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Aug. 19, 2004

In the Garden

Great garden novels


IT'S AUGUST, AND AS USUAL, MY INTEREST IN SPENDING time in the garden is waning just as the garden itself is in full swing. I don't know how to explain it -- maybe all that growing and blooming and fruiting just wears me out. All I know is that every year around this time, I seem to stop buying plants at the nursery and I let the weeds run amuck. Some days, I can barely remember to go outside and turn the sprinkler on.

I know this lull won't last. Soon the fall will be here, shipments of spring bulbs will start to arrive, and I'll embark on a massive project to plant and divide and relocate perennials before the winter rains begin. But until I get my second wind, I'm content to sit in the garden and read a good book.

Which reminds me that there is no shortage of good gardening novels for those afternoons in the lawn chair. I'm always surprised that gardening doesn't make its way into books and movies more often (Saving Grace, a film about a middle-aged British woman growing pot, is one of the better gardening films out there, but who can forget the awful and inauthentic gardening scenes in the Andie MacDowell film Green Card or, worse, the disappointing British film Greenfingers? ) Please, if you know of any films with realistic depictions of people gardening, I'd love to hear about them, but in the mean time I will stick to my belief that Hollywood is too busy developing new approaches to car chases to figure out a halfway convincing way to show a person putting a plant in the ground.

So, happily, that leaves us with novels. Here are a few of my favorite gardening novels; write to me and tell me about yours and I'll report on them in a future column.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields: This is the novel that made me want to write a gardening column in the first place. It's the story of Daisy Stone Goodwill, who drifts rather aimlessly through life but seems to find her way for a while after her husband dies. She steps into his role as the local gardening columnist, changing the by-line from "Mr. Green Thumb" to "Mrs. Green Thumb." The letters she gets from readers just knocked my socks off. I was particularly inspired by one that began, "Dear Mrs. Green Thumb, I agree absolutely that peonies are beautiful but stupid," and I loved a letter about tulips that concluded, "Frankly, I often found the ex-gardens writer, Mr. Green Thumb, uncommitted on the subject of broken varieties. A bit namby-pamby on fertilizers, too." Ah, who doesn't love an opinionated gardener?

Rose's Garden by Carrie Brown: This is a gorgeous, sweet, sad and spiritual book about a man whose wphoto of The Lost Garden bookjacketife dies, leaving him to care for her garden. The garden draws him in and connects him to her, and her way of life, in a way that he hadn't experienced while she was alive. "A man could lose himself here," Brown wrote. "He could enter the overgrown bowers of his garden and never appear again, hemmed in by thorns and vines, impeded by an army of flowers, an ocean of green." Lovely.

The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys: This is a compelling and mysterious novel about an English woman named Gwen who, in 1941, joins the Women's Land Army and oversees the growing of crops during the war. She is stationed at a long-neglected estate, and as she brings the garden back to life she changes, too. Now, I know that you don't have to reach far for a metaphor like that, but Humphreys manages to make this story fresh and interesting. Take, for instance, this moment when Gwen first puts her hands in the dirt at this estate. "I rub the dirt between my fingers. The red earth of Devon is thick and full of texture. I put a little on the tip of my tongue and taste the wormy, metallic tang of soil choked with nutrients. It will be fine."

Quite a Year For Plums, by Bailey White: A hilarious Southern novel in which the characters simply garden as an incidental part of their lives. Among them is a tomato plant pathologist who gets everyone thinking about soil-borne plant diseases; I love the passing reference to a woman's kitchen that is filled with "the humusy smell of the soil baking in the oven -- 350 degrees for one hour to kill the soil pathogens." And here I'd always thought that baking cookies produced the coziest scent a kitchen could have.

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver: This is the intertwined story of a farmer's wife, a forest ranger, an organic farmer and an entomologist. It's a big, sweeping novel about the struggles we engage in with, and within, the natural world. I was just reading through it and found this passage, so appropriate for the season: "If she'd known how much work there would be in August, she would have considered July a vacation. The garden was like a baby bird in reverse, calling to her relentlessly, opening its maw and giving, giving She had put up thirty pints of kosher dills and still had so many cucumbers that she was having desperate thoughts."

garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.


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