The April 2014 issue of Fine Gardening magazine has an article by Peter Kukielski, former curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden titled Easy Picture Perfect Roses. Peter knows all about ‘Easy’ roses because during his tenure at that garden he ripped out 200 or so of the roses in the garden that needed pesticides and fungicides to survive and then replaced them with 693 roses that did not need that kind of care and pampering.
I met Peter in early November 2009 when he gave me a tour of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. Even at that time of the year many roses were in bloom and a number of volunteers were busy making evaluations of each rose to decide whether it was worthy of remaining in the garden. There is a great article in the NYTimes here that describes that process. I wrote about my visit with Peter Kukielski here and here. He is not only a brilliant rosarian, he is the most charming and good humored of men.
Since we met Peter, along with Pat Shanley and Gene Waering edited a fascinating book The Sustainable Rose Garden which covers many aspects of rose growing by 40 contributors, including Peter himself, and Stephen Scanniello of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and president of the Heritage Rose Society. He is now working on his own book Roses Without Chemicals. I can’t wait for it to become available.
‘Applejack’ a Griffith Buck hybrid
My Rose Walk began with hardy roses which include the Griffith Buck hybrids. It also includes rugosas, albas, another roses that can tolerate the winds and winter of our Heath hill. Many of them also turn out to be disease and pest resistant. ’The Fairy,’ a polyantha, is on the Earth Kind rose list, which is something Peter taught me about. I have added other Earth Kind roses like ‘Belinda’s Dream’ and Double Knock Outs. In his Fine Gardening article Peter lists other easy care roses like the luscious ‘Cinderella Fairy Tale’ and the rich golden ‘Tequila.’ Do you think I will be able to resist adding a new rose to the garden this year? I don’t think so either.
‘The Fairy’ Earth Kind rose closeup
I will be talking about The Sustainable Rose at the little e at the Franklin County Fairgrounds on April 26 and 27. I’ll only be there one day – not sure which yet. Lots of rose photos. I hope to see you there. I’ll be channeling Peter Kukielski, my hero.
Five Plant Gardens by Nancy Ondra
Nancy Ondra has been gardening for over 20 years and she has ten books to show for it and Five Plant Gardens: 52 ways to Grow a Perennial Garden with Just Five Plants (Storey Publishing $18.95) is her latest. This book has something for everyone, but it takes garden design to a new level of ease and understanding for the novice gardener.
Even an inexperienced flower gardener understands pretty quickly that you put tall plants in back of the short plants. Then what? Ondra actually has more than 52 ways to design a garden because she suggests alternates for each of the five plants in a garden, and suggests that you can build out from the five plant garden. By treating a five plant arrangement as a building block you can plan long borders along a path, around a deck or patio, or half moon plantings by a doorway or around a lamppost. It will not take long for even a new gardener to find places to install one of Ondra’s gardens.
Before she gets into general gardening advice Ondra explains why she chose Five Plants. “It’s enough variety to give you a good mix of flowers and foliage, heights and shapes, and seasons of interest, but not so much that the collection looks like a jumbled mess. It’s also a manageable number of new plants to learn about at one time, as well as a limited amount of money to spend.” How understand and practical she is.
I have been gardening in Heath for over 30 years, and I still found good advice in this book. Even those of us who have been playing in the garden for many years trot off to a nursery or plant sale and are quickly seduced by plants we never thought of before. When we get home we often just stick them wherever we might have a bare spot and have to think all over again about height, shape, texture and bloom time. For most of us, practicing interesting and attractive garden design is an ongoing process.
