Reviews of Writing the Garden

New York Times

Gardeners who have been shovel-ready for years are familiar with the pantheon of writers that includes Gertrude Jekyll and Beverley Nichols. But just as there are always tender new shoots, so there are tender new readers ready to curl up fireside with, say, Katharine S. White’s “Onward and Upward in the Garden.” I find that collection – and I tremble to say this, since it’s horticulturally politically incorrect and will surely bring on blight – overrated. Give me the biting wit of Margery Fish or the smart edge of Eleanor Perényi any day. For readers who have no idea what I’m talking about, here is Elizabeth Barlow Rogers’s lovely Writing The Garden (David R. Godine, $27.95), a collection of essays of two centuries’ worth of garden essays. I had forgotten how much I loved Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1898 book “Elizabeth and Her German Garden,” in which she refers to her insufferably domineering husband as the “Man of Wrath.” She takes him to one of her favorite garden spots – but just once, because he “made us feel so small by his blasé behavior that I never invite him now.”

At one time, there seems to have been concern about getting American women into the garden. Andrew Jackson Downing writes disdainfully that “they may love to ‘potter’ a little. . . . They sow some China asters, and plant a few dahlias, and it is all over.” I learned that it was Charles Dudley Warner, not his neighbor Mark Twain, who said, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Part of the fun of anthologies like this is the flash of context. A. A. Milne winks out from the pages by one of my all-time favorites, Beverley Nichols: “At the risk of out-winnying the poo, it must be admitted that I always think flowers know what you are saying about them.” The seeds for many a new garden library will be harvested from this slim volume – or it will inspire readers to return to well-worn classics.

— Dominique Browning

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Times Literary Supplement

“All gardens are a form of autobiography” declared the American painter and garden-maker Robert Dash, a credo exemplified by these musings written by and for actual gardeners from both sides of the Atlantic. Inspired by an exhibition of rare garden books in the New York Society Library (which she co-curated), Elizabeth Barlow Rogers parades her gardeners in many guises: as women, warriors, rhapsodists, nurserymen, foragers, travellers, humourists, spouses, correspondents, conversationalists, teachers, philosophers and patriots, culminating in a rousing rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” before the rubble of a Charleston plantation house. The pleasures of such collections lie in revisiting old favourites and in making new acquaintances (the Edwardian gardener Gertrude Jekyll is a guiding star for Rogers, quoted here on sweet smells, although she is actually far livelier on bad ones). Those dogged creators of a Vermont garden, Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, stand out as true – and truly obsessive – gardeners, intimately concerned with soil and place-based gardening, knowing their plants, and recognizing that “gardening, rather than the garden – the verb, not the noun” is the point of their endeavors. Nostalgia for childhood is another recurring theme, and the gardener's constant battle with pests. While America's father of environmentalism, Henry David Thoreau, was philosophically content to abandon his beans to weeds and woodcocks, the essayist Michael Pollan was enraged to lose an afternoon's back-breaking labour to a “woodchuck out snacking.”

Anthologies are invariably incomplete. British absences include Katherine Swift, whose dream-like The Morville Hours wound the making of her Shropshire garden around the hours of the Divine Office; and the feisty correspondence between Beth Chatto, Queen of eco-sensitive gardening, and the late Christopher Lloyd. Rogers's own writing occasionally stumbles over abstractions such as gardening “ideality,” and she judges the breezily old-school Beverley Nichols a “purveyor of offbeat garden humor.” But her book is a delight to have and to hold, small enough to slip into a pocket to read in the garden, its text illuminated by a well chosen mix of photographs, botanical illustrations, cartoons, engravings and garden scenes by the American lmpressionist, Childe Hassam.

— Jennifer Potter

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Booklist Magazine

Rogers is not only a garden writer and landscape preservationist but also a bibliophile. In putting together this artfully produced collection of knowledgeable yet “informal, engaging, and sometimes droll” British and American garden literature, Rogers drew on her own collection and that of the New York Society Library, reveling in the pleasures of rare books. Rogers does share colorful cuttings from the writings of 42 eloquent master gardeners past and present, but her mission is primarily biographical. In a book lushly illustrated with watercolors by Childe Hassam, plates from first editions, and photographs, Rogers vividly, wittily, and incisively profiles such narrating horticulture exemplars as Thomas Jefferson; Gertrude Jekyll, for whom “gardening was horticultural picture making”; William Robinson, who was “sometimes colorfully caustic”; nurseryman Andrew Jackson Downing; Celia Thaxter, a lighthouse-keeper’s daughter and a poet as well as a gardener; the “urbanely quirky, humorously serious” Katherine S. White; and Michael Pollan, who sees the garden as a middle ground, where nature and culture are both enriched. In all, a vital, delectable, and illuminating retrospective of an essential branch of letters.

