Nov. 25, 2004
No One Gardens Alone
by AMY STEWART
ELIZABETH LAWRENCE IS ONE OF THOSE WRITERS WHOSE death is mourned anew by every gardener who discovers her work and then realizes that she only published a few books in her lifetime. There's only one thing to do in a situation like that: Read slowly. It would be a terrible thing indeed to run out of Elizabeth Lawrence, so rationing is the only option. Fortunately, some of Lawrence's previously unpublished work has been collected and released posthumously, and now a new biography gives Lawrence fans something else to enjoy.
Elizabeth Lawrence lived and gardened in North Carolina. In 1933, she was the first woman to graduate from North Carolina State's landscape design program, and although she worked for another woman's landscape practice after college, she preferred designing gardens for herself and for her friends. She began writing articles for House & Garden magazine, which led to her well-loved garden column for the Charlotte Observer. Although she is most decidedly a Southern writer, her wit, grace and endless curiosity won her an audience all over the country, if not the world.
If you're moving into that time of the year when the garden has wound down and it's time to retreat indoors and consider your plans for the spring, you're ready for your introduction to Lawrence. Start with A Southern Garden, which is organized by season and will give you an opportunity to evaluate your own garden one month at a time. Her essay "Shrubs With Flowers Before Leaves," for instance, recognizes that an early spring garden needs something other than daffodils. She begins, "Everyone greets the first daffodil with the feeling that there cannot be too much sunlight or too much yellow in the world. But a few weeks of jasmine, forsythia, and the narcissus King Alfred bring the conviction that there can be too much of anything." She goes on to suggest shrubs that will introduce a welcome dash of pink just as winter is ending, but concludes her discussion with the frank admission that, "There is room even in a small garden for an almost infinite variety of bulbs and border plants, but in any garden short of an estate one must eventually call a halt on shrubs."
Lawrence's warmth and good humor is especially evident in Gardening for Love: The Market Bulletins, which was unfinished when she died in 1985. Garden writer and philosophy professor Allen Lacy took up the task of editing the manuscript. It was published in 1987. (The book is still in print from Duke University Press, and the library has a copy, but I have it check out and you can't have it until I'm through with it.) In it she explored the rich literary tradition of state-published agricultural market bulletins, in which, as she put it, "farmers advertise their crops, their cattle, their horses and dogs, and their wives list the seeds and bulbs and plants they sell for pin money." The bulletins read, she insisted, like a Eudora Welty novel, full of the quirks and customs of the South. Lawrence began corresponding and exchanging seeds with the people who advertised in these bulletins. Every one of these gardeners feels like a kindred spirit, especially the person who offered in a market bulletin to "give away a large pink oleander to anyone who will haul it away and provide several buckets of good dirt to fill the hole."
North Carolina author Emily Herring Wilson has made more of Lawrence's work available after her death, publishing the correspondence of Lawrence and New Yorker editor Katharine White in Two Gardeners: A Friendship in Letters, and now a biography called No One Gardens Alone. Once you've read a few of Elizabeth Lawrence's gardening books, you will surely enjoy this story of her life, her garden, and her friends and family. I especially loved the details about Elizabeth's work as a writer. When one of her articles was rejected, her sister Ann told her, "It is good for you to have every other article refused, and as for [the editor's not] answering your letter, have you become so provincial that you do not remember the hustle and bustle of the city life?" She was most certainly a writer's gardener, quoting freely from Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West, not to mention William Wordsworth, Jane Austen and Henry David Thoreau.
Thanks to Duke, the University of North Carolina and Beacon Press, most of her work remains in print. You could probably go down to a bookstore today and order the books I've mentioned here, along with Through the Garden Gate, The Little Bulbs, Gardens in Winter and A Rock Garden in the South. Lob's Wood, not much more than a booklet, is the only one you'll have much trouble finding. If you're going to strike up a friendship with Elizabeth Lawrence, you're much better off stumbling across her books one at a time, and reading them leisurely, savoring just a few essays each December as winter settles in.
garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.
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