Garden Reading

I could read a seed catalogue from cover-to-cover.

Especially one with beautiful photographs. I still remember the thrill of that first one from Park Seed, and the infinite sense of possibility that it offered me. I was seventeen, and completely dazzled with the notion that a whole garden could come from an envelope of those famous gold seed packets. And so inexpensively! I promptly ordered all sorts of unsuitable things for a beginner, like delphinium and larkspur. And while I was waiting for them to come, I obtained permission to appropriate a corner of our front yard for my garden. My mother was so gracious…and when none of the seeds came up that first year, she bought me some pretty little annuals in a burst of compassion.

The next year I was smart. I set all my new seeds out early in flats under plastic and nurtured them on our enclosed porch. Sweet peas and forget-me-nots grew and flourished into tiny seedlings. But the first night that I set them out to ‘harden off’ we had a rain storm of torrential proportions. I didn’t remember them until a burst of lightning awakened me with a start around two a.m. Mama and I stood on the porch together in our nightgowns and mourned all the poor little plants. Another year for annuals…

That year’s tragedy was mitigated somewhat by the fact that I had diversified. To be sure, my flowers had all been lost upon the flood, but a delightful delivery was on its way: three hybrid tea roses from Jackson & Perkins.  They had been ordered for weeks, and were promised to be sent at the appropriate planting time for our area. And that magic time happened to fall right in the middle of my two week mission trip to Russia that spring. Mama opened the box with fear and trembling, and she and my brother set them out where they hoped I wanted them. (Which was precisely correct, by the way.)

I learned so much through those early failures and sweet little successes. Above all, I discovered that despite the heartbreaking trials of it all, I really, really wanted to garden. To be a gardener. To cherish some of God’s loveliest creations into existence. Through the sage advice of other lovers of the soil, and through lots and lots of disasters :), I’ve gotten a little experience under my belt now. Even so, every season poses a new challenge, and bitterly-remembered adversaries to contest with. Bacterial rot. Squash vine borers. Slugs and drought and mildew and hail. But every time I put out my seeds or nestle a plant into a prepared bed, my heart whispers that very same little prayer that it did years ago when I patted those tiny bits of promise from Park Seed into red clay in my parents’ front yard:

Thou visitest the earth and waterest it…Thou makest it soft with showers: Thou blessest the springing thereof.

Psalm 65: 9, 10

I love to read about gardening almost as much as I love gardening itself. And really, the studying and learning is every bit as important as proper maintenance. It’s all part of the same joy of discovery. So permit me to share a few of my favorites…

That second spring I purchased my first two garden books. They were both respected Rodale publications: Illustrated Encyclopedia of Perennials and Growing Fruits and Vegetables Organically. The former was fuel for my aspirations; the latter was fodder for future dreams. Now the Fruits and Vegetables book is warped from sun exposure and muddied from on-site reference, and remains one of my all-time, hands-down favorites. It was there I learned about pasteurizing potting mix and when to harvest beans and how to pinch back tomatoes. But don’t imagine that Perennials has fallen upon neglect. It still ventures forth with me from time to time, especially with the introduction of a new lady to my flower garden.

A gardening friend gave me a gem for my birthday one year: Month-by-Month Gardening in Georgia by Walter Reeves and Erica Glasener. It’s such a fabulous reference tool, with an extensive chapter on each of the various classes–annuals, bulbs, edibles, houseplants, lawns and perennials–that tells you what you should be doing for your garden at any given time of the year right here in Georgia. I can only recommend it to local friends, of course :), but I encourage you to find out if your state has a similar publication. A few years ago I made a huge calendar of all the things I thought we needed to be doing during each month, gleaned from reading old Southern garden books. What a relief to find everything all in one place! With the non-essentials eliminated! More time for actually smelling the roses…

Speaking of old books, another of my dearest ones is a trim little volume I picked up years ago at Downs Books. It’s called Gardening in the South by George R. Briggs, and its glossy pages are peppered with black and white photographs of old Southern homes shaded with magnolias and spreading lawns fringed with spirea and azaleas.  The information in this solid little book is straight-forward and no-nonsense. Reading it is like talking to one of our grandmothers about plants. Good, sound advice with no unnecessary frills. The best quote of all comes from the chapter on roses–you must permit me to share it with you:

The writer knows of one great lover of Roses who buys dozens of the finest varieties each year which grow and bloom beautifully, but this person’s Rose garden is lacking in beauty and fails to show its splendor because the Roses are not in beds and bare soil only glares at the onlooker, thus ruining the entire display.

I confess, we read the above with a few chuckles. But then we went right out and bought some grass seed to sow in our rock-lined rose bed, in place of the shameful mulch-covered dirt. πŸ™‚

Another gift from this book is the intensely practical information on propagation from cuttings. I have become a firm believer in this most satisfying of garden rituals, thanks to this book’s simple illustrations and forthright text. I almost felt like George R. Briggs was standing over my shoulder that first winter as I stared in amazement at the tiny buds appearing on what seemed to be dead little twigs, saying, ‘See, I told you it would work.’ (I’ll share the process later, if anyone’s interested. :))

I’ve already mentioned Ruth Stout, the guardian angel of vegetable gardens. I’ll just re-iterate here that reading her book absolutely changed my whole approach to gardening and made it so much more fun and rewarding that I can’t say enough in her praise. If you’re thinking of starting a garden, and feel overwhelmed–as I did five years into mine–then get your hands on anything Ruth Stout has written. Post-haste!

