- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

NO ONE GARDENS ALONE: A LIFE OF ELIZABETH LAWRENCE

By Emily Herring Wilson

Beacon Press $27.50, 352 pages

REVIEWED BY JUDITH CHETTLE

Gardening has never been just about raising tomatoes, keeping the grass cut, and furnishing so-called garden rooms. Gardeners are neither decorators nor farmers, despite the increasing emphasis on the how- to, rather than the why, in so many current gardening books. Of course, there is a place for solid practical advice, but the garden books that endure are those than transcend the quotidian as they remind us that gardening, like all good things, is about life. How to live, how to accept loss and how to enjoy the unexpected small joys, are the subtexts of these books.

In elegant prose, the writers of the best of such books seamlessly mix

perceptive commentary with solid plant lore, while always ruefully acknowledging nature’s infinite capacity to dazzle and as frequently, disappoint. Such a writer was Elizabeth Lawrence, whose books about gardening in the South are cherished for their knowledge, their zest, and their insights into gardening in a region that can always surprise. The South, was, she observed, a region where “the caprices of the climate are the problem. The difficulty is not that it is too hot or too cold, or too wet or too dry but that changes from one extreme to the other are so frequent and so sudden.”

Lawrence is now the subject of an engaging biography, “No One Gardens Alone: A Life of Of Elizabeth Lawrence,” that reaffirms her reputation as a gifted writer and gardener. Though Emily Herring Wilson occasionally includes superfluous detail, she perceptively chronciles Lawrence’s

transformation from an imaginative, unmarried gentlewoman, living a sheltered life surrounded by family and old friends, into a noted gardening authority with a national reputation.

She includes all the obligatory personal details of family and friends, and has found evidence of a failed romance, but the heart of this book is Lawrence’s writing and her gardening.

Born in 1904 in Georgia, to a well-born Southern family, Lawrence, with the exception of her college years at Barnard College in New York, lived entirely in the South, first in Raleigh, North Carolina, and then in Charlotte, when her mother’s health failed..In both places she made noted gardens where she experimented with a variety of plantings and designs.

Never a plant snob, she especially enjoyed buying plants and bulbs from local countrywomen, who advertised their wares in local agricultural market bulletins.

Lawrence, who was also the friend of literary contemporaries like Eudora Welty, Katherine S. White and Joseph Mitchell, had intended to be a poet, and her writing is infused with a literary sensibility. Realizing that she could never make a living as a poet, Lawrence then began writing articles on gardening in the 1930s for magazines such as House and Garden and The American Home. By the end of the 1930s, the author notes, Lawrence felt qualified to write books on gardening that could hold their own with the gardening greats. In early 1942, “A Southern Garden” was published, and was soon hailed by reviewers as a “classic — and Vergilian.”

For Lawrence the garden was a place to be enjoyed every month of the year, even in winter on a mild day. As she writes, “Today is the fourteenth of November, I have been sitting in the sun eating my lunch and staring at the barbaric scarlet of Tithonia Fireball against a cold blue sky.”

Interested in the whole garden, she tried to grow a range of plants in settings where they would best flourish, kept meticulous records of what worked and what did not, and designed her gardens so they could be enjoyed all the year-round, even viewed from indoors. She was also bracingly realistic, advising that “if plants are miffy let them go” and warning that gardening was hard work but ” no other undertaking will give as great a return for the amount of effort put into it.”

She wrote books about bulbs, the little ones that were usually ignored; rock gardens; gardens in winter; and for many years a weekly column in the Charlotte Observer. These writings gained her a large audience of fellow gardeners, who sent her plants, asked her advice, and generally kept in touch. As she once wrote, “Gardening, reading about gardening, and writing about gardening are all one. No one can garden alone.” As a Southerner, Lawrence shared with her friend Eudora Welty a sense of place. As the biographer notes, “A Lawrence landscape and a Welty landscape were recognizable to their readers -and to one another.”

And perhaps it is this sense of place, of connections, which Lawrence had in abundance, that earned her reputation . A reputation that Emily Herring Wilson reaffirms as she recalls a woman who loved to garden, to write, and to share, in this timely reminder of an American great.

Judith Chettle is a writer in Maryland.

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