— Donna Seaman

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Choice

The garden is a kind of intersection. Circumscribed together, order and chaos, sun and shade, and growth and quiescence all may reside here – and all interest the keen gardener. This wonderful book is full of gardeners – active, observant, opinionated. Every gardener included in this work, whether rhapsodist, conversationalist, or philosopher, brings color and character. All bring insight and perspective on what a garden is, what one does in a garden, or how a garden reflects nature, design, or divinity. Rogers (Foundation for Landscape Studies) combed her own library along with the New York Society Library’s trove of rare books on gardening. Calling on the oldest library in New York, this preservationist, author, and collector brings humor and humanity into play on these pages, covering 200 years of gardening over two continents. Mundane garden pests appear cheek to jowl with descriptions of Elysian landscapes; rogues and bullies share chapters with cultivators of serenity. As Rogers notes, the word “paradise” is brought to English from the Persian word for garden. If paradise is a grand mix of intersecting activity in a naturally aesthetic setting, then it is captured here for the lucky readers of this book. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above; two-year technical program students; general readers.

— S. Hammer

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Eclectica Magazine

For an overview of literally hundreds of gardens, readers need to look no further than Elizabeth Barlow Rogers’ Writing the Garden: A Literary Conversation Across Two Centuries. Garden historian Rogers co-curated an exhibition of the same name in 2011 with Harriet Shapiro, the New York Society Library’s Head of Exhibitions. The Society library is actually the city’s oldest library (dating to 1754!) and home to more than 300,000 titles. Rogers is a collector of rare books on landscape history and the depth and breadth of her knowledge on this subject is on full display in Writing the Garden. From names we know, (Vita Sackville-West, Edith Wharton, Katherine S. White) to those off the beaten path and lost to history and even some surprising contemporary names (foodie Michael Pollan), Rogers is brilliantly eclectic with every aspect of her gardening survey. From humor to philosophy to “warriors in the garden,” this is a title with a little bit of everything and should serve not only as a pleasurable reading experience but a valuable resource for anyone interested in gardening history.

Rogers has organized her work by categories of her own making. This places Sackville-West in “Spouses in the Garden” with Harold Nicolson whereas White is found in “Correspondents in the Garden.” There is a section on “Women in the Garden” (which includes Gertrude Jekyll) but also “Rhapsodists in the Garden” and “Nurserymen in the Garden” (my favorite section I think) and also sections for travelers, conversationalists, philosophers and teachers. These wide-ranging categories allow Rogers to be a bit freewheeling in her assessments, moving her subjects out of areas where you might expect them to reside and pairing them up with others across time and miles. This affords readers with the opportunity to learn about writers they may be unaware of when honing in on their favorites and will provide ample opportunity to fill lists for further reading and research. There is just such a wealth of information here that it should be a daunting work but Rogers writes about all of the gardeners (and their books) with such warmth and familiarity that Writing the Garden is actually extraordinarily inviting and a title that could serve as a valuable resource for many.

— Colleen Mondor

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The Garden Interior Newsletter

No less an authority that the mighty Cicero opined: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” And how true that is, especially if that library contains at least a few really good gardening books. But where to begin? In my own case, I blundered around quite a lot until I found some excellent books in the gardening space. These inevitably recommended others, equally good, and I was handed along companionably from one extremely good writer to another. I was lucky, and despite the carelessness and randomness of my approach, I managed eventually to stumble across many of the great classics of garden writing. But now it is much easier. Elizabeth Barlow Rogers was the main founder of the Central Park Conservancy in New York City; she is also the founder and president of the Foundation for Landscape Studies and the editor of the journal Site/Lines. She has written numerous books in the horticultural space and is a tremendous bibliophile, with a specialty taste for the horticultural genre. She is, in short, a formidable authority in her field and at the height of her powers. And now she has produced this volume, subtitled “A Literary Conversation across Two Centuries,” which has rightly won the prestigious American Horticultural Society Book Award. It fluently but never frivolously discusses the garden writing of more than three dozen great writers, sampling their work and presenting it in a superbly enlightening context. The book is divided into twelve sections beginning with “Women in the Garden” and “Warriors in the garden” and going on through ten other categories, including “Rhapsodists,” “Humorists” and “Philosophers.” Many old friends and classic authorities are included, such as Russell Page, Penelope Hobhouse, Rosemary Verey, Sir Roy Strong and Beverley Nichols. But many authorities are also cited that I had not read and am now eager to look deeply into. The books that are included are somewhat over-weighted with older authorities, as you would expect of a serious bibliophile, and of a book that essentially grew out of an exhibition at the New York Society Library, New York’s oldest library (founded in 1754) and one with which the author has long been associated. But more contemporary voices are also heard here and on the whole this is a balanced and very well curated collection of some of the world’s finest garden writing. With a gracious and experienced docent like this, even the beginning garden reader need not fear getting lost, and this book is a great way either to begin or to concentrate a love for great garden writing.

— David Jensen

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Publishers Weekly

Published to accompany an exhibit at the New York Society Library, this anthology offers a delightful introduction to more than 40 classic garden writers. Rogers (Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History), a legendary park preservationist best-known for her work championing the renovation of New York’s Central Park, offers thoughtful selections from 200 years of garden writing. There are nurserymen, novelists, humorists, philosophers, statesmen, and journalists in this eclectic group. Some members of this pantheon, such as Thomas Jefferson and Edith Wharton, will be familiar to all readers. Others, such as Beverley Nichols, may be known only to true gardening cognoscenti. All are masters of this literary genre. Rogers provides an intimate and illuminating introduction to each writer, highlighting the special appeal, idiosyncratic perspectives, and delightful charms of each. She has also included photographs and drawings from their original works. This is an anthology that will pique any garden lover’s interest in further reading.

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