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I can always find the spine of Midge Keeble’s book on my gardening shelf: it is pale pink, the colour of apple blossoms, and stands out among its green-backed fellows that scream, rather than whisper garden. Midge was a writer of extraordinary grace, and she was a lifelong gardener who started digging in the dirt as a young hoursewife just after the Second World War. When she was 76, she published one of my favourite garden memoirs, Tottering in my Garden, which I love for its humour, its honesty, its unabashed love of growing things. “Gardening is an adventure, liberally laced with misadventure,” she writes. “Every garden teaches you something.”
In the original preface to this book, Lawrence wrote: “Gardening, reading about gardening, and writing about gardening are all one; no one can garden alone.” In this book, she mves between her own gardens, first in Raleigh, then in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the garden of the somewhat myseterious Mr. Krippendor of Ohio, a place so expansive he could plant tens of thousands of bulbs. Elizabeth Lawrence was to gardens what M. F. K. Fisher was to food: a dedicated amateur and a writer of great skill and sensitivity. This particular book is sharply focused, and for thse love garden smalls as I do, indispensible.
Karel Capek is known best as a darkly comic writer of Czech fiction and the author of the play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in which his brother and collaborator, Josef, first coined the word "robot" from the Czech word for forced labour. But Karel was also a gardener and famous for his Friday salons for Czech patriots, held in his Prague garden. In 1929, he veered away from plays and stories to write a singular collection of essays that follow the calendar year through that same backyard garden. Illustrated with Josef's whimsical drawings, The Gardener’s Year is a witty and delightful perambulation through a world where passion often overrides practicality, and where feet of clay fail to put to an anchor to the most lofty of horticultural ambitions.
Elizabeth Smart is best known for her lyrical novel By Grand Central Station I sat Down and Wept (1945), a thinly disguised account of her illicit affair with the poet George Barker. Although her mother worked successfully to suppress the book in Canada, it is now considered a classic. Smart moved to England and she supported herself and her four children with magazine work until she retired to "The Dell," a cottage in north Suffolk where she took up literary writing again. As well, she began to write a gardening column for Harper's Bazaar. She always intended to write a gardening book, and kept multiple diaries, including eleven journals and twenty notebooks devoted to plants. Cullings from these were gathered to produce Elizabeth's Garden: Elizabeth Smart on the Art of Gardening (1989), a delightful book that is much, much too short.
The third book by this delightful gardening couple moves alphabetically through a few dozen of their horticultural favourites, including violets, specifically the Viola rotundifolia that was in full golden bloom on the riverbank the day they first saw the property that became North Hill. Eck and Winterrowd write in a style that is so intimate and opinionated that they'll soon come to seem like friends.
Most of us know Germain Greer as the woman who wrote The Female Eunuch but the uninhibited six-foot Australian lived a second life as Rose Blight, author of a series of gardening columns that appeared in the satiric British magazine Private Eye in the 1970s. The columns are collected in a thin, wickedly funny volume called The Revolting Garden — difficult to find, but worth the search. As Rose Blight, Greer hurls herself against horticulture's conventions as vigorously as she rails against traditional male-female relationships. "A garden," she writes, "is the best alternative therapy."
Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941) was born Mary Annette Beauchamp and became a Countess after marrying the Graf von Arnim, fondly called the Man of Wrath in Elizabeth and her German Garden. Inspired by the derelict gardens surrounding the schloss where they lived, the novel recounts her attempts to bring order to the wilderness, to make a place that feels like home. "There is not a creature in all this part of the world who could in the least understand with what heart-beatings I am looking forward to the flowering of these roses." Frankly autobiographical — the author was listed simply as "An English Lady" — the novel was a huge success, reprinted 21 times in its first year. She published twenty other books, first as "the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden," then simply as "Elizabeth," a name she eventually took as her own. After the count's death, von Arnim built a chateau in Switzerland where she wrote and entertained literati such as H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, and her cousin Katherine Mansfield. Although more than a century has passed, the saucy independence of Elizabeth's gardener is still a delight.
Katharine Sergeant Angell White is credited as the person who gave the New Yorker its shape and set it on its course. She started working at the magazine in 1925, six months after its founding, and became its first fiction editor. She stayed for thirty-six years, nurturing some of America's best writers, including Vladimir Nabokov, Mary McCarthy, John Updike, and E.B. White, whom she married. On March 1, 1958, she published the first of her garden essays, a ground-breaking review of garden catalogues which she approached with the humour, intelligence, and critical sensibility that we've come to expect of the magazine. Although she always insisted she was an editor, not a writer, her columns about her garden in Brooklin, Maine, were enormously popular and were collected posthumously in Onward and Upward in the Garden. Elizabeth Lawrence, a gardener and poet turned garden columnist, wrote to Katharine when the first column appeared, starting a lifelong correspondence between the two women. They wrote about their gardens in Maine and in Raleigh, North Carolina, comparing bloom dates and frustrations, but the letters range widely afield, offering an intimate and often tender glimpse of two writers obsessed with growing.
Francis Lincoln has made an admirable commitment to reprint all of Vita Sackville-West's garden writing, not only In Your Garden but also In Your Garden Again, More For Your Garden, and Even More For Your Garden as well as Sackville-West's remarkable poems, The Land and The Garden. Known as much for her garden writing and the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle that she created with her husband Harold NIcolson, as for her literary writing, Sackville-West was guided in her gardens by three principles which she promulgated in her essays: ruthlessness, untidiness (let self-seeded plants grow where they will), and vision (have an architectural plan, a colour plan, and a seasonal plan).