Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden
Eleanor Perényi’s title is from Marvell: “Annihilating all that’s made / To a green Thought in a green Shade” (“The Garden”). Her genius here, though, is Johnsonian, and I mean it as a high compliment. These witty and useful sallies on the art and practice of gardening are arranged in dictionary form; the entries proceed alphabetically from “Annuals” through “Woman’s Place,” with an appendix on catalogues.
The loose-leaf arrangement is ideally suited to the material, each entry fitting into its well-dug bed of history and legends and yet retaining a certain branching liberty of form. Other non-technical books on the subject have been based, with logic, on the calendar, like the ancient Works and Days. The first twelve chapters of Gertrude Jekyll’s Wood & Garden (1899 and a bible to the present author) run from January through December. The longer English growing season recommends that approach: “There is always in February some one day, at least, when one smells the yet distant, but surely coming, summer,” Miss Jekyll’s second chapter—February—begins. A four-part division by seasons, harking back to Thomson and Haydn, is possible too. But Mrs. Perényi’s method, not needing to stick to Nature’s fairly iron-clad schedule, can be pithy or expansive ad libitum, which allows her pleasing changes of tempo. The entry “MAZES,” for example, two sentences long, offers the following’ counsel: “Should you ever find yourself lost in one, choose either the right or the left wall and follow its every turning. You can’t fail to emerge.”
I wonder whether Eleanor Perényi was conscious of Dr. Johnson’s accompanying shade as inspiration in these pages. It may be just an affinity of temperament. If the great lexicographer had been reborn after undergoing a sex change and been interested in the outdoors in the first place, he would not be averse, I think, to putting his name to many of these Green Thoughts. The point in common is an unshakable firmness of opinion, often looking frankly like prejudice, as in the famous definition of “RENEGADE,” or Mrs. Perényi’s decided views on “EVERGREENS,” “SEED TAPES,” wood-chip mulches, almost any gardening fashion. Like Johnson, she has a vigor of expression to match her ideas and a range of erudition that surprises by its freedom from pedantry. I knew about fuchsia and funkia, but never guessed (though one could have) that dahlias were named for a botanist Dahl and zinnias for a Herr Zinn. Johnson, though not musical, might have been diverted to learn that Handel assigned his Xerxes an ode to the plane tree: “amor vegetabile, cara ed amabile.” But the basic, the profound, resemblance between the two lies in an empirical cast of mind combining with strict principles to give a dappled effect of waywardness—the signature of a majestic and authoritative yet noticeably human nature. One could not reasonably expect Sam Johnson to be a humbly devout Christian, and yet he was close to that, nor could one expect Mrs. Perényi to be an apostle of Organic Gardening, and yet she is close to that.
One of the many charms of this delightful book is its lack of claim to professionalism. It is manifestly directed to amateurs by a more advanced member of their tribe. Mrs. Perényi has been an amateur longer and more inveterately than most gardeners and is unashamed of it. In fact it is this in the end that constitutes her authority, even gives her the papal right to an occasional excathedra pronouncement. Confessions of failure, uttered in a forthright, nononsense tone, give the author an ascendancy over professional gardening experts, who are in no position to make such avowals without supplying an explanation of the cause of the failure.
That is the difference between literature (Mrs.P.) and “science” (Your Garden Columnist). To get to the bottom of her repeated annoying failures—giant blue delphiniums, gentians, sweet peas—Mrs. Perényi, were she an expert, would send samples of her soil to her county extension agent for the usual series of tests. Just like checking yourself into the hospital for the annual exploration. But she has never sent her soil for analysis, nor her compost, nor the salt hay and seaweed she uses as mulch. In gardening circles this is as peculiar as it would be to meet someone in New York intellectual circles who has never been to a psychoanalyst or smoked pot. And I will bet that she doesn’t even own a home soil-testing kit. Or a rain gauge. Like any normal gardener, she has failures and sometimes she suspects what has caused them (a dog peeing, for example; a street light shining on the chrysanthemums). But sometimes she can find no culprit. It is a mystery. Like why the hollyhock and foxglove seeds I plant in my garden never come up—no, the seed is not old.
