Epistolary garden books
by AMY STEWART
I HAVE FAR TOO MANY GARDENING BOOKS, many more than I need. I have books on pest control, soil, fertilizer, lawn care -- and I don't even have a lawn. I haven't read some of the books. I ignore the advice in most of them.
Still, new gardening books are irresistible, especially on rainy winter days when I can't get outside. A new book by garden writers Katharine White and Elizabeth Lawrence was just published last spring; it's a collection of their letters and it tells the story of their gardens -- and their lives -- over several decades. That got me thinking about some of the other epistolary (books told through letters) garden books I've read over the years. There are a surprising number of them, due in part, I suppose, to the fact that gardeners love to brag about their gardens and will do so in person, over the phone, or by old-fashioned letter.
Two Gardeners: A Friendship in Letters is the latest such collection. It began when Katharine White decided to indulge the wishes of her husband, writer E.B. White, and buy a little property in Maine. There she finally had space to plant her garden, which led to a series of essays on seed catalogs, flower shows, and garden literature for the New Yorker. Thanks to those essays, which were collected into a book called Onward and Upward in the Garden, Mrs. White and fellow garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence began nearly 20 years of correspondence. Fortunately for the rest of us, biographer Emily Herring Wilson came across the letters at Northwestern State University in Louisiana when she was doing research for a biography of Lawrence.
The correspondence began in 1958, when White was 65 and Lawrence was 54. White had just written her first essay for the New Yorker, "A Romp in the Catalogs." In it she put forth a startling pronouncement about the writers of garden catalogs: "They are as individualistic -- these editors and writers -- as any Faulkner or Hemingway, and they can be just as frustrating or rewarding." That set the tone for a series of essays that would be part literary criticism, part over-the-fence garden talk, and part good-natured ribbing directed at the seed and nursery industry, which had never before received such careful scrutiny from the likes of the New Yorker.
Lawrence, a garden columnist for the Charlotte Observer and author of A Southern Garden and The Little Bulbs (and, posthumously, Gardening for Love: The Market Bulletins and Through the Garden Gate), wrote an enthusiastic letter to White in which she praised her New Yorker essay and suggested several more catalogs she might enjoy. From the very first letter, Lawrence established herself as an valuable resource to White, pointing out a sentimental prayer in the Park Seed Company catalog and the accompanying note from Mr. Park: "My friends, are these your sentiments? If not, why not?" White wrote about that catalog in her next essay; in fact, some of her best material had its origins in the letters she exchanged with Lawrence.
E.B. White once noted that his wife agonized over her New Yorker pieces, but that letters "flowed naturally from her in a clear and steady stream, a warm current of affection, concern, and eagerness to get through to the mind of the recipient." The same can certainly be said of Lawrence's side of the correspondence as well. It is a delight to come across any scrap of writing by a favorite author after her death, and I was doubly pleased to learn that two such enlightened and enthusiastic gardeners left this rich legacy behind.
If you like Two Gardeners, move on to Dear Friend and Gardener by Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto. The correspondence between these two well-known British gardeners spans just one year, but is filled with the details of their respective gardens and lives over that year.
Similarly, A Year in Our Gardens by Allen Lacy and Nancy Goodwin chronicles one year in the lives of these two well-respected American gardeners. Lacy has written garden columns for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and is the author of a number of garden books, including The Inviting Garden. Goodwin is also a well-respected garden writer who was running Montrose Nursery in North Carolina during the year the book was written. (Martha Stewart dropped by the nursery one day; you'll have to read the book to get Goodwin's account of the event.)
The 3,000 Mile Garden: An Exchange of Letters of Gardening, Food, and the Good Life breaks out of the mold a bit: the letters between Leslie Land and Roger Phillips span five years and cross the Atlantic. Land is a Maine gardener, and Phillips lives in London. They met at a "mushroom bash" in New Hampshire and began a correspondence that documented their gardens in extraordinary detail: letters included sketches of the garden, plant lists, recipes, and even morning glory seeds and pressed flowers. This is an especially good book for lovers of community gardens: Roger Phillips documents his attempts to preserve some of the 461 "garden squares" in London. Phillips is also a professional garden photographer: I read his letters for advice on photographing that most difficult subject, my own garden. "Do not let the camera's tiny mind think for itself," he says, giving details on how to make the front and back vegetable in a group pull into focus. "It will look crummy if only the middle one is in focus," he writes. "End of lecture."
Finally, there is a fictional epistolary garden book worth checking out: Dear Mr. Jefferson: Letters from a Nantucket Gardener is Laura Simon's attempt to connect with the most horticulturally influenced American president, Thomas Jefferson. Simon is an author of historical romances who found herself longing for a modern-day Thomas Jefferson with whom she could share her gardening troubles. So she conjured him up, beginning a one-sided correspondence that is informed by her own knowledge of Jefferson's gardens. She struggles to explain modern gardening techniques to him and creates a sort of fictional narrative around their imaginary relationship. It's a fun read, good for a long winter's night.
Some of these books may be hard to find; the dirt-stained correspondence of literary gardening types is not the sort of thing that stays in print forever. Ask your favorite bookseller to track down a copy for you, or try searching the used book website www.abe.com for a good secondhand copy. I only wish I could recommend a good West Coast version of the epistolary garden book, but as far as I know, one has not been written yet. Drop me a note and tell me about your garden; perhaps the next great gardening correspondence is about to begin.
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