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May 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Carte Blanche
I’m a Pisces. That means I should love gardening. Wrong! Uncle Michael’s idea of a good time is not falling to his knees to grub around in the dirt, uncovering worms and other vermin that creep, crawl, and slither. And don’t get me started on compost. Besides, I have no gift for gardening. For a plant to come into my possession is to receive a death sentence! So it’s for the best if Mother Nature and I keep our distance. Mind you, this doesn’t mean I’m opposed to reading about gardening or about how your garden grows, particularly if it’s with silver bells and cockleshells (what the heck is a cockle, anyway?). In any case, I’ve been doing a spot of research on books about gardens, gardeners, and assorted flora. I’ll throw in spring while I’m at it for the sake of being able to quote a verse by Freddy the Pig: “Hooray for the spring! What a glorious feeling! / All the little lambs on the hillsides squealing! / Tighten up your braces! Tuck in your shirt! / All the little green things growing in the dirt!”
Even though he lived on a farm, Freddy was, like me, no gardener. Instead, he preferred the indoors, where he could sit in his easy chair, read, write, and think (which meant he had his eyes closed and was snoring).
Freddy aside, farms were in my blood when I was a kid; 10 of my maternal grandmother’s 12 brothers and sisters were Indiana farmers, and visits to their homesteads were common weekend events in my childhood. Most of the relatives had elaborate vegetable gardens, which served practical rather than decorative purposes. Putting food on the table was serious business. But vegetables weren’t the only things my relatives grew. Great-Uncle Ernest “grew” pigs (forgive him, Freddy). You could smell his farm a mile away. Seeing me wrinkle my nose at the omnipresent odor, my cousin Earl said, with a wink, “Don’t knock it, kid. That’s the smell of money!”
But I digress. Back to my research. Even without it, it’s obvious that the most famous garden in the world of books for young readers is the secret one that Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote about so memorably, though that of old Mr. McGregor, the one that Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, um, infested, runs a close second. Once you’ve cited those two, however, the list grows meager. For starters, there’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, which is actually only a titular garden, its flowers being the poems it contains. Then there’s Lucy M. Boston, the author of the five Green Knowe books, who did one—The Castle of Yew—about a magic garden; so did Philippa Pearce in her celebrated Tom’s Midnight Garden, and so, more recently, did Polly Horvath in The Night Garden. Then there’s Chris Van Allsburg’s mysterious The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. And, most recently, don’t forget The Night Gardener, by the Fan brothers, Terry and Eric. Beyond that, it’s slim pickings.
Oh, wait, one other leaps to mind: I recently reviewed a book for adults titled The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which focuses on the gardens in Wilder’s life and work; there were a number of them, for, as the author, Marta McDowell, writes, “Farming, gardening, and nature were backdrops and key plot elements for every volume in the series” (the Little House Books, that is). For those who do have green thumbs, McDowell even includes a chapter on “growing a Wilder garden” that boasts a lengthy list of plants (most of which I’ve never heard of—Catawba rosebay, anybody?) that Wilder “knew and grew.”
Free association brings another similar book—and literary garden—to mind, this one being Tasha Tudor’s Garden, by Tovah Martin, with photographs by Richard W. Brown. Tudor, who famously lived the simple, antique life, was apparently an avid gardener whose work graced her hilltop Vermont acreage.
And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention an author whose name was Garden: the late Nancy Garden, author, most famously, of Annie on My Mind (adults of a certain age will also remember another nearly eponymous author, Erle Stanley Gardner).
But surely there are lots and lots of others that I can’t think of. To verify that, I turned to Booklist Online’s advanced-search feature. Doing a subject search revealed the following, from a database extending back to about 1991: I found 86 nonfiction books for youth under “gardens” and another 312 adult books, making the total 398. You can add to that with another 491 under “plants,” for both adults and youth, but there is some duplication there. Still, a grand total in the area of 800 titles is surely enough for any nature boy, girl, or adult, and more than enough for the likes of little old me. Gardening books, like spring, are bustin’ out all over, but most, admittedly, are more practical than artful.
This is unfortunate, for there are those who would argue that gardening itself is an art. In that context, I had good luck with a search for fiction about gardens; I found 69 there, including Paul Fleischman’s memorable Seedfolks, and, speaking of seeds, there’s also his magical Westlandia; then there’s Erika Tamar’s The Garden of Happiness, which literarily marries art and gardens (a little girl’s sunflower is included in a mural), and Laurence Anholt’s The Magical Garden of Claude Monet, with its beautiful illustrations.
Whether artful or utilitarian, all of these books celebrate the beauty and bounty of nature and the gardeners who cultivate both. Good for them, I say, but come the end of the day, I confess I’d still rather see the evidence of that beauty and bounty in books than be a gardener myself.
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