Seasonal Garden Reading
THOSE who have reveled in the garden writings of Katherine White, Eleanor Perenyi, Russell Page, Sydney Eddison, or Louise Beebe Wilder have two new treasures for delightful bedtime reading during these wintry weeks when gardens lie beneath the snow throughout much of the country.
Any one of the short essays from The Gardener's Eye and Other Essays (Atlantic Monthly Press, 282 pp., $21.95), written by Allen Lacy, a philosophy professor at Stockton State College in Pomona, N.J., and garden writer for the New York Times, will amuse, educate, titillate, and occasionally infuriate the reader. Perfect.
Fifty years earlier, Southern garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence wrote a charming, inspiring, and equally opinionated book, A Southern Garden (University of North Carolina Press, 251 pp., illustrated, $24.95 cloth, $16.95 paper). Unlike many gardening books that come and go quickly, hers has been in print for most of those 50 years. This special edition is beautifully, if sparsely, illustrated with the watercolors of Shirley Felts.
While originally regarded as just a regional garden writer, Lawrence has gradually become recognized as a superb writer. "A Southern Garden" and her two other major books, "Gardens in Winter" and "The Little Bulbs," are well-thumbed treasures on many gardeners' bookshelves around the world.
"A Southern Garden" and "The Gardener's Eye" have much in common. They are heartfelt writings about the joys and woes of gardening, written by hands-on gardeners with curious minds.
Lawrence kept detailed records about her own garden experiences in Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C. Friends always described her as exploring with notebook and pen in hand whenever she visited their gardens.
Lacy is a constant observer of the delights, changes, successes, and failures in his own New Jersey garden, and he also gathers garden lore wherever he travels. He occasionally indulges in a dash of poesy reminiscent of the delicious purple prose of Reginald Farrer.
For example, when writing about snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), Lacy says, "If gods make flowers, as ancient peoples believed, then the tulip was made by a tyro, the snowdrop by a god who had mastered the craft, a god with no need to resort to look-at-me colors like crimson and scarlet." Then he urges readers to look at snowdrops and other flowers through a powerful hand lens with a focused beam of light (Eschenbach Leutchlupe) for an even greater appreciation of the intricacies of color and form.
Observing snowdrops with her naked eye 50 years earlier, Lawrence wrote succinctly, "The very white drooping flowers are prettily marked with lettuce green."
In recent years, Lacy's life has intertwined with Lawrence's like a newly planted clematis growing through an established camellia. He, a Duke graduate, and she, a landscape architect from North Carolina State College School of Design, have North Carolina roots.
Shortly after Lawrence's death in 1985, Duke University Press invited Lacy to edit an unpublished Lawrence manuscript. He was handed a cardboard box filled with a scramble of typed pages, retyped pages, and many almost undecipherable pages written in Lawrence's spidery handwriting.
Lacy created order out of that chaos, and readers now can enjoy "Gardening for Love," a book about the period when the market bulletins of the Southern states were fascinating sources of plants, bulbs, seeds, and lasting friendships for Lawrence. Lacy also wrote the introduction for "A Rock Garden in the South," another posthumous Lawrence book produced by Duke Press in 1990.
Gardening books typically fall into one of three categories: the how-to books, frequently padded with encyclopedias of plants; glamorous photographic marvels with little or no information; and well-written, meaty books gardeners can savor and study. Both "The Gardener's Eye" and "A Southern Garden" are tasty reads indeed.