WHEN winter makes gardening unthinkable, all a gardener can do is read books. About gardens, of course.
Some of the current crop are well worth digging into.
Take Invitation to the Garden: A Literary and Photographic Celebration, edited by Ferris Cook (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 239 pp., $45). Not a book to be kept among the dibbles in the potting shed. Far too handsome to be handled with loam crusted under your fingernails. It is, on the other hand, much more than a living room ornament.
Excellent color photographs play in counterpoint with - rather than illustrate - a wide range of poetry and prose, from Gerard Manley Hopkins (on bluebells) and Rainer Maria Rilke (a sonnet and an excerpt from a letter on anemones), to a particularly stirring John Steinbeck story, "The Chysanthemums," and Gertrude Stein (on the rose, but not the expected quote). None of these are, in essence, about gardening, or even plants per se. They are about living.
Some of the writing is "gardening writing" - of notable quality - but most is literary and takes the reader beyond horticultural enthusiasm to questions of motive, inspiration, and investigation of the various forms of love humans entertain for plants and earth. More than the overworked word "celebration" suggests, this book provokes thought. One writer, Charles Dudley Warner, argues with humor that the value of a garden is not fruit and vegetables but "to teach ... patience and philosophy ... expectatio ns blighted ... resignation, and sometimes alienation."
Contrariwise, Alice B. Toklas wrote: "The first gathering of the garden in May of salads, radishes and herbs made me feel like a mother about her baby - how could anything so beautiful be mine...." Nathaniel Hawthorne not dissimilarly observed: "Childless men, if they would know something of the bliss of paternity, should plant a seed, - be it squash, bean, Indian corn, or perhaps a mere flower or worthless weed...."
Most of the writers selected would not go along with "mere flower or worthless weed." Simply praising flowers, wild or cultivated - finding the right words - is encountered. Read Charles M. Skinner on the trillium, for instance, or Mabel Osgood Wright on the morning glory. But for opposite spice, Alice Morse Earle expresses actual dislike of the autumn crocus and the Indian Pipe, calling the latter "palpably ghastly." Between the two comes Clarice Lispector on the orchid in her "Dicionario." She sardonic ally criticizes this "female" flower, even dubbing her "obnoxious." But then, for her punchline, she writes: "What I've said isn't true: I adore orchids."
"Invitation to the Garden" is a book to quote forever. One or two oddities perhaps allow it to fall short of the consummate. Why was John Donne's poem "The Primrose" paired with a photograph of candelabra primulas, when only the little wild yellow English primrose could possibly be right? Why was a piece emphasizing the significance of irregularly natural stone in Japanese gardens faced by a photograph of a Japanese garden with flagstones cut into sharp rectangles by man? And - the sort of detail gardene r-readers love to pick on - the brilliantly colorful cover photograph shows poppies, it's true, but they are certainly not "alpine poppies" as the caption says. The ones pictured are far too tall, and the leaves are quite different. But overall, this is definitely a book to have and to hold.
Two British garden designers are "celebrated" in recent volumes. The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll, by Richard Bisgrove (Little, Brown & Co., 192 pp., $45) is a service to anyone who wants a clearer idea of just what it was about the Edwardian gardener's work that has gained her such undying respect in the garden world. Bisgrove fleshes out her design work convincingly. Redrawn, colored, and legibly labeled plans for gardens she designed make it possible to appreciate her creativity as a plantswoman and her
breadth of vision in transforming dull, disjointed gardens into delightful, coherent ones.
Fine photographs of modern plantings in the Jekyll tradition also help. Bisgrove emphasizes her balancing of artifice and naturalness, and her "prevailing sense of harmony" with "carefully planned contrasts" to "excite rather than jar." He matches her scrupulous attention to detail with his own in this attractive explication of a much-admired gardener.
Gardens of the Mind: The Genius of Geoffrey Jellicoe, by Michael Spens (Antique Collectors' Club, Wappingers' Falls, N.Y., 191 pp., $59.50) is a more difficult book. The writing is somewhat speculative and theoretical, perhaps. But this could be the nature of the subject.
Jellicoe's approach to landscape and garden "design" is not at all a matter of earthy practicalities. He is as concerned with symbolic meaning and art history, and the changes wrought by growth, as he is with mounds of soil, vistas, path directions, and planting diagrams. Jellicoe is far from neglecting such mundane matters, but conceptual significance informs his work, whether it is redesigning the site of a nuclear-power station, making the memorial to John F. Kennedy at Runnymede, or his ambitious re- creation of the garden of an Elizabethan Renaissance house called Sutton Place.
Spens, who is an architect, has written a fascinating first study of this master landscape architect, who is still active in his 10th decade. But better and more photographs (particularly of Sutton Place) would have helped the reader see more vividly the actual results of this designer's unusual thinking.
Keeping Eden: A History of Gardening in America, edited by Walter T. Punch for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown & Co., 277 pp., $50) is a group of essays on the subject. Particularly pertinent is Melanie L. Simo's "Regionalism and Modernism: Some Common Roots." Regional designers like Jens Jensen, who worked near Chicago before World War I, are precursors of such designers today as Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden, who are interested in making not only truly Americ an gardens, but also gardens that are true to specific regions in the United States.
Michael Pollan gives the book a brilliant kick in the pants in his "Afterword: The Garden's Prospects in America." He identifies two principal and uniquely American antigardening factors that must, as he argues with delicious verve and irony, be obliterated before anything like a genuinely "American garden" can "come into its own."
The two factors seem paradoxical, but both undoubtedly are inimical to garden making. They are the American adoration of wilderness, and the American dedication to the front lawn. Still, he muses, "almost overnight Americans have invented a distinctive and impressive cuisine." So why not "distinctive and beautiful gardens?"
Such provocative (and entertaining) writing is just the thing for winter reading: an incentive to fresh ideas no less energizing than the spring which is, after all, just round the corner.