The Idler: A Garden of Conceptual Delights

When I first began to procrastinate over this article on gardening, I had thought to muse on the garden as a metaphor for life, and talk a little about transience and the cycles of life; about expectation and reality; about nature, grace, and the futility of human endeavor, especially when the delphiniums turn their faces to the wall and expire yet another year in a row (I had planned for them to grow to a height of ten feet, like those of my Scottish friends). My garden journal—technically an aide-memoire to what was planted where, and a record of what actually came up and when—frequently digresses into theoretical musings, particularly when there is little to record. It is the closest thing to a diary you will ever catch me keeping.

Revisiting the garden via one’s journal is one of the small pleasures of life. Actually, the best time to visit my garden in real life may be in February, when it exists only in conceptual form, in my head. There, the crop failure is unknown; the blue forget-me-nots come up with the apricot tulips as planned, not in the lawn as they prefer, or, as is often the case, not at all. In February, the garden is one of beautiful thoughts and infinite possibilities. The seed catalogues have arrived; visions of sugarplums dance in my head, and all things are possible in this best of all possible worlds. In February, any dummy can grow foxgloves; it is only in March, when the seeds go into their flats, that fungus, ineptitude, and reality take their toll,

The seed catalogues are a literature unto themselves. In addition to offering its own line of plants and seeds, each one addresses the gardener in a carefully contrived literary style, as if the garden grown from its produce might speak in its particular voice. White Flower Farm’s, for instance, is written with a self-conscious and slightly smartypants Yankee twang, and is full of advice as well as plant information. Gurney’s, on the other hand, out of Yankton, South Dakota, assumes that you know what you are doing and speaks with the authentic, if hokey, wisdom of the heartland. Smith and Hawken’s is laid back and Californicated, earnestly enviro-liberal and a little anti-capitalist, although I notice that their Zen has recently expanded to incorporate a line of ladies’ clothing and mail-order gifts. Burpee’s, one of the nation’s oldest seedsmen, was sold some years ago to ITT with predictable results, then bought back again by the founding family, and its catalogue has resumed its first-rate style and decorous tone. One is hardly surprised to find a lot of Wellesley graduates among the Burpees.

Gardening must be big business, as European seedsmen are beginning to break into the American market. Each of their catalogues conveys something, too, of their own national literary flavor. The Dutch Gardens catalogue from Lisse, for example, or Thompson and Morgan, an English entrant that sends me a book that amuses and mystifies with its Briticisms.

Getting on the lists for the seed catalogues is a concrete act of faith, for it assumes that your garden will at some point pass from the conceptual into a more concrete physical form. For the real conceptual gardener, sometimes known to the uninitiated as the armchair gardener, there is a whole realm of literature to contemplate. Garden writing is in large measure a women’s literature, and a philosophical one, though in a modest and seemly form. It smacks of hubris to proclaim, “I am a moral essayist,” but no one could object to, “I write about my garden” as an unsuitable job for a woman, not even one of those men whose Rules of Life includes the formidable Never Discuss Philosophy With Women.

Ostensibly the garden literature is about practical matters—how to plan, begin, plant, and harvest a garden. But like most literature, it may be read on more than one level. In reality the gardening literature is about things in general. It is about balance and harmony: why are the foxgloves genuinely lovely when they bloom with the mauve hespenis but genuinely putrid two weeks later when the columbines come out? It is about man’s ruthless imposition of order upon nature: if they look that awful, rip them up and throw them on the compost heap. Here it is intensely personal, and full of surprisingly heated and passionate controversies; there it is dispassionate, ironic, and funny, all too aware of the contrasts between expectation and reality, desire and fulfillment, and of the smallness of its subject. By the time you finish one of the better gardening books, you know not only the author’s own piece of ground intimately, you also know his (or more likely her) disposition and the interior of his mind.

For beyond the actual practicalities of the garden and their ramifications lie the musings of the garden writers, the pure fantasies, the complete conceptual gardens. For a long time the garden literature, practical and theoretical, belonged almost exclusively to the British Isles, where gardening is known to be a passion verging on a religious mania. The Irish writer William Trevor, when asked to nominate the best and most overrated books of 1992, ends a serious consideration of the year’s crop of novels and biographies thus: “But the work I consulted most often, and repeatedly returned to, was Dr. D.G. Hessayon’s Vegetable Jotter. Particularly sound on the cultivation of asparagus. Even better on parsnips.” They take their literary task seriously, for while the English may not have invented the visionary garden of literature, they surely thought up the literature of visionary gardening. Consider Vita Sackville-West, the poet and literary lioness: she was probably best known in her day as a gardener. Most people know her as the inventor of the lovely conceit of the all-white garden, which she and her husband planted at Sissinghurst Castle. But the unplanted gardens of her mind reveal her at her best and quirkiest: she also planned a black garden for sitting in on dismal days when one is feeling depressed. She plotted it out in minute detail, from its northern exposure to the purple beech that overshadowed it to a full seasonal run of black and purple perennials and foliage plants. Surely no one save Dr. Kevorkian would genuinely plant such a monstrosity, and yet, and yet… as a conceptual piece, it has its undoubted appeal.

