guide. She tackles this issue by examining the significance of miracle berries, which can change tastes from sour to sweet. This is an interesting essay. Questions of deciding whether two individuals belong to the same species are not too far distant from the question of whether a clone is an individual different from its parent, which is a philosophical and horticultural issue tackled by this book.

Another essay deals with how we apprehend the beauty of the garden, and she delves into the department of philosophy known as aesthetics, drawing upon a range of philosophers, such as Schopenhaur and Kant to develop the discussion. I found this an interesting essay.

Anyone with an interest in philosophy and gardening will enjoy this book. As one who has taught philosophy much of the information was already known to me, but to a person with a love of learning in the fields of philosophy and science, especially horticulture, it would be a good read and would make a welcome present. I commend it to readers.

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Updated: 01/09/2023, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick 8 days ago

I have not met this problem,but you are right, plastic is more merciful than glass is.

DerdriuMarriner 8 days ago

Thank you!

Do you all ever have a problem with birds flying into the greenhouse's see-through parts, which perhaps would attract them like windows?

It must be gentler for birds and other fliers, such as butterflies and moths, to crash into plastic than glass, correct?

frankbeswick 9 days ago

Plastic. I am greenhouse manager, which means that I keep an eye on the plants and work with potting and cutting, and of course watering. There is no digging involved.

DerdriuMarriner 9 days ago

Thank you!

Is the see-through part of your local-park greenhouse of glass or of plastic?

frankbeswick 9 days ago

No one case of the disease is the same as othe're, and you can live a near normal lifespan. But my problems seem to have affected mainly my legs. I suffer no mental problems at all and very few upper body symptoms.

The grènhouses are aluminium.

DerdriuMarriner 9 days ago

Once again, I'm sorry to read about your balance.

Are the neuron-destroying progressions predictable over a certain timespan or are they individual-specific?

Regarding what you do at the local park, what material do you prefer for greenhouses?

It looks like on this side of the (Atlantic) pond that aluminum is preferable over steel or wood and that plastic is preferable over glass.

frankbeswick 12 days ago

Parkinson's disease slowly destroys the neurons that provide balance.There is no cure. I work at the local park. The manager has two volunteers who are strong and sturdy. They take on the heavy jobs. I am allocated greenhouse management, cuttings and potting on, skilled tasks which I can perform while sitting, most of the time.

DerdriuMarriner 12 days ago

I'm sorry to read below about your balance.

Are you able to do any gardening outdoors? You still can do indoor gardening, such as tabletop and windowsill plantings, correct?

frankbeswick 14 days ago

Both. You can philosophies on the garden, for example asking questions about the good life. But gardening can raise philosophical questions, e.g. on the ethics of killing pests. Recently the question of surŕendering possessions arose. As my balance has been damaged irreparably by my illness there are tools that I cannot use. I am giving them to my son. Clinging is pointless

blackspanielgallery 14 days ago

It is rewarding to delve deep in clear language. Is gardening a vehicle for philosophy? Or is gardening a tool to explain philosophy? Perhaps gardening is best understood via philosophical thought. These do not need to be disjoint.

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