Ondra’s book is first divided into two parts, sunny gardens and then shady gardens. Within each section are 25 five plant combinations, but with some alternate plants in case you want to provide a little more variety when you are extending the original plan. For example, theWelcomeSpringGardenappeals to me because I am so hungry for flowers after our long winters. The five suggestions are Jacob’s ladder with its tall lacy foliage and clusters of blue flowers, deep blue Caesar’s Brother Siberian iris, ‘Corbett’ a yellow wild columbine and a striped bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum var. striatum) and ajuga ‘Burgundy Glow.’ I was pleased that Ondra gave a warning about the vigor of ajuga. Ajuga is wonderful because it so quickly covers a lot of ground but it is so vigorous that it is difficult to contain. I don’t mind the ajuga that has invaded a section of my lawn because I am no devotee of fine turf, but it is good to be warned.
I think it is good to have early spring flowers right near the house where they will be a comfort and be admired while going out and coming home as the days warm. Alternates are the wonderful blue anchusa, or ‘Telham Beauty’ campanula, almost any other Siberian iris or a foxglove, and any columbine would also be pretty, as would dianthus.
Ondra is only addressing perennials in this book, but after working on ourBridgeofFlowersI have learned that it takes annuals to keep a small garden like this in bloom for the whole season. Ondra’s spring choices bloom early, but you might like to think about adding a few annuals once the season warms up. She notes how many of each perennial to put in her five plant scheme, but perennials are not always large when you buy them. You can add pansies or violas to boost that early spring bloom, and as the season progresses you can add other annuals taking your color cue from Ondra’s plan.
Ondra is known for her passion for foliage, and this is especially evident in her plans for the shade or partial shade garden. She describes a lovely array of ferns, hostas, grasses and ground covers like European ginger with its shiny leathery leaves. She also notes which flowers will attract humming birds or wild pollinators.
Nancy Ondra is an encouraging writer. Her 2009 book, the Perennial Care Manual, is still an important resource for me whenever I need to check if a plant I have impulsively bought should be planted in sun or shade, whether it will tolerate a damp spot, or a very dry spot. I know how often I have told a friend that the secret to a successful garden is putting the right plant in the right spot. I know this is true, but I sometimes forget the specifics for a given plant and I’m glad to have this book with it full advice for the care of over a hundred popular plants.
I think spring will arrive in a rush, as usual, and this book will be a big help to the new and experienced gardener.
Between the Rows March 15, 2014
Five plant Gardens by Nancy J. Ondra
I’m just starting to read Five Plant Gardens by Nancy J. Ondra and I find it such an encouraging book. The book is divided into two sections, one section for sunny gardens and one section for shady gardens. She begins with one color gardens like the Bright White Garden for a sunny location. She suggests ‘David’ phlox, ‘White Swan’ coneflower, ‘Snow Fairy’ caryopteris, lambs ears, and candytuft, but gives alternatives and a planting plan. It is her planting plans that make Five Plant Gardens a really useful book. It is all very well to know tall plants in back, and short plants in front, but that doesn’t take into account plant spread or the differences of foliage.
White gardens are beautiful in the moonlight, blue gardens are peaceful, but should be closer to the house, and yellow garden are pure gold! Nancy beautifully illustrates the many ways of looking at color in the garden and the myriad ways of arranging or expanding a flower bed. I’ve just started, but you will be hearing more about this book soon. I’m ready to think about flowers! And Nancy is the person to give me some new things to think about. Nancy also has an excellent and very informative blog at hayefield.com
Slow Flowers by Debra Prinzing
Slow Flowers by Debra Prinzing is the perfect book to be browsing through on this frigid day. The temperature is only 20 degrees, but the sun is brilliant and the ground sparkles with frozen snow crystals. As I turn the pages of the sumptuously illustrated book, my own summer garden exists in my imagination as it never has before. Debra’s 52 weeks of bouquets from local flowers from ‘garden, meadow and farm’ are full of surprises and inspiration for those of us who are fearful and reluctant flower arrangers.