Not just the failures. The successes (or luck) she has in her garden are frequently a mystery to her, too. She does not know why her tomatoes fail to get the blight, why in fact the whole village of Stonington is blight-free. It is (to repeat) luck. Yet luck by itself cannot account for or excuse success or the lack of it in gardening. Obviously study and hard work are factors. Mrs. Perényi says she does not believe in a “green thumb.” But I imagine that she is simply tired of hearing about it; she is irritated by clichés.
It is clear that experience and common sense, plus luck, count for a great deal with her. Yet isn’t a “green thumb” the proverbial name assigned by common sense to cover a mysterious run of luck in making things grow? Common sense, thus—an ally of folk wisdom—has noted an x factor in the whole gardening business. Mrs. Perényi herself subsumes it under “MAGIC.” “The lesson for the gardener,” she counsels, “is not to swallow everything he reads in books…. If you have a question, don’t write your newspaper either. Better to consult the old lady down the road, the one whose porch is covered with moon vines and who grows the blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus) in her garden.”
This old lady, of course, is a witch. Mrs. Perényi has been writing in anger against what she calls establishment thinking in the gardening world—thinking with an automatic, unquestioning bias in favor of the arsenal of herbicides and pesticides employed by the majority. It is understandable that in the context she would prefer “white” witch-craft to black “science,” lunacy (the moon vine, night sister of the morning glory) to sanity. Mrs. Perényi, for all her rationality, is a romantic. If she were not, she would give up the struggle.
Worse, she does not really believe in her antiscientific magic. When there is no longer any old lady down the road, where does the reader turn? The whole passage is a groan of future-shocked despair. More than a hundred pages later, toward the end of the book, she is writing prophetically: “Already I am something of a freak in this community on account of my vegetables, herbs and fruits. I foresee the day when I graduate from freak to witch.”
Gardening, in this country, is an eccentricity. It is wasteful, time-consuming, expensive, impractical. That homegrown fruits and vegetables taste better cannot justify the mad investment of labor. The growing of flowers is still more indefensible as long as there are florists in practice (or, for people who cannot afford florists, goldenrod or Queen Anne’s lace growing free by the roadside). Both pursuits rest on indemonstrable premises. Taste better to whom? Or taste how much better? Enough to repay the cost-computed labor? The answer “immeasurably better” will not do. As for home-grown flowers, by what standards, pray, are they superior to florists’ flowers, to say nothing of the eco-approved wild flowers and grasses? Are flowers in fact necessary at all in the ordinary home? Ceremonial occasions seeming to require them, traditionally connected with the rites of marriage and death, are no longer held at home but in the reception rooms and “parlors” of hotels and funeral directors. There is no evident answer to these questions. Only in terms of what are admittedly prejudices can you put up an argument for a dish of garden peas on the table and some home-cultivated flowers (wild don’t last as well) in the middle.
In any case it is obvious to the naked eye, at least in my part of the country, that flower gardens are disappearing, along with family fruit trees and vegetable gardens. Even roadside stands, which were a cross between home growing and market growing, are getting scarce, so that you are lucky this year to see a couple of cucumbers with a handprinted sign “CUKES” beside a rural mailbox. And to find a passionate, straw-hatted lady gardener at work in her rows is as arresting a sight as a scarecrow dressed in the straw-hatted lady’s old clothes. Mrs. Perényi is aware of all this. She knows full well that it is not “worth it” to attempt to grow the quinces, pears, apricots, gentians, Himalayan poppies that she does keep trying and is conscious, too, that even the more cooperative subjects such as peonies and phlox (“Pansies are a thankful flower,” a young country-woman said to me once) are a folly she indulges herself in for no better reason than that a garden without them “would be sad.”
