I am a reader but garden books never had a big place in my life until our family was preparing to leave New York City for the wilds of Heath. By happenstance I was given Onward and Upward in the Garden (1979) by Katharine S. White with an introduction by her husband E.B. White.
I had tended vegetable gardens, but never gave a thought to flower gardens. However, that is where Mrs. White’s heart lay. The very first essay in the book is A Romp in the Catalogues with an image of the Roses of Yesterday and Today catalogue. It promised Old-Fashioned – Rare – Unusual as well as Selected Modern Roses. That book changed my life. I sent for the catalogue and began planning a hardy old-fashioned rose garden before we even arrived in Heath in December 1979.
Mrs. White was an elegant woman – and an elegant writer. She had help in her Maine garden but she made decisions about plants and arrangements. Her descriptions of her reactions to the catalogues, of flowers and vegetables are deliciously opinionated. When talking about Park’s Book she said “Your head will swim, your mind boggle at the cataloguer’s task but soon you’ll realize that if you do your homework conscientiously, it will not be Park’s fault if you do not grow its seeds successfully.”
Just a list of the chapters gives you a sense of her personality and humor from The Changing Rose, the Enduring Cabbage; An Idea Which We Have Called Nature; Floricordially Yours; and Winter Reading, Winter Dreams which is where I find myself right now.
The well-known British author of novels, mysteries, children’s books and plays, Beverley Nichols, also wrote a numerous books about his houses and gardens. I discovered his book, Garden Open Today (1965). I have to credit British born Elsa Bakalar, my Heath neighbor on for introducing me to any number of British gardeners and their gardens. She shared a sense of humor with gardener/writers like Beverley Nichols and I was happy to join the fun.
The thing to remember is that if the garden is open the gardener is sure to meet visitors who have different opinions. Nichols has acknowledged them and gone on to be very firm with his own views and findings. In the chapter Mysteries he declaims about his experiences with the Climbing Flaming Nasturtium (Tropaeolum speciosum). He concludes that chapter with “I hope I have written enough to dispel any illusion that mine is a garden where nothing ever goes wrong.”
None of us gardeners can ever make such a claim, but it is because of this book that I became entranced with the idea of a Garden Open Today, when visitors would come and admire my gardens, or where I would overhear a whisper to a companion “She doesn’t weed, does she?” In spite of such visitors my annual June Rose Walk was my joy, and joy for many others. I think.
Having mentioned Elsa Bakalar, I cannot tell you how much she taught me. I who had never planted a perennial found her stuffed perennial borders breathtaking. She taught me about color. “(Garden catalogs) would describe both of these colors as red, and that is so imprecise. One is scarlet and one is crimson. . . . To me, scarlet is the color of a guardsman’s tunic, and crimson is the color of Victorian draperies,” she told me.
Though she was very particular about the use of color, and all the other elements of the garden, she was also devoted to the right of every gardener to do exactly what she -or he – wanted.
Her beloved husband, Mike, encouraged her to put all her wit and wisdom into a book. Happily A Garden of One’s Own, with its glorious photos by Gary Mottau, generously teaches all of us how to make perennial gardens filled with all our own passions.
Karel and Josef Capek and Amy Stewart
There are other books I treasure, not all of them by British authors. Czech brothers, Karel and Josef Capek, wrote and delightfully illustrated The Gardener’s Year (1931). This amusing book about the trials and tribulations of being a gardener takes us through the year from frost flowers on the January windowpane to the trials of flower catalogs in December. I would not have expected that the author of a book like this would also be the Czech author of science fiction who invented the word Robot. But, as others have said, there are many mysteries in the garden.
Amy Stewart has written several fascinating garden books, but I was particularly intrigued by Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities (2009). Stewart is a great researcher and writer. She found a stunning number of poisonous plants. I will not leave you on tenterhooks; the weed that killed Lincoln’s mother was white snakeroot, Eupatrium rugosum. This plant was sometimes found in Indiana pastures where cattle grazed. Their milk, made the cow very sick, and the milk could kill those who drank it, including Nancy Hanks, age 34, leaving her son 9 year old Abraham Lincoln an orphan. Later Thomas Lincoln remarried.
I will have to end here, but all these books are available for sale, or at your local library through the magic of the CWMars interlibrary system. Happy reading!
Between the Rows December 14, 2019