Debra always put herself in that class of fearful and reluctant flower arrangers, but the work she did visiting flower farms and farmers for her previous book, The 50 Mile Bouquet written with photographer David Perry, gave her arranging lessons by osmosis and more confidence in her own skills. Each two page spread in the book includes a photo and description of a seasonal arrangement with a list of ‘ingredients’ like 5 stems of heuchera foliage, 7 stems of Sweet William and 5 stems of mock orange and a 6 inch tall vase with a 7″x3″ opening. There is also always a tip of one sort or another. The Eco-technique note for this handsome arrangement is to arrange the foliage in the vase first to supply the support for the flowers. I never realized that florist’s foam contains formaldehyde which makes it undesirable. I’ll never use it again! No great loss because I never managed it very well, anyway.
Other tips have to do with the latest thinking about preparing and managing cut flowers and shrub branches for the most long lasting life in the vase. Other tips have to do with design like having complimentary colors in the arrangement and with the container. Debra has her 52 arrangements in some beautiful vases and other containers.
Going through the lists of flowers and foliage that go with each arrangement I have come up with some surprises, and made some additions to my wish list for new plants this spring. Curly willow! Grape vines. Sedums. Plants with graceful seed heads like northern sea oats and millet. Clusters of cherry tomatoes. Fruiting crabapple branches in fall, not only in spring bloom. Evergreen branches with pine cones.
There seems no end to Prinzing’s creativity as she looks at flowers and creates arrangements with brilliant spring and summer colors, the rich colors of fall, and the elegant colors of winter. Of course, my winter bouquets would never look like her Seattle bouquets, but they inspire nonetheless. My similar white arrangement of pussy willows, Dusty Miller and artemesias, might simply come at a different time of year.
Slow Flowers is an encouraging book. I felt as enpowered after spending my afternoon within its pages as I did after my session with Gloria Pacosa who gave me a lesson is flower arranging at her studio.
Slow Flowers autumnal arrangement
I would hardly have to add anything to my garden to make an arrangement similar to this. I already have scented geranium foliage, boltonia, and artemesias, I’d just have to add the celosia cristata (crested cockscomb) and apricot cactus zinnias. Debra points out that the different types of green foliage “are woven together as a textured and verdant tapestry.”
Slow Flowers spring arrangment
I can’t wait to make an arrangement like this. I’ve got everything I need: daffodils, ferns and pussy willows.
I guess the Good Reading Roundup continues here in my Between the Rows column for Dec. 14. The vegetable garden has been put to bed, and right now is neatly covered with an inch of snow and ice. The planting, cultivating, harvesting and preserving seasons are past; now we are in reading season. For me, plans to make things better usually start right about the time I am in mid-harvest. And there are always new books to help me find new ways.
What’s Wrong with My Fruit Garden: 100% Organic Solutions for Berries, Trees, Nuts, Vines and Tropicals by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth (Timber Press $24.95) is a reference book covering a wide variety of fruits. I’ve had discussions with people about how they choose what edibles to grow in their limited space, and one of the answers is to grow the things that are most expensive to buy. Fruits can fit in that category. How much does it cost to tend a couple of apple trees, or a trio of blueberry bushes of a couple of hazel nut trees compared to the cost of buying those items over a season, for many seasons. Besides cost, fruit bearing plants tend to need less work than vegetables, and the fruit you pick will be the freshest possible. A fruit garden is a wonderful long term investment.
What’s Wrong With My Fruit Garden begins with an introduction, and then is divided into three main sections. The introduction presents basic information about the basic needs of fruit plants and includes clearly illustrated pages that tell you how to identify general problems related to temperature, light, water or soil.
The first main section is devoted to Plant Profiles of 34 fruits from almonds to watermelon. We will not be able to grow all of them here, but I have been surprised lately by all the people who are growing figs! Each Profile gives you general growing information about individual plant needs including pollination and pruning.
Section two is the Plant Problem-Solving Guide with several pages for each plant with clear photos of the damage done by specific insects and diseases. Each photographed symptom is followed by a diagnosis and a variety of solutions.
Section three Organic Solutions to Common Problems give more detailed information about solutions. There is a good supplementary reading list, and an excellent index.