There are pages where she treats her garden ruefully as a sort of addiction, and this view of it may help solve a puzzle: the thriving state of the seed, bulb, and gardening-tools industry in the teeth of what looks to me like the general disappearance of gardens. As Mrs. Perényi points out, most of the old firms like Burpee’s—selling by catalogue to home growers as well as to nursery-men—have been taken over by conglomerates, which strongly suggests that there is still pay dirt there. Even granting that the breeders today, like publishers, concentrate on the mass market—the best-selling petunias, zinnias, marigolds—to the neglect of old favorites like sweet peas, bachelor’s buttons, love-in-a-mist, this is a bit peculiar. I can only think that people buy more seeds, tubers, corms, bulbs, rhizomes, than they ever plant, more tools and gadgets than they ever use, that there is a gardening itch, like an addiction, that comes on strongest in the fall and winter, when the catalogues hit the mailboxes, and that the craving, in the end, proves to be purely mental (platonic, you might say),getting no farther than the filling out of an order slip and writing of a check…. Still, though I can verify the suspicion to some extent from my own practices, from the packages of ancient seeds (wild strawberry, for instance, angelica!) gathering dust in the toolshed, it cannot be the whole story. Perhaps there are secret gardens, like the Mary gardens, or giardini segreti, mentioned by Mrs. Perényi, that right this minute lie hidden from a prying eye down loggers’ trails in the woods, in mobile-home parks, town dumps, and cemetery plots.
Making things grow, at least in Connecticut, where the author lives, and in Maine, where I spend half the year, is a continuing struggle in which it often appears that Nature, far from being on your side, is actively against you, attacking with bugs, molds, rot, cankers, neighboring dogs, raccoons, skunks, porcupines, drought, torrential rains, “black” frosts, snow heaves, winter-kill. And I cannot think that the satisfaction derived is in the results, however beautiful or tasty. Even my exquisite Mme. Hardy rose with its green center like a curled-up worm and faint blush of pink on the first creamy petals (unobtainable at any florist) or the messes of tender lima pole beans harvested and cooked by Mrs. Perényi (try and find them at the Shop ‘n’ Save) will never quite compensate the grower for the anxious pain and fret of cultivation. If they are the reward, then greed (of eye or tongue) would be the chief motive of gardening: you dig and scratch so as to be able to sit back and savor the end product. I do not believe that that is how it works. That is not why the Risen Christ appeared to the Magdalen in the likeness of a gardener. Certainly there is joy in fruition, and some pride, too, but it is more in the strange process of growth brought to completion than in the testimonials to the value of the process represented by the yield.
That value, as I have been suggesting, can always be called into question by somebody who doesn’t “know about” old roses or care for lima beans and thinks the time consumed would be better spent in a boat or an a tennis court. Only a fellow gardener can judge your rose or lima bean in the light of an ideal product, which both you and he see in the mind’s eye. And only another gardener can appreciate the components of luck and accident in the mysterious process of growth, that is, sense the history of inscrutably simple and complex causes leading up to the eventual fruit or flower nodding on the stalk, as though to nudge you into recognition of a numinous presence—related to L., nuere, to nod.
The fact is that gardening, more than most of our other activities except sometimes lovemaking, confronts us with the inexplicable. Like a rock struck by the spading fork in ground long worked over and hence presumably free of boulders, mystery rears up to meet us from a restless subsoil constantly turning in its bed. Mrs. Perényi seems to find this particularly true of the behavior of vines: she does not know why a clematis refuses to follow the course laid down for it and instead crawls along a telephone cable or why a Hydrangea Petiolaris, disobeying all Nature’s rules, heads sidewise into the thick shade of a hemlock hedge rather than upward to the sun. But vines, admittedly, are serpentine.
The mystery suddenly met, almost “surprised,” in the garden (as in “Coming Through the Rye” or the Apparition to the Magdalen) is omnipresent, though lurking. It is tied to the life process, an idea we can accept, but, more disturbingly, to what is commonly called the supernatural. Appropriately, the subject is tackled in the entry called “SEEDS,” when the author is talking of “Adonis gardens”—spring baskets or pots planted with quick-sprouting wheat, fennel, and lettuce by women of antiquity to welcome the risen god. Then, all at once, she gruffly interjects: “I am an agnostic. I don’t believe a word of any organized religion and go to church only to look at the architecture, listen to music I could hear nowhere else…. And yet, that isn’t quite right either. When it comes down to it, I am as superstitious as any savage about the origins of life and as disposed to propitiate the powers that govern nature. True gardeners will know what I mean. You can’t work among plants for long and remain altogether an unbeliever: it is too obvious that something is going on.” The italics (hers) come down like the full stops of an organ for a swelling burst of harmony.
