A Gardener's Ultimate Reason for Being
The why and how of gardens is revealed in six extraordinary and inventive books
Learn of the green world what can be thy placeSkip to next paragraph
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In scaled invention or true artistry.
- Ezra Pound
A GARDEN STORY
By Leon Whiteson
Faber and Faber, 168 pp., $18.95
KAREN BLIXEN'S FLOWERS: NATURE AND ART AT RUNGSTEDLUND
Essays by various writers
Christian Ejlers Publishers, 136pp., $39.50
Available in the US through Archivia in New York, (212) 439-9194
THE COLLECTOR'S GARDEN: DESIGNING WITH EXTRAORDINARY PLANTS
By Ken Druse
Clarkson N. Potter, 248 pp., $45
GROUNDWORK: A GARDENER'S ECOLOGY
By Roger B. Swain
Houghton Mifflin, 162 pp., $10.95
THE NATIVE PLANT PRIMER
By Carole Ottesen
Harmony Books, 354 pp., $50
WHAT TO PLANT WHERE
By Roy Lancaster
Dorling Kindersley, 256 pp., $24.95
Those who enter the green world of their backyard, city park, or even a room filled with potted plants, find in these places small dominions to contemplate. For many people, this is reason enough to love gardening.
One of the best recent books on gardening is not filled with lavish photographs of unattainable landscapes, nor does its author toss around Latin plant names. But more than other offerings, A Garden Story, by Leon Whiteson, speaks to the gardener's reason for being. It engages the intellect, providing a rich source of social commentary, garden lore, and - as Ezra Pound observed above - intensive soul-searching on the part of author Leon Whiteson (see interview, Page B4).
''A Garden Story'' doesn't fit any of the usual categories of garden-related books. It exists as a kind of personal journey in which gardening plays the central role. But Whiteson's pursuit of self-knowledge is not a symptom of narcissism. His lively curiosity, urban sensibility, and lack of snobbery make him excellent company.
Whiteson came to gardening reluctantly because of its associations with his father, a railway clerk of immigrant Jewish stock in Zimbabwe. His father's disappointment with life extended to the English-style garden he tried to maintain in Africa, despite weather differences and insect pests.
Whiteson himself began gardening as a change of pace from writing a novel. Trained as an architect, recently remarried, and having bought a house in Hollywood's historic Spaulding Square, south of Sunset Boulevard, the author brings a jumble of influences and experiences to his writing.
In 1987, when he and his wife, Aviva, moved into their new home, the yard was virtually barren. The few things in it included an avocado tree and a battered banana palm. Whiteson gradually came to look at the different sections of his yard as a ''green novel,'' paralleling the novel he was attempting to put on paper. He began to divide up the yard into sections, or ''chapters.''
At first, he bought plants for their smell, which brought memories of his African childhood. He did not research their growing conditions beyond water and light requirements because ''as a budding horticulturalist, I was protected by my ignorance. Since a novice gardener can be thoroughly daunted by dipping into gardening books that seem set upon making the process frighteningly complicated and fraught with failure, I deliberately avoided them.''
Whiteson's yard eventually became more productive than the novel he was working on. In ''A Garden Story,'' he recounts the flora and fauna of urban Los Angeles and the peculiarities of his neighbors. He writes about the turmoil on his street when a homeowner leased a house for an AIDS hospice, and when, in April 1992, the Los Angeles riots broke in waves from South Central to within a half-mile of his home. Ash from the fires covered his plants.
What is most rewarding about Whiteson's book are the life lessons he draws from gardening. While many gardeners frantically try to manage nature, he counteracts that impulse, pointing out that a garden, once established, defines itself. He offers reassurances that, despite the difficulties of getting one's garden to come out right, a piece of land slowly reveals its mysteries to the observant gardener.
The poet and avid nature observer May Sarton once wrote in her journal: ''Does anything in nature despair except man?'' Whiteson seems to agree, expressing the idea that working outdoors in a garden can shake us out of inertia and self-pity. Whiteson writes: ''The vigor of plants, their powerful will to grow and thrive, seemed utterly at odds with my all-too-human tendency to shrivel and wilt.'' These insights make ''A Garden Story'' rewarding and inspiring reading.