Gardening For Geeks (Adamsmedia $15.95) by Christy Wilhelmi, founder of Gardenerd.com, promises “DIY tests, gadgets, and techniques that utilize microbiology, mathematics and ecology to exponentially maximize the yield of your garden.” Wilhelmi delivers, but I have found that I might be geekier than I ever imagined, or this book which gives a lot of good information for the new gardener, was just looking for a unique hook. Maybe she thought reluctant husbands (not mine) would be more likely to pick it up with that title. If you are not a geek, don’t let the title frighten you off.
She delivers good basic information on preparing the soil, various kinds of compost, utilizing small spaces by using bio-intensive and other intensive planting schemes, planting, irrigation, building trellises and such, pest control AND preserving your bountiful harvest. That’s 223 pages of good information with a good index.
As much as we like good information, we gardeners also like beauty. Seeing Flowers: Discover the Hidden Life of Flowers (Timber Press $29.95) with spectacular closeup photography by Robert Llewellyn, and text by Teri Dunn Chace is a beautiful book about flowers.
Llewellyn and Chace capture 28 plant families from amaryllis to viola. Did you ever imagine that clematis would be in the buttercup family? Along with the photographs you will enjoy information about each genus and its myriad species. Some families like Iris are relatively small, while other like Lily are very large and include those flowers we easily recognize as lilies, but also trillium, bluebells, hostas. snowflakes, kniphofia and many others.
Chace takes us into a garden of fascinating facts, botanical history, medicinal uses, both of which take us to the poetry of plant names. How did tomatoes come to be considered poisonous? Well, tomatoes were recognized as a member of the Solanaceae family which included deadly nightshade, a poisonous plant. All plant parts of nightshade contain atropine “from the Greek word atropos which means ‘to cut the thread of life.’”
This is a book that will give you many hours of happy reading all year long, but I cannot think of a happier time to begin than when the sky is pale and snow is swirling in the wind.
While not a book about plants I must include a new book by one of our local poets. Carol Purington of Colrain has written many books of haiku and tanka and described the natural world with strength and delicacy. In her new book, Faces I Might Wear, she suggests the women who might have lived on this landscape, through hardships, with wonder and joy.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!
Between the Rows December 14, 2013
This is my first Reading Roundup. Over the year I have ‘reviewed’ a number of books, any of which would make an excellent holiday gift. Good reading is one of my favorites gifts to give, and to receive. Over the next couple of days I’ll be giving a note about each of them again, with a link to the original post. All but one of the books were sent to me by the publisher and you may note a very positive note in all of them. This is because I only ‘review’ books that I think are useful and engaging, and in most cases beautiful. I have neither the time, nor space, nor inclination to spend time writing about books that I cannot recommend. Not every book is for everyone, but each of these worthy books will have a substantial audience. Click on the link for each to get the full review.
I did buy Taste, Memory: Lost Foods, Forgotten Flavors and Why They Matter by David Buchanan after I heard him speak at the Conway School of Landscape Design. David is a graduate of the CSLD, and his book about his growing passion for heritage apples is a joy. “This book, with its tales of exciting searches for heritage apples, Buchanan’s own inventiveness, and cooperation between various groups of people and organizations, presents a wonderful vision of how our food system can shift. It is possible for us to eat better, for biodiversity to be protected, and for farmers and market gardeners to make a reasonable living.” This idea is also behind the Slow Food movement and The Ark of Taste which catalogs endangered foods
Taste, Memory also introduced me to John Bunker, David’s apple mentor and a great Maine character who has his own book, Not Far From the Tree about the old apples of Maine. You will never look at an apple in quite the same way again
No Mow Yards
Beautiful No Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives byEvelyn Hadden. Evelyn Hadden is a founder of Lawn Reform Coalition which aims to teach people about sustainable, healthier lawns. In Beautiful No-Mow Yards she proposes 50 alternatives to mowed grass lawns, offering solutions to cutting down on grass cutting in ways that are likely to appeal to every kind of gardener: new gardeners who are more interested in flowers or vegetables, experienced gardeners who are looking for new ways to garden, and environmentally concerned gardeners who want to cut down on the use of fossil fuels, herbicides and their own energy.
