Embroidered Ground

Thesteam had run out of Page Dickey’s trowel, or so she writes at the start ofthis leisurely tour through the precincts and pleasures of her three-acregarden  in North Salem, New York.Duck Hill, as it is known, is now in its third decade and helped secure Dickey’splace as a modestly celebrated gardening authority, even as it ate her kneesand tormented her lower back. She is justly proud of her accomplishment,wishing once again to take us there, as she did in Duck Hill Journal, to see what we shall see. Now seventy years old,Dickey aims to simplify, simplify—but if William Atherton’s lovely, fine-linedrawings are any indication, she hasn’t made much headway. Each of Embroidered Grounds chapters is as compact as a sports car—”WitchHazels,” “The Chicken House,” “Paths”—yet without anysense of rush. She lingers in the right places, explains how they came to be,introduces the citizenry: feverfew, dogwood, lady’s mantle, sweet rocket; Pennisetum, Deschampsia, Hakonechloa;enough Latinates to rekindle the Punic Wars.

Dickey employs a range ofvoices, often ethereal, sometimes fusty. “Prim” is a favorite word,and an atmosphere of chilled wine and tea sandwiches dominates; one longs forEleanor Perényi to come swinging through the garden gate, glass of Scotch andcigarette in one hand, salty opinions in the other. But she is razory-wickedwhen facing enemies: bindweed, barberry, Norway maple, Ailanthus, bittersweet. A sensualist—fragrance undoes her—she canalso be pert, as when “spherical heads of Allium christophii thrust and explode” through a wiry tangle.Ba-boom!

There is much sage advice,on sightlines, garden bones, and hedges to frame and enclose—Margery Fish, whowrote We Made a Garden, could be Dickey’s stylistic and professionalmentor—and flowers, lots and lots of flowers, about which she can beexistentially tender: one Viburnum “Ican only describe as old-lady pink…the soft, pale rose hue of faded aprons andcaked face powder.” And she loves her garden as if it were a child—with joy,distress, responsibility, guilt—which is the most beautiful thing of all.