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The Literary Garden: A Book List by Merilyn Simonds

Essential books about gardens and gardening

Merilyn Simonds' most recent book is A New Leaf: Growing With My Garden. Her other books include The Holding (2004), the internationally acclaimed short story collection The Lion in the Room Next Door (1999) and The Convict Lover (Non-Fiction, 1996), which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the Arthur Ellis Award, and won the TORGI Award. She is also author of the Frugalista Gardener Blog. Here she shares with us a list of essential Canadian literary books about gardens and gardening, which, for very good reason, includes two books of her own.

Tottering in my Garden by Midge Ellis Keeble, originally published by Camden House Books in 1989. Reprinted 1994.

I can always find the spine of Midge Keeble’s book on my gardening shelf: it is pale pink, the colour of apple blossoms, and stands out among its green-backed fellows that scream, rather than whisper garden. Midge was a writer of extraordinary grace, and she was a lifelong gardener who started digging in the dirt as a young hoursewife just after the Second World War. When she was 76, she published one of my favourite garden memoirs, Tottering in my Garden, which I love for its humour, its honesty, its unabashed love of growing things. “Gardening is an adventure, liberally laced with misadventure,” she writes. “Every garden teaches you something.”

Elizabeth's Garden: Elizabeth Smart on the Art of Gardening, edited by Alice Van Wart, Coach House Press, Toronto, 1989.

Elizabeth Smart is best known for her lyrical novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), a thinly disguised account of her illicit affair with the poet George Barker. Although her mother worked successfully to suppress the book in Canada, it is now considered a classic. Smart moved to England and supported herself and her four children with magazine work until she retired to "The Dell," a cottage in north Suffolk where she took up literary writing again. As well, she began to write a gardening column for Harper's Bazaar. She always intended to write a gardening book, and kept multiple diaries, including eleven journals and twenty notebooks devoted to plants. Cullings from these were gathered to produce Elizabeth's Garden: Elizabeth Smart on the Art of Gardening (1989), a delightful book that is much, much too short.

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The Greater Perfection by Francis H. Cabot, published by Hortus Press, W.W. Norton & Co., 2001.

Cabot's account of the making of his 20-acre Quebec garden, Les Quatre Vent makes for inspiring reading. Lusciously illustrated with magnificent photographs, this is also an excellent read as Cabot details in plain language how he set about creating each garden space, not only the planning and building and planting, but the wrong turns and missteps along the way. That this master of the horticultural moment worries, too, that his borders are too narrow, his plantings not quite what they could be, is no small consolation.

Lilies of the Hearth: The Historical Relationship Between Women & Plants, by Jennifer Bennett, Camden House Books, 1991.

Jennifer Bennett was the founding garden editor of Canada's Harrowsmith magazine and for several years she was gardening host of the television series, Harrowsmith Country Life. Her first book, The Harrowsmith Northern Gardener quickly became a cold-climate classic. Most of her other eight books are similarly practical guides to various aspects of working the soil, but two — Lilies of the Hearth and Our Gardens, Ourselves: Reflections on an Ancient Art (1994) — strike off into new territory. Both are reflective meditations on what it means to garden, especially for women. A composer and choral director, Bennett brings a musical sensibility to her horticultural passion: "What an incredible thing it was, this interplay of light and air, water, earth, plants, this chorus of many parts, all in a shifting counterpoint harmony."

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Stonyground: The Making of a Canadian Garden by Douglas Chambers. Knopf Canada, Toronto, 1996.

Douglas Chambers is a Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Toronto. A specialist in 17th century literature, he has published widely on Milton, Traherne, and Marvell as well as on literature and social history, particularly the history of gardens. His book Stonyground: The Making of a Canadian Garden, tells the story of the 150-acre ancestral farm in Ontario where for 20 years he has been creating a kind of ferme ornée, an intricately designed landscape punctuated with pedestals and poetry, where personal attachments are celebrated alongside horticultural history and the land itself. "What I am doing in the gardens of Stonyground," he writes, "speaks back to the landscape what I have learned from it."

Early Canadian Gardening: an 1827 Nursery Catalogue, by Eileen Woodhead. McGill-Queen's University Press, 1998.

Seed catalogues are not all that old, considering how long humans have been publishing, planting, and needing seeds. Nurserymen in England started producing catalogues in the eighteenth century and by the nineteenth, they were standard on this sid eof the ocean, too. Few, unfortunately, survive. Eileen Woodhead, a researcher in material culture and trained Plantsman, came across this catalgoue from the Toronto Nursery in the city of York, Upper Canada. She decided to reproduce its plants in her own garden, thus becoming intimate with the gardens of early settlers. The book she wrote as a result of her investigations not only reproduces the catalogue and discusses each plant thoroughly and with rarely sensitivity, but is illustrated with exquisite line drawings by the author.

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There is a Season: A Memoir in a Garden by Patrick Lane. McClelland & Stewart, 2004.

Patrick Lane is one of Canada’s finest poets. He is also a gardener and an observer of nature, both human and environmental. In this unique and compelling memoir of his garden on Vancouver Island, Patrick uses the garden as a mnemonic and a tonic for his recovery from a life of substance abuse. As savage, as ruthless and beautiful as nature itself.

The Holding by Merilyn Simonds. McClelland & Stewart, 2004.

This story of two gardeners working the same soil 130 years apart is set in the hills of Madawaska north of Ottawa. The narrative moves, with increasing tension, between past and present, between Margaret, left alone in the woods by her settler brothers, and Alyson, mourning the loss of a child. When Alyson finds Margaret’s secret, abandoned, she sets to restoring the pattern of plants, discovering truths about herself and the land.

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A New Leaf: Growing with my Garden, by Merilyn Simonds. Doubleday Canada, 2011.

Merilyn Simonds is a writer and a gardener in the tradition of Vita Sackville-West, Colette, and Jamaca Kincaid. In this memoir of her first ten years on her property at The Leaf in eastern Ontario, she works the soil and the soul in the company of a handful of companions including her Beloved, the Rosarian, and the Grand Girls. Intelligent and intimate, these 67 short pieces reveal a garden made and observed with a questioning eye and a gently irreverent humour.

The Fungus Garden by Brian Brett. Thistledown Press, 1988.

Brian Brett works a garden on Saltspring Island, a mundane enough enterprise though, transformed into fiction, poetry, and memoir, his efforts become Herculean, or Sisyphian, the garden no longer lower-case but spelled out in giant flaming letters that go off like shooting stars. Like all his work, The Fungus Garden is luscious, unique and disturbing, the story of a man transformed into a termite. The more recent Trauma Farm is less speculative but just as dramatic as Brian chronicles the trials and triumphs of wresting a living from the earth. No one renders the natural world with more rigour than Brian, who consistently delves for the truth of what it means to be human in this animate world.

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