Lawn Gone: Low Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yardby Pam Penick (Ten Speed Press)
Some of Penick’s chapter titles will tempt you to imagine a new yard of your own. For example: Ponds, pavilions, playspaces and other fun features and Designing and installing your hardscape, immediately set my mind buzzing. Other chapters indicate the sticky issues that gardeners may have to deal with like working with skeptical neighbors or homeowner’s association regulations or city codes.She also explains ways to eradicate lawn, and gives you the names of grass substitutes in the sedge and carex families.
Bringing Nature Home
Bringing Nature Home by Dr. Douglas Tallamy is a book I write about regularly. His argument for the use of native plants in our domestic landscape is ever more important and we think about land development. “Lately I have been talking about the benefits of reducing the size of our lawns. Tallamy said that 92% of landscape-able land is lawn, lawn which is a monoculture that does not support wildlife. He suggested that if we reduced the amount of lawn in theUnited Statesby half we would have 20 million acres that could be put to native trees and other native plants. This would certainly increase the carrying capacity of our neighborhoods and our nation.”
Latin for Gardeners
Latin for Gardeners: Over 3000 Plant Names Explained and Explored by Lorraine Harrison is a beautifully illustrated book that is great fun to read even if you never took Latin in high school and never got beyond Shakespeare’s “Et tu, Brute?” in English class. Beyond explaining the Latin words that make up proper botanical names, there are special sections of Plant Profiles, information about Plant Hunters like Sir Joseph Banks and Jane Colden and Marianne North, and Plant Themes like The Qualities of Plants. The book is also generously illustrated with colored botanical drawings of plants and their parts. This is definitely a book for browsing.
I’ll continue the roundup tomorrow. These books make great gifts for any holiday – or birthday.
Seeing Flowers from Timber Press
Betsy Johnson is our winner! Practically a neighbor over there in Williamstown. Timber Press will send Seeing Flowers directly after I have her address, and I’ll be sending her The Roses at the End of the Road.
Everyone can order their own copy of The Roses at the End of the Road, or a copy to give as a gift to anyone who loves roses or tales of life in the country by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or clicking here so you can order through Pay Pal. The December sale price is $12 wtih free shipping. All I will need is a check and an address. The book is also available as a Kindle edition.
Best wishes to all in this holiday season. Happy reading and happy gardening.
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life
Beatrix Potter is known to almost every parent, but not as well known as her most famous creation, Peter Rabbit. In Marta McDowell’s new book Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: the plants and places that inspired the classic children’s tales (Timber Press $24.95) we meet Peter’s progenitor. In 1890, the 24 year old Beatrix bought Benjamin Bouncer at a pet shop and used him as the model for Peter for some paintings that she sold. That was the beginning of a career that she never imagined, and that her parents never wanted for her. This charming book, illustrated with historic photographs, Beatrix’s paintings, and photos of her world as they are now, lets us follow her from the enclosed gardens of London parks, to the holiday estates of her youth and finally to the farms where she spent the last 30 years of her life.
The simple, delicately illustrated stories that Potter wrote do not suggest to readers today that they were conceived by an independent woman who became a passionate naturalist, a successful business woman and a conservationist who left thousands of acres of land in the Lake District to the newly founded National Trust.
Beatrix Potter was the quintessential shy Victorian daughter whose life was ruled by her parents. She was educated at home and her social circle was limited to relatives and family friends. Still she enjoyed her life and the gardens of London the were near her home, and country visits to the Lake County and to Scotland. She loved plants and flowers; with her younger brother Bertram she often had a menagerie of animals going.
