My Friend Elsa
Though I haven’t read Dear Friend and Gardener I have my own great garden friend. When I moved to my Massachusetts hilltop, I found that one of our area’s most famous perennial gardeners, Elsa Bakalar, lived on a neighboring hilltop. She was a generation older, British, much more knowledgeable about flower gardens, and way more opinionated than I was about anything but happy to befriend a novice.
She is a born teacher, and even now living in a nursing home, she is always imagining classes and lectures she is ready to present.
I knew nothing about perennials and never imagined growing any flower more exotic than a marigold, but she taught me and I encouraged her to write, to put all those good lessons down on paper where they could be shared. We started writing together. It was my byline that appeared under The Flower Garden According to Elsa in the January 1987 issue of Horticulture Magazine with fabulous photographs by Gary Mottau, but the very definite and charming opinions were all Elsa’s.
Elsa not only has skill in the garden, as well as a strong aesthetic sense, she has a sharp wit. It is her sense of humor that helped make her a sought after lecturer at garden clubs, flower shows and botanical gardens all across the country. The tales she brought back from Williamsburg, Virginia, and the Whitney Museum of Modern Art entertained all of us in Heath.
The speaking engagements finally inspired her to put down her thoughts about gardening. Though she held strong opinions, she believed that gardeners should please themselves. Bring on the gnomes and flamingos if that’s what the gardener loved. Her book is aptly titled A Garden of One’s Own: Making and Keeping Your Flower Garden. Elsa was insistent about using those brisk Anglo-Saxon words – make and keep. Forget designing and creating she said. The book came out in time to mark her 75th birthday in 1994.
After we met she watched me put in a 90 foot perennial border and knew how foolish that was at that stage of my life and responsibilities. She just shrugged when it disappeared. She grew a single Queen Elizabeth rose, but appreciated my collection of hardy roses as it grew. Imitation was not considered a compliment in her book. For Elsa the garden is all about pleasure. That was the only thing she demanded a gardener find there. It is what I find with Elsa.