This must be the core and pith of the book. As so often when one is dealing with Nature, explanation would seem out of place. We do not wish to hear what is going on, in the author’s opinion, any more than we want her to send a sample of her soil to her county agent for analysis. Better leave it alone, in both cases. Maybe what she is saying is only common sense, and common sense, for all we know, may be natural wisdom transmitted genetically. Tolstoy seems to have believed something of the kind and so did Socrates.
I confess that I do not follow all Mrs. Perényi’s principles in my garden practice. I lack the strength of character not to spray fruit trees that are manifestly being eaten by enemies and if I find it easy to resist chemical fertilizers, it is because supplies of wood ash, manure, and seaweed are locally available. We have a thing called the Rotocrop (which I found in an ad in The Observer and which she would surely scoff at) that makes compost out of kitchen garbage—best to leave out large animal bones—as well as leaves and grass cutings. But if we could not get manure, I doubt whether I would be heroic enough to go it on compost alone; anyway there would not be enough.
We have also used Weed-and-Feed on the lawn, and when we gave it up, it was not because our lawn was wrecked by it as hers was by some similar product—in fact ours was greatly improved—but because the wind blew the stuff all over the lilacs. So she was right about that, even if for her own, to me not quite tenable reasons. I am a much softer gardener than the author, which means I am a bad gardener. I would not have the heart to emulate Miss Jekyll in a “vigorous thinning” of the nut-trees in January or hack out some of the Scotch fir “that are beginning to crowd each other.” To be a good gardener, you must be ruthless and decisive, and I am neither. I am a temporizer.
But you do not have to be a good gardener to fall in love with Green Thoughts. Its willingness to talk of failures is an encouragement to lesser lights. Probably the author’s frankness promotes a spirit of confession in the reader, which permits him to face up to his defects. As an inveterate realist, Mrs. Perényi is full of good counsel: the soundest remedy is often simply to throw the erring plant away. She is reassuring about garden “subjects,” such as leeks, commonly regarded as difficult. Of modern hybrid lilies, said to be “fussy,” “All they require is a hole dug for them in sun or semi-shade…. I plant them a little deeper than is usually suggested, putting into the hole a tablespoon of bone meal or dried cow manure topped with a pad of sand for good drainage. Then I forget them—which is why a label with their names must be attached to a stick placed in their vicinity.”
The book reads as though it had been immense fun to write. It also reads with the intrepid assurance of a classic, which it will be, I think, for a very long time, possibly in years to come as “escape literature” when there are no gardens left to relate to it. In anticipation of a string of future editions, I have two small hesitant questions to raise. The first has to do with the “Mary garden” of medieval and Renaissance painting; Mrs. Perényi calls it the “hortus inclusus.” My own recollection is of a “hortus conclusus.”
The second concerns the dessert called Apple Charlotte, from which other desserts including Charlotte Russe derived. Mrs. Perényi tells us that four varieties of apple were named for Queen Charlotte, consort of George III of England “—hence, it is said, Apple Charlotte.” For my part, I have always understood that the dish—like the Charlotte mold it is made in—was named for Goethe’s Lotte. To quote the first stanza of Thackeray’s parody, “The Sorrows of the Young Werther”.
Werther had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter.
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.
And here is the last stanza, following on Werther’s suicide:
Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.
Sliced bread and butter are the “basics” of the dish, which originally contained apples but today may use other fruit. The Charlotte Russe uses sliced cake rather than bread, but the principle is the same. Yet even if Mrs. Perényi is wrong (as the persistence of the bread-and-butter theme suggests) in her notion of the provenance of the dessert, I am grateful for a nice bit of information contained in the same sentence: not just apples, the Strelitzia (bird-of-paradise flower) was named for Queen Charlotte, an ardent botanist who was born Meck-lenburg-Strelitz.