Her love of nature led her to a serious study of mycology – mushrooms. Her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe who was knighted for his contributions to chemistry, took her to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to work, but although she was finally allowed to visit and study in the gardens, her insights and theories were ignored. She was a spinster, and an amateur. She could not possibly have anything to offer the scientific world. Her mycological and scientific work now resides at the Ambleside Museum in the Lake District. Her mentor, Charlie McIntosh, gave his collection of her work to the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland. Her paintings and drawings are so accurate and well identified they are useful today to those studying fungi.
McDowell carries us along on brief tale of the events of her life, but her focus is on descriptions of the landscapes and gardens that were a part of her early life, and her later life as a farmer. Part Two: The Year in Beatrix Potter’s Gardens takes us on a charming tour of the gardens she created at Hill Top Farm and Castle Cottage listing plants in their season, as well as garden schemes and designs. What makes this book especially enjoyable is the use of Beatrix’s own words, from her letters and other sources.
Part Three: Visiting Beatrix Potter’s Gardens is a guide book that will give tourists the information they need to visit the gardens and landscapes of Beatrix Potter’s youth, as well the gardens she made in her maturity with her husband William Heelis. Again, this section is illustrated with wonderful and useful contemporary photos, and Potter’s illustrations of those scenes as she captured them so long ago.
Primroses were often planted in Beatrix Potter’s gardens
This is a beautiful book that gives a strong sense of the strong and practical woman that Beatrix Potter was. Nearly every page has a photograph or delicate painting from one of her books.
Five years ago I read the excellent biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature written by Linda Lear (St. Martin’s Press. It was there I first learned about her scholarship, the difficulties of her life with her parents, and the tragedy of the death of her fiancé, Norman Warne. It gave me such a different view of the kind of woman who would have told those stories of mischievous animals, illustrated them with such charming paintings, and insisted on the small size of the books for small hands.
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is a visual feast and McDowell skillfully takes us through her life, only lingering with detail in the garden and the way they were transformed in her books. It also led me to the Beatrix Potter Society in England. It turns out 2013 is the 100th Anniversary of The Tale of Pigling Bland, a tale of adventure and romance, as well as the 100th Anniversary of Potter’s marriage to William Heelis. The Society has turned this occasion into a special event and an exhibit that includes parallels between these two events. I am happy to think that her own life, like her little books, had 30 years of happily ever aftering with Mr. Heelis. ###
Between the Rows November 30, 2013
Don’t forget you can win a copy of Seeing Trees and a copy of my book The Roses at the End of the Road by leaving a comment here by midnight, December 12.
Seeing Flowers by Llewellyn and Chace
Seeing Flowers: Discover the Hidden Life of Flowers with amazing photographs by Robert Llewellyn and charming essays by Teri Dunn Chace, is a beautiful companion to the stunning Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees which also features Robert Llewellyn’s unique photographic process. The book, and a gorgeous 16 x 24 gallery quality print to celebrate the release of this book by Timber Press is being given away to some flower lover. All you have to do is click here and you may win a copy of the book with its 345 photographs, and the large print.
Seeing Flowers gives us a way to see the extraordinary details of ordinary flowers. While the red poppy is a brilliant show stopper, I love the photographs of the pale Queen Anne’s Lace with the single, tiny red flower in its inflorescence that calls to pollinators flying by. Even the closed up, ‘bird’s nest’ stage of Queen Anne’s Lace, indicating pollination has been completed, is newly beautiful to my eyes. I never liked the ‘bird’s nests.’
The book is divided by flower families, from Amaryllis to Daisy to Viola. In addition to Chace’s essays many of the flowers have been given a poetic flourish from poets like Shakespeare who treasured all growing things.
“O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies/In herbs, plants, stone, and their true qualities;/For nought so vile that on the earth doth live/But to the earth some special good doth give.” (From Romeo and Juliet.)
This specially good book could be yours with just a click and an email address. It would also make a specially good gift for the gardener as we approach the happy gift-giving season.
