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 place

In scaled invention or true artistry.

- Ezra Pound


By Leon Whiteson

Faber and Faber, 168 pp., $18.95


Essays by various writers

Christian Ejlers Publishers, 136pp., $39.50

Available in the US through Archivia in New York, (212) 439-9194


By Ken Druse

Clarkson N. Potter, 248 pp., $45


By Roger B. Swain

Houghton Mifflin, 162 pp., $10.95


By Carole Ottesen

Harmony Books, 354 pp., $50


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.

Another fascinating book with a literary connection is Karen Blixen's Flowers: Nature and Art at Rungstedlund. The Danish author of ''Out of Africa,'' better known by her pen name of Isak Dinesen, retreated to Denmark in 1931 after the failure of her coffee farm in British East Africa. She returned to her family's estate, Rungstedlund, to write, paint, entertain, and cultivate a cut-flower garden.

Blixen's keen artistic sense entered everything she touched, from her observant oil portraits of Africans to large flower arrangements meant to impress guests. Hardly a shy woman, Blixen asked her friends, after her death, to write a book about her floral artistry.

Blixen composed flower arrangements with an eye for color combinations, and if she didn't find the right color in her own garden, she would bicycle around to her friends' gardens looking for it. She was ahead of her time in the use of unusual plant materials, mixing red cabbage leaves with wild as well as cultivated flowers, calling the results ''rococo bouquets.'' For a big party, Baroness Blixen could spend two days arranging flowers for the house.

In her perceptive essay, Lisbeth Hertel explains that the role of hostess was a crucial one to Blixen. There is nothing wrong, Hertel writes, with a woman who entertains from two motives: because she sincerely wants to give pleasure and because she sincerely wants to be thanked. Blixen never tired of inviting visitors outside to watch the evening primroses open. But she also watched the flowers open by herself. Like all true artists, Hertel writes, it did not matter to Blixen whether others appreciated her labors. She knew in herself that she had created something sublime.

Among her skills, the baroness could assess the ''personality'' of various flowers and build an arrangement to suit. Photographs included in the book, many taken by her friends in the 1950s and '60s, testify to the unusual beauty and romanticism of her flower arrangements.

Blixen admired tulips, although, as Hertel says, they are irritating flowers to arrange. ''First they stand stiff as guardsmen, ... then they twist and turn themselves.... Even if they were attractive to begin with, they only reach their full beauty ... after several days in a warm room. All the great flower painters knew that; their tulips are flowers with a will of their own. And so are Karen Blixen's.''

A connoisseur such as Blixen might have been categorized as a ''hunter'' in Ken Druse's dramatically beautiful book The Collector's Garden. Druse unveils 28 gardeners whose enthusiasm for unusual plants borders on obsession. Amusingly, he divides them into four types: hunters who seek the new and offbeat; missionaries who want to save certain species; specialists who focus on plants in a specific habitat; and aesthetes who value plants for their design effects. The choicest plants and landscapes are featured here in riveting display. This is the mother of all coffee-table gardening books.

For a more down-to-earth approach, a gardener can hardly do better than Roger Swain's Groundwork: A Gardener's Ecology. The genial bearded and suspendered host of Public Television's ''Victory Garden'' writes in an engaging style about lessons gained from his farm in southern New Hampshire. With true Yankee fortitude, he announces at the outset: ''The best lessons are accompanied by sweat.'' The components of good soil, the need to save arable land, the importance of being stewards of the environment, are all addressed with simplicity and concern.

On the level of practical gardening aids, two books stand out for their organization and colorful photographs: The Native Plant Primer] by Carole Ottesen, and What to Plant Where, by Roy Lancaster. The first book looks in depth at the specific geographic regions of the United States, admiring the strength and tenacity of plants that have always grown there. Ottesen devotes the largest part of ''The Native Plant Primer'' to profiles of indigenous plants, vines, shrubs, and trees. Just the right mixture of bright photographs with helpful text gives gardeners a leg up on understanding native plants of their region.

''What to Plant Where'' deals with helping gardeners find plants to create particular effects, such as a garden of blue flowers and grayish foliage or to solve problems, including exposure to air pollution, too much shade, or soil that's too dry. It's a reference book that would appeal to experienced gardeners as well as those just getting started.

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