Tasha Tudor recommended Flowers from Seed to Bloom by Eileen Powell, and I bought it without a second thought. It’s another reference, indispensable if you have a penchant for perennials from seed. And if you need a reason for going to all the trouble and worry, then all I suggest is a perusal of Tasha Tudor’s Garden by Tovah Martin of Victoria magazine fame. It will have you planting fairy rings of pinks and weaving daisy garlands.     

I just finished a charming book called Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim. Some of you may recognize her as the author of Enchanted April. I bought it from an English bookseller called ‘Brimstones’ on Birdhole Lane (how enchanting!). This is a non-fiction account of her happy days buried away in an old schloss in the German countryside with nothing but books and babies and an unspeakably dear garden to occupy her mind and heart. An Englishwoman married to a German nobleman at the turn of the last century, she finds her life somewhat cramped by the dictates of decorum which prevent her from so much as taking up a spade in her own hands. But her wearisome trials with various gardeners and assistants have a spice of humor to them which she is well-aware of, and which she portrays–along with her raptures over roses and flowers–with a truly beautiful and engaging style. Her simple joy was a fresh-faced reminder of why we garden in the first place. A delightful read…and full of so many gorgeous color plates that it’s a feast for the eyes.



 from Elizabeth and Her German Garden


9 Responses to “Garden Reading”

  1. Enjoyable post Lanier – thank you! I just requested Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim from the library and I am so looking forward to reading it. I enjoyed The Enchanted April very much! One of our favourite outings in the early spring is a trip to Vessey’s – a well-known seed company here on the Island. They ship all over the world. it’s fun to check out what new plants they feature. And all their trials are conducted here on the Island so I know that the plants should grow! Our spring is early this year and we are loving it! The wild lupins don’t usually appear until Mid June but they are already 4 or 5 inches high and should bloom in a couple of weeks. Some people think of them as pesky weeds – they do tend to take over an area but they are so beautiful – I love them.

  2. Oh, how I wish that I could see the lupins blooming…and PEI in springtime glory! πŸ™‚

  3. Deb says:

    The lupines sounded so wonderful, you two made me get out my copy of Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. I had never heard of Elizabeth Von Arnim…looks like another library hunt is in the offing. One of my favorite gardening books is Lee Bailey’s Country Flowers. The photographs featuring his Long Island garden, week by week, from April through September are a feast for the eyes! Happy gardening, ladies! πŸ™‚

  4. Muriel says:

    Oh, Lanier, you have inspired me AGAIN! I am in the process of planning my “cottage garden”, and Wendy is giving me counsel. I would love your input, also.
    I’m about to begin my book search for some of your recommendations!
    Love and gratitude,
    P.S. I saw Mr and Mrs. Cardinal again, and Mr. Cardinal made a visit to my birdfeeder! What a joy-giving sight!

  5. You ladies are inspring me! πŸ™‚
    Deb, I haven’t heard of either Miss Rumphuis or Lee Bailey…I’ll definitely have to check them out…

  6. Deb says:

    We awoke to a thin layer of snow on our grass this morning. Glad I hadn’t planted anything fragile yet! Lanier, Miss Rumphius is a sweet children’s picture book. I think you’d like it. I checked out an Elizabeth Goudge book (Pilgrim’s Inn) at the library yesterday. Looking forward to reading it! Although, I still have to finish the Peter Marshall book first. I always have several books in waiting! πŸ™‚

  7. Josie Ray says:

    Your description of early seed planting made me pool up. How sweet! It’s easy to imagine a young Lanier discovering her gardening passion.

    I’ve been watching eBay and Amazon for George R. Briggs for over a year. Once there was one copy on Amazon for about $100! Now there’s an OCR copy, which doesn’t seem worth $20, unproofed…but I might do it eventually, anyway.

    Several of your recommended books I just ordered from the library. Your gardening posts are truly enchanting and inspire me, so I certainly trust and appreciate your gardening book recommendations.

    Thank you, Lanier.

    Oh, what a lovely spring day here today!!! Earlier this week, I pulled down all the heavier curtains for cleaning and storage, and now there are crisp white muslin short-drapes billowing in the breeze, which nicely accompany tea, and those slightly aching muscles from yesterday’s tree-planting.

  8. Josie Ray says:

    p.s. Since comments are closed on your Journal Entry, “The Art of Propagation,” I’ll comment here. I actually came on today to ask you to please post Mr. Briggs propagation method! Then I discovered the above article.

    I can propagate endless lavender, rosemary, geraniums…anything that doesn’t require rooting hormone. But I have never had success with shrub cuttings dipped in rooting hormone and started in potting mix: zero success with boxwood, forsythia hybrids, roses, etc. I turn away sadly from those stories of people who planted an entire boxwood hedge from one shrub…or from their neighbor’s castoff prunings.

    But now, NOW, I’m ready to try again! πŸ™‚ I’m going to try your sand method. I would love to start roses, Lynwood forsythia (does not root easily like the old standard forsythia), mandevilla to bring inside for the winter for the following summer…oh, the list is endless! I have sand in the garage. You don’t mention rooting hormone, so I’m going without it, just as you said.

    Thank you very much for sharing this. It is a deep delight to see one’s own cuttings take root and come to life. I have restored hope. πŸ™‚

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Best wishes with your propagation, Josie! I’m glad this was helpful. I can only vouch by my own experience but I have been very happy with the results. πŸ™‚

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