Another writer whom I must recommend to the conceptual gardener is the Englishwoman Gertrude Jekyll, who began life as an artist, but when threatened with increasing myopia verging on blindness, turned her hand to the larger canvas of the herbaceous border. Thank heaven she did. This modest lady’s sureness of touch and deft ordering of the perennial garden have earned her a higher seat in the Pantheon than her watercolors ever would. New editions and selections of her works come out regularly, for her writing on color harmonies in the garden remains unsurpassed. Nowadays gardening on this kind of scale is necessarily conceptual: she had, for example, a whole double border of Michaelmas daisies concealed around a corner, so that one could come upon it unexpectedly in October and enjoy the contrast of its pale hues to the brighter autumnal colors elsewhere in the garden. Somehow this presupposes a large staff of head gardeners, undergardeners, and footmen to carry out the tea hamper, all of whom have long since passed into the realm of legend and romance.

In recent years a few American writers of surpassing excellence have emerged to challenge the British monopoly on literary gardening. One of the most pleasing presents my husband ever gave me was his spontaneous purchase one afternoon in a Washington bookstore of two of the American classics of the genre, Green Thoughts by Eleanor Perenyi and Katharine White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden. Seldom have I been so beguiled. I recommend both highly. The redoubtable Mrs. Perenyi opens new horizons in the gardening of the imagination: she double jumps us all and invents a conceptual gardener to work in her conceptual garden, thus:

McC. is a Scot, a tall, lean, saturnine fellow born just short of seventy years ago near Aberdeen, and he comes from a long line of estate gardeners…. He rose rapidly to the top of his profession, and after his emigration to America was head gardener to three Long Island millionaires, each sorry to part with him. I haven’t quite understood how he came to pick our village for his retirement—”caught his fancy’ is all he will say—and still less why he decided to give me some of his time…. Anyway, I am grateful, because what McC. doesn’t know about horticulture isn’t worth bothering about.

She strings us along for another couple of paragraphs concerning McC.’s virtues before announcing, “There is only one trouble with McC. He doesn’t exist outside my fevered imagination.” Her real help has consisted of the ignorant, the incompetent, the mad, and a suicide.

Katharine White, in real life Mrs. E.B. White, is a conceptualist from the outset. Her book is a collection of New Yorker essays in which she annually reviewed the current crop of books and seed catalogues, critiquing both their literary styles and gardening content. A literary gardener looks at the garden literature: we are quite far removed here from dirt under the fingernails.

Now that the gardening book is established as a respectable literary genre of some status, a few men worthy of mention have taken up the mantle of conceptual gardening. Many of the male writers are disappointingly practical, and like the zany Jerry Baker, give you actual formulas and instructions for feeding your lawn using golf spikes and dishwashing detergent. Others, though, have adopted the properly bemused attitude. Graham Rose, in The Romantic Garden, freely admits that his ideal garden is really one of the mind, which he calls “The notional garden.” His book is illustrated with snippets from existing gardens, photographs so lush that naughty people have scissored some of them from the local library’s copy, but clearly they could all only be combined in some garden of the mind. And consider Henry Mitchell, the Washington Post’s “Earthman,” on the garden he would have if he did not live in downtown Washington:

Some have accused me of being anti-tree merely because I have well-founded and correct hatred of Norway maples, hemlocks, wild cherries, and silver maples. I have suffered much from all of them. Hemlocks are worst.

But if I had room, my real passion would be trees. Once I helped someone choose magnolias for a great planting of these glorious creatures; and while they did not take my advice… still it was exhilarating….

Usually I am grateful for the little dabs of stuff I grow, and when in my right mind I thank God for my sixth of an acre. But there are other times—shameful, of course—when I feel much abused.

One could go on and on, recommending garden literature to fill many hours that might have otherwise been spent toiling fruitlessly over a spade. But I have recently made an offer on a new (well, old) and bigger house with whole gardens, front and rear, unplanted. It is 40 degrees outside and threatening to rain. The new seed catalogues have arrived.


After graduating from Wellesley College, Pittsburgh native Mary Elizabeth Podles pursued postgraduate studies in art history at Columbia University. She has employed her expertise in curating at the Metropolitan Museum of New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington; most recently, she acted as the Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Since retiring, Podles has continued to engage in her field by her writing and lecturing, as well as taking up the practical study of art in order to better understand the process undergone by the artists themselves.

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