Writers have long found relaxation and inspiration in gardening, often discussing their efforts in eloquent essays that seem to capture the very scent of the earth. This anthology brings together the best gardening essays from around the world and across the centuries. Highlights in this rich, satisfying collection include medieval herbalist John Gerard extolling the virtues of the potato, Czech playwright Karel Capek’s celebrating the winter garden, Catherine Parr Traill’s 1855 gardening tips, and a ...
Writers have long found relaxation and inspiration in gardening, often discussing their efforts in eloquent essays that seem to capture the very scent of the earth. This anthology brings together the best gardening essays from around the world and across the centuries. Highlights in this rich, satisfying collection include medieval herbalist John Gerard extolling the virtues of the potato, Czech playwright Karel Capek’s celebrating the winter garden, Catherine Parr Traill’s 1855 gardening tips, and a reminiscence of Thomas Hardy by his gardener, Bertie Stephens.
Merilyn Simonds is the author of 12 books, including one on salad gardening. Her nonfiction novel The Convict Lover was a finalist for the Governor General's award. Her most recent novel, The Holding, was selected a New York Times Editors' Choice. She lives near Kingston, Ontario, where she works twenty-six garden beds.
Two months ago, my neighbour was jealous of my golde-chain laburnum, then of my wisteria, already brawny despite its youth, leaping from wall to lime-tree, from lime-tree to the climbing roses, its serpentine limbs dripping with mauve clusters, heavy with scent. But at the same time, I was glancing enviously at his double-flowering cherries, and tell me, how will I compete, come July, with his geraniums? Their red velvet shows off at high noon as an ineffable violet, mysteriously provoked by the vertical light. . . Patience! Just wait until he sees my purple sages in October and November.
Without putting it off that long, he can always cast an appraising eye on these ambitious crossed sticks hung with masses of roses, their heads lolling like drunkards', that I honour with the name "rose garden." The shade flowers I have abandoned to my other neighbour: the clematis that is more blue than purple, the lily of the valley, the begonias that are blown by just an hour in the sun. An old garden nearby harbours a giant Rose of Sharon, in whose service all other vegetation must be sacrificed, for it is lovely, ancient, indefatigable, and it wears a constant blaze of blooms that show pink on opening, mauve as they pass their prime. A red hawthorn, that glory of a Breton spring, glows a little further away, and a shrubby vine, its vertical lawn trained in a mosaic up one side of a small mansion, soothes the bucolic yearnings of a man from Auteuil whose land is but the width and breadth of an orange-tree planter.
How much longer can such good-natured rivalry call old folks and sensible children to the threshold of these captive gardens, brandishing their rakes and hoes, clicking the curved beaks of secateurs, the gardener's perfume of manure and of mown grass in the air? How much longer can it preserve Paris from that cubed sadness, the quadrangular shadows cast by highrises? Every month, in the sixteenth District, an avenue of lime-trees falls, a graceful hedge of euonymous, a venerable arbor rounded to the curve of the crinoline.
Within the past six months, there has risen on the leafy boulevard in front of my house, a block of rental apartments as hideously shaped and showy as a new buck tooth. For a hundred years, a delightful dwelling lay content in the middle of its garden like a hen on her nest of straw; now it is flanked by seven storeys, its right to the sun, its scarab-coloured mornings, its sweet, glowing eventides lost forever. It stands mute, frozen like an extinct planet, wearing its own black shade of mourning.
Nothing can save our captive gardens except the wealth of foreigners. A billionaire from far away develops a passion for a mansion surrounded with gardens in the old quarter. So he buys it and gives it a facelift. He says: "I'd like another two or three like this" to complete his grand vision; and then, he explains: "It's for tennis." We must, in all fairness, admit that from time to time he exhibits a scorn for tennis and bows to all that speaks of France's past. Thanks to him, on a smoothly levelled, regal landscape, Gothic village churches, moved stone by stone like jigsaw puzzles, confront Basque terraces, a faithful reproduction of a Norman orchard, the courtyards of southern France hedged with low, funereal boxwoods, some Breton thatch-cottages, all in the interest of a theatre of the antique. A collection gathered in somewhat unschooled taste, but one which touches those of us provincials imprisoned in Paris, and we shrink from it, we who tremble at the fall of a lilac or the limbing of a chestnut, we who live within a tide of construction that eats into the ever-diminishing Bois, we who fervently defend our narrow strips of green. We sing the praises of what yet remains, but we sing in a melancholy key. Boylesve recalls a garden laid waste. Abel Hermant, though still in possession of his, weeps at the solemn unfolding of spring beneath his balcony, two steps from the Madeleine Church.
The duchess of Sforza raises Morère strawberries between the pillars of a balcony on Henri-Martin and Philippe Berthelot struggles to ripen cherries on the trees he transplanted to the boulevard Montparnasse. Look, on the Saint-Michel quay, a garden built on a roof! On Jacob Street, de Gourmont's lover, the "Amazon," has given up trying to force blooms on the ground floor, where the sun no longer penetrates. But the sparse grass, bent to its knees in supplication to the shade, is sufficient for the night-prowling cat and the barn owl that perches in a dead tree slung with a shred of ivy, like a metaphor from some book. It takes only a little vine, a pale leaf on the wall, to soothe the eye that flits from a blank page to window pane, from window to blank page.
One day, a door on a nondescript street opened and showed me a kind of paradise, profoundly provincial, adorned with ancient weeping ashes, magnolias, stone pots, dozing cats, even espaliered apple trees, planted in the traditional way around the edge of the lawn . . . Espaliered apple trees. O pastoral Parisiens, wavers of banners of lilies in May, gatherers of lilacs, you who dote upon a tuft of grass and a snow-drop, won't you preserve the last rustic secrets of Paris? Those sweetly trained apple trees . . .
- Translation by Merilyn Simonds