Pleasures of the Literary Garden | The Reader’s Shelf, May 15, 2012

The pleasures of gardening bloom brightly each spring, but it is also a reflective activity that invites deep connection with oneself and the landscape. Such reflection often leads to wonderful writing. When avid gardeners are forced indoors, reading about someone else’s garden can be almost as soul-satisfying as digging in their own. Even those readers who don’t have the space or inclination to grow flowers and vegetables might enjoy these titles.

In Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden (Modern Library. 2002. ISBN 9780375759451. pap. $14.95), Eleanor Perényi’s brief, wide-ranging essays are filled with literary references and blunt opinions‚ and sharp and fine writing. In addition to beans, dahlias, lilies, and onions, she covers the alarmist nature of weather forecasts, the idiocy of seed tapes, and the beneficence of the vulgar toad. Ending with Woman’s Place, Perényi casts a feminist eye over the history of gardening, explaining how flower gardens became a feminine ghetto. This is a collection to put into the hands of avid gardeners and literary-essay fans alike.

Originally published in The New Yorker from 1958 to 1970, Katharine S. White’s beguiling gardening essays comprise Onward and Upward in the Garden (out-of-stock indefinitely [OSI], but still available). Most gardeners understand the allure of the plant catalogs that begin arriving in the mail in January, but only a fine writer like White could turn them into literature worth a close reading. She pores over them, praising the writers’ style while sometimes bemoaning hybridizers’ offerings. White also offers digressions‚ including long forays into the art of flower arranging and flower shows‚ and some practical tips.

Weed scientist Nancy Gift challenges our suburban horticultural fears in A Weed by Any Other Name: The Virtues of a Messy Lawn, or Learning to Love the Plants We Don’t Plant (Beacon, dist. by Random. 2009. ISBN 9780807085523. $23.95). She not only gives names to the nuisance plants common in lawns and gardens but tries to get readers to appreciate them. Using a measured approach and every day events‚ a daughter’s bulb-planting birthday party at a community center, her parents’ experiences with a lawn service, a visit to friends living in a newly built subdivision‚ Gift invites readers to recall childhood experiences of weeds, unravel the clues they can provide about the soil and its history, and even experiment with them in the kitchen (recipes provided).

In her delightful Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (Penguin. 2010. ISBN 9780143117285. pap $16), Novella Carpenter takes urban gardening to its extreme, recounting how she and her boyfriend moved to an apartment in a rundown section of Oakland because it sat next to a vacant lot that they could use for gardening. Soon the garden becomes a way for her to connect with her neighbors, and she develops affection for her community as well as her plants. Not one to do anything by halves, Carpenter quickly moves from vegetables to bees, turkeys, chickens, and other animals. Though few readers will want to follow her example of raising pigs in the inner city, many will find Carpenter’s tale both amusing and inspiring.

In Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation (Knopf. 2011. ISBN 9780307269904. $30), Andrea Wulf details the passion of America’s early statesmen for plants and gardens and their conviction that success in agriculture was crucial for the nourishing of the new nation. She paints a touching portrait of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams touring famous gardens while waiting to see if Britain would sign a trade treaty with the United States and speculates on how a visit by constitutional delegates to the gardens of botanist William Bartram might have paved the way for a compromise essential to the success of the new Constitution. Readers will appreciate the impact of the Founding Fathers on our landscape through Wulf’s engrossing and well-argued account.

Convinced that turning her deck into a conservatory for exotic plants will provide welcome comfort after surviving cancer and her sister’s untimely death, Ruth Kassinger dives into Paradise under Glass: The Education of an Indoor Gardener (Morrow. 2011. ISBN 9780061547768. pap. $15.99). She intersperses her journey with an engrossing and detailed history of fads and fancies in indoor gardening, from Louis XIV’s orangerie at Versailles to the mania for collecting wild ferns in Victorian England. As she visits various breeders and growers and tries her hand at many types of plants with mixed results, Kassinger develops her own slice of Eden and discovers how to adjust to life’s inevitable losses.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at