Elizabeth Gilbert courtesy Jennifer Schatten
When I began reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, the famous author of the autobiographical Eat, Pray, Love, I expected a story that would involve herbal medicine. Instead I got an nineteenth century story that included a highly profitable pharmaceutical business, a passionate botanizing heroine, desire, travels around the world, a charismatic man named Tomorrow Morning and a struggle between science and religion.
Like many gardeners I enjoy novels that include a garden, whether in a mystery, or in some less violent context. The Signature of All Things (Viking) contains many gardens, from Kew Gardens in Britain, the Euclidian garden of Beatrix Whittaker, mother of our heroine Alma, gardens of plants kept alive in the holds of sailing ships, a magical cave in Tahiti and the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam. However, these all merely form the backdrop for the struggles, life and loves of the big-boned, red haired brilliant woman and scientist-before-there-was-such-a-thing, Alma Whittaker.
As a girl Alma leads the secluded, but rigorously intellectual, life as the daughter of her very wealthy British father Henry and a practical Dutch mother in their imposing estate near Philadelphia. Hanneke de Groot is the equally practical Dutch housekeeper/nurse. The household changes when Alma is 10 and Prudence suddenly joins the family as her adopted sister. Prudence is beautiful, and Alma is not.
When they are adult Prudence marries their former tutor, a devoted abolitionist, and Retta Snow, the sisters’ best friend, marries George Hawkes, the publisher Alma worked with and secretly and ardently loved.
What is her response? Of course she weeps and grieves. But, over the years she becomes a taxonomist, naming every plant on her father’s estate. One day while cleaning out the estate library she comes across a paper she wrote about the Monotropa hypopitys moss. She realized how little she knew about this moss – or any moss. Her excitement grows as she realizes she has found her life work. “Alma realized she would never learn everything about mosses – for she could tell already that there was simply too much of the stuff in the world; they were everywhere, and they were profoundly varied. . . . She need not be idle. She need not be unhappy. Perhaps she need not even be lonely.”
And there we have the real subject of the book. Alma’s search for happiness which she finds in challenging and gratifying work. Although she begins publishing the results of her researches using only a first initial to identify herself, she is not particularly concerned by the limits women face in the world of work. On the other hand, she also feels maidenly limits so little, that she is intrepid and barely hesitates before setting out on a dangerous journey to Tahiti.
She even finds a new love, Ambrose Pike. Ambrose is a brilliant, unworldly artist who has painted the exotic orchids of the Amazon and brought them to the publisher George Hawkes. They meet and quickly Ambrose and Alma realize they are soulmates.
“You are interested in creation” said Ambrose “and all its wonderful arrangements”
As for Alma “She felt herself set loose as she spilled forth ideas from her long overbrimming vaults of private thoughts . There is only so long that a person can keep her enthusiasms locked away within her heart before she longs to share it with a fellow soul, and Alma had many decades of thoughts much overdue for sharing.”
There is no happily ever after, at least not of the kind where the not very young couple walk off into the sunset.
Elizabeth Gilbert gives us the heart, questioning mind, and bold spirit of a fascinating woman. Her life is a roller coaster of events and thoughts. The plot twists one way, and turns another as Alma goes from adventure to insight. For me, that is the joy of fiction, the thrill of getting to know the ins and outs of a complex character’s thoughts and emotions.
I have written about many books about gardens and gardeners over the years, but I have never brought a novel to Between the Rows. However, I cannot help myself because I found this book so beautifully and poetically written, and this character so thrilling. Alma’s life many be very different from ours in every respect, but we gardeners can identify with her passion for plants. We understand her excitement as she sees her favorites ever more clearly, her appreciation of their beauty and her passion for learning their secrets. We can even consider the unexpected places our passion has led us to, just as Alma’s studies lead her forward into a new world of radical thought.
I turned every page of this book with almost the same anticipation that I feel when my garden is coming to life. On spring mornings I want to race out and examine every new leaf and bud, knowing the garden will supply me with promise and endless surprise. In my reading chair I wanted to see what new surprise awaited Alma – and me. ###
Between the Rows October 5, 2013