Read an Excerpt
Introduction, by Allen Lacy
I first read Eleanor Perényi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden shortly before its publication in 1981, when I was given an advance copy to review for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Its appearance was a great and wonderful surprise. I had some slight knowledge of Ms. Perényi as a former managing editor of Mademoiselle and the author of a highly acclaimed book on Franz Liszt; nothing in her professional history, however, suggested that a book on gardening should be expected from her. But in her foreword, Perényi set her readers straight: she is a writer, she gardens, and “a writer who gardens is sooner or later going to write a book about the subject-I take that as inevitable.” (Perhaps so. After all, among Germaine Greer’s books there’s a very humorous one called The Revolting Garden, written under the pseudonym Rose Blight.)
The sequel to Green Thoughts that many people hoped for has never come. But we can be grateful for what we’ve got. Eleanor Perényi takes her place among a number of other writers who wrote one terrific book on gardening that may be read over and over with unfailing pleasure. Green Thoughts thus takes its place alongside such works as Charles Dudley Warner’s My Summer in a Garden (1870), Celia Thaxter’s An Island Garden (1894), and Karel Capek’s The Gardener’s Year (1929).
When I first read it, Green Thoughts astonished me. Here, all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, came this wonderful collection of seventy-two essays of varying lengths, addressing almost every imaginable topic pertaining to gardening. Here were pieces dealing with the day-to-day, entirely practical, aspects of the horticultural enterprise, including essays on mulches and compost (Perényi favored them), and pesticides and poisons (they appalled her). Here were tributes to earthworms and expressions of horror that there should be such creatures as snakes, even “the smallest garter snake.” Green Thoughts was also a treasury of praise for those flowering plants that even nongardeners find easy to love, for New England asters, for dahlias and peonies and lilies. When she had reservations-and she often did-Ms. Perényi expressed her doubts forthrightly. She had very little to say in favor of chrysanthemums, and was decidedly lukewarm about most modern daylilies. Considering that named varieties of daylilies totaled 15,000 (the number is now at least twice that), she asserted that “the breeders have surely gone too far.” She unburdened herself of additional criticism of trends in the world of hemerocallis. “Ninety-nine percent of the new varieties I wouldn’t have at any price. Daylilies colored orchid, cream, peach, make me slightly sick, and the names are awful too: I would blush to admit that I was growing Precious One, Disneyland, or Bitsy.” Modern rose breeders, who have given us overblown, disease-prone hybrid teas with names like Chrysler Imperial, also get knocked down a peg or two. Perényi leans toward older varieties, toward shrub roses rather than hybrid teas (although some of these have their faults as well, tending to be large and ungainly plants difficult to place within the confines of gardens of modest size). She also put in her word about herbs and the people who raise them: she respected “gardeners who raise herbs for their botanical interest, without quaintness or sentimentality,” but she dreaded anyone for whom herbs were the subjects of a cult-“the person who can’t look at a rue without murmuring that it is herb of grace o’Sundays, or a hyssop without dragging in the Biblical references.”
Any reader who picks up Green Thoughts and begins to browse at random, running across what it has to say about most modern daylilies and many modern roses, will perhaps entertain the thought that Eleanor Perényi is highly opinionated, even prejudiced. And of course she is. Gardening is a passionate enterprise, and passion is always opinionated and strongly so. As for prejudice, show me a person who is without prejudice of any kind on any subject and I’ll show you someone who may be admirably virtuous but is surely no gardener. Prejudice against people is reprehensible, but a healthy set of prejudices against plants is a gardener’s best friend, for gardening is richly complicated, and prejudice simplifies it greatly. Plants fall fairly neatly into three major categories. There are those that any reasonable person can only hate-crabgrass, poison ivy, and stinging nettle, for instance. There are those that only the perverse can dislike-say, columbines and bleeding heart and hardy cyclamens with flowers like tiny pink or white butterflies. In between these two categories there are plants about which reasonable and decent people may reasonably disagree. I may be mad for elephant ears and caladiums, and you may find them ostentatiously vulgar. Our differences do not matter, for I may grow what I like in my garden and you may do the same in yours. Furthermore, the same person may at some point in his or her life undergo a kind of conversion experience. A dislike of hydrangeas may suddenly vanish, to be replaced by a desire to grow as many as can be crammed into one’s little plot of earth. (Thus it happened with me not long ago.)
The best garden writing is always highly opinionated. It simply goes with the territory. My Summer in a Garden, An Island Garden, and The Gardener’s Year are all firm in their expressions of likes and dislikes. The same may be said for the other two influential titles which I place alongside Green Thoughts. Katharine S. White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden appeared posthumously in 1979, edited by her husband, E. B. White, but as a series of fourteen essays published in The New Yorker over a period of twelve years starting in 1958, it had already made its mark, vastly enlarging the sense of the great breadth and scope in writing about gardens (mostly about nursery catalogs as a distinct literary genre). Henry Mitchell’s The Essential Earthman was published the same year as Green Thoughts, at a time when much American garden writing was as dull as a committee report. Mitchell was often funny, and always passionate. He was especially enamored of bearded irises, roses, and dragonflies, and his advice was endlessly quotable, as when he warned readers that “marigolds should be used as sparingly as ultimatums.”
Green Thoughts, Onward and Upward in the Garden, and The Essential Earthman have much in common. For all three, what we need to know about gardens is best said in words, not pictured in the glossy, impossible never-never land of colored photographs where there is never a weed in sight nor a damaged leaf. They are books, as I have said already, to be read over and over. In each, there is a deeply personal voice to be heard (and each voice is highly distinctive).
But only Green Thoughts was conceived as a book in the first instance. Onward and Upward and The Essential Earthman were collections of pieces, originally of magazine articles in the first instance, and newspaper columns in the second. Of the three books, Green Thoughts ranges most widely outside the world of horticulture, with discussions of or allusions to Pliny and Petrarch, Virgil and Chaucer, George Sand and Chekhov, Henry James and Lewis Carroll. It also explores some extraordinarily important territory in “Woman’s Place,” a perceptive inquiry into gender and the history of horticulture.