Friday, January 14, 2011

Reading Through the Winter, I

    The only items that carry gardeners through the long, dreary months are garden books and catalogs.  Books can be roughly categorized by two kinds of authors: the living and the dead.  I’ll start with the latter.

My garden life has been shaped by long-dead gardeners and their writings.  I admit to having had no interest in gardening until I had a garden of my own.  It came with a house of course, and a small half-moon concrete patio around which was set a narrow band of soil.  Our first summer on Long Island we planted petunias, and that was it.  Beyond the concrete patio was a generous expanse of sloping lawn, crowned by a monumental copper beech tree, one of the oldest in our area.  It was the singular beauty of that tree that started me down the garden path.   

Very few people gardened in those days.  I had no one to talk to, but we did have an excellent public library in Port Washington.  I took books off the shelf at random, and most of them seemed to be by British gardeners and writers.  Missing from our local library were representatives of the “golden age” of American garden writers, the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century.  I didn’t discover Celia Thaxter, Louise Beebe Wilder and their kin until years later.  

I was deeply and romantically affected by Beverly Nichols’ Merry Hall.  Published in 1951, it is an account of the transformation of a run-down Georgian manor house and garden.  It was every girl’s dream -– at least every girl who has read The Secret Garden.  Set in post-World War II Britain, with all the shortages and deprivations that implies, you will find yourself a part of the last vestiges of a privileged society, with family retainers like Gaskins, the all-purpose factotum, and Oldfields, the taciturn gardener.

Please don’t allow the author’s arch tone to put you off, because as you walk along with him you stumble into a garden with row upon row of Regal lilies.  It convinces him to buy the house, and he sets out upon the restoration.  The reader meets an assortment of village characters, through which the author reveals his warts.   

As a novice gardener, I was enchanted.  Now, many years later, he appears so formidable I would be reluctant to ask him into the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

Not so with Vita Sackville-West.  Creator of the great English garden at Sissinghurst Castle with her husband Sir Nigel Nicholson, she was also the author of a weekly garden column in the London Observer.  The columns were collected and published in four volumes spanning February 1951 to October 1957: In Your Garden, In Your Garden Again, More for Your Garden and Even More for Your Garden.  They were released in a new edition in 1998 by Oxenwood Press Ltd.

The columns are grouped by the month, and are delightful to read.  In her series of December columns, she covered winter blooming plants (which we do not have here), gardening in tubs, waist-high sink gardens, creating miniature alpine gardens in pans as holiday gifts, hellebores (blooming for her at Christmas, for us not for months), and catalogs from abroad.  Not a lot for us here in the Northeast.

Nonetheless, the books transport you to a foreign country, but one where people speak our language (or we theirs).  You will see why American gardeners continue to remain smitten by the British, visit the great gardens and the Chelsea Flower Show, and dutifully take detailed notes on plants that will never survive here. 

But what is eminently transferable are the garden practices.  The construction of walls and paths, the preparation of beds, the creation of fences out of twigs, techniques for protecting tender plants for winter, are all practices that have not changed very much in the last 60 years.  What has changed is the availability of affordable helpers for the gardens.  You see these changes in the post-World War II literature in England, and we certainly see it here and now.   

Writing at the same time on this side of the Atlantic, but more tentatively, was Katharine White, the esteemed literary editor of The New Yorker under Harold Ross.  Married to E.B. White, they summered in Maine and eventually lived there –- and gardened -- full-time.  Mrs. White made her first appearance as a garden writer in the magazine with A Romp Through the Catalogs.  The article was read by Elizabeth Lawrence, an established garden writer in North Carolina, and a 29 –year correspondence began.

Both women were civilized, talented and consumed by their gardens.  Very different in nature, Lawrence described herself as a “dirt gardener,” while White immersed herself in catalogs, books, and pencil planning.  White supplied bloom-time and frost dates from her part of the world, and Lawrence offered a continuing stream of new catalogs and small plantsmen and nurseries for White’s pieces in The New Yorker.

The correspondence starts off only about gardening, but as the years pass the two women share concerns about their families, their health, and the difficulties of growing old.  Letters were an important part of their lives, and both authors devoted a good part of their day to answering their many correspondents.  Do you imagine that the emails we send back and forth in an instant will ever take on the coloration of letters composed in relative leisure, or that the arrival of the morning mail will provide such anticipation?

Returning to my first house on Long Island, we sold it twenty years later and moved on.  Somewhere in the intervening years, a subsequent owner put in a swimming pool, and the contractor piled all the excavated soil on top of the wide-spreading shallow roots of the magnificent copper beech.  Of course the tree died, a casualty of the ongoing war between nature and the suburban gardener.  If only he had read a few books.

1 comment:

  1. Ellen in ProvidenceFebruary 9, 2011 at 2:16 PM

    For those of us gardening in the Northeast, I think there's nothing as magical as visiting English gardens, especially Sissinghurst. Gardens like Hampton Court which date back centuries are like visiting Disney World; it's magical but one could never replicate it. But Sissinghurst is as accessible as Vita Sackville-West's writings.

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