April 25, 2021
Even among apartment dwellers, spring can prompt longings to connect with the soil. Perhaps for that reason, the Boston Public Garden can feel like a special gift to city residents this time of year. Whether you possess a substantial yard or just a well-exposed windowsill, books about gardens can help satisfy cravings for plant life. Many also probe the bedeviling mysteries of getting something to grow.
Like stage sets, public gardens strive to hide the labor behind the illusion. Yet any visitor who has ever bought a flat of pansies inevitably wonders: How much did all this cost?
Roderick Floud, long bothered by such questions, sets out to answer them in “England’s Magnificent Gardens: How a Billion-dollar Industry Transformed a Nation, from Charles II to Today.”
Though the United States has no shortage of first-class public gardens, England is hard to top. According to Floud, its gardening industry began flowering in earnest in the 1600s, when Charles II set about renovating the royal gardens in St. James’s Park, in central London.
Cost comparisons are difficult, but, acknowledging changes in productivity and living standards, Floud has nonetheless devised a system. He calculates that, in today’s dollars, Charles II and three subsequent monarchs dropped a staggering $1 billion to $1.3 billion on parks and gardens over the 40 years closing out the 17th century.
The royal taste for lakes, groves, paths, sunken gardens, fruit trees, menageries, and rare specimens soon infected the aristocracy, and molded their estates. In the 19th century, public parks multiplied, partly in response to perceived health problems associated with urban living.
Eventually, the gardening bug would decisively shape suburban housing patterns. Today, gardening remains so popular among the English that even though average living spaces have shrunk, patios, pots, and window boxes have proliferated to compensate.
In the United States, the yearning for a patch of earth winds through a far different history. Accustomed to agricultural labor, many formerly enslaved people set out to acquire their own land after the Civil War. But as Natalie Baszile points out in “We Are Each Other’s Harvest: Celebrating African American Farmers, Land and Legacy,” they were often thwarted by abusive and discriminatory practices. (Ongoing complaints of bias in US loan programs prompted the Biden administration to include $1 billion in aid to farmers and ranchers of color in the recently approved stimulus bill.)
Baszile’s beautifully produced compendium of essays, poems, and photographs explores Black Americans’ connection to the soil. A profile of Kamal Bell, founder of Sankofa Farms in Cedar Grove, N.C., describes his efforts to teach Black teenagers how to grow vegetables. In the course of raising squash, black-eyed peas, and watermelon, they discuss such broader challenges as getting fresh produce into so-called food deserts.
Many gardens combine practical purposes with beauty, but beauty especially seems to provoke argument. “Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden” is the late Eleanor Perényi’s entertaining contribution.
For 30 years, Perényi kept a garden in Stonington, Conn. Having fled Hungary in wartime, she mainly busied herself with editing and writing, producing a biography of Liszt that was nominated for the National Book Award.
“Green Thoughts,” her only gardening book, has had more staying power. Its alphabetically-arranged essays sparkle with lively asides, literary references, and judgments as pungent as freshly fertilized soil. Among Perényi’s declarations: Mixed plantings of azaleas and rhododendrons are “positively awful in their ugliness.”
She loved growing beans, also dahlias, whose showy blooms a snobbish friend once shuddered at. Perényi was unmoved. She does offer advice along the way (how to winter over those dahlias, e.g.). But, like the best of the how-to’s, “Green Thoughts” thrives on its author’s distinctive voice, and its evocation of a particular place.
Newer offerings tend to come fortified with illustrations. One of the most appealing is Margaret Roach’s “A Way to Garden.” Recently reissued in a revised anniversary edition, it follows Roach from her eager beginner’s failures to her much deeper understanding, 40 years later, of what we are about when we work with the soil.
Lush images of Roach’s Hudson Valley spread can induce fantasies in which bugs and critters behave, the weather cooperates, and weeding claims a pleasurable few minutes a day.
Yet as Roach assures readers, many gardening successes conceal notable defeats. Inspired, once, by the lawns of England, she planted 2,000 crocus bulbs. Marauding squirrels and chipmunks left her with just four blooms to savor the following spring.
Arranging her book by season, Roach encourages gardeners to view their yards less as outdoor decorating than as habitat creation, a trend that has gained force alongside greater environmental awareness. Closer to home, the Globe’s own Carol Stocker follows a similar, seasonal approach in “The New England Gardening Almanac,” toward which I remain hopelessly biased, and whose gorgeous pages perennially spark hope.