The Last Garden in England, Julia Kelly

Five women from three different eras are tied together by one beautiful garden.

 In 1907 Venetia Smith,  garden designer, is hired to create a series of garden rooms for an elegant country estate, Highbury House, owned by a newly rich couple who seek to impress.

 They want “a garden imbued with elegance and ambition, one that will look as though it had been in the family for years rather than being a new acquisition funded by the recent inheritance of his soap fortune.”

 In 1944 Highbury House is conscripted by the government to serve as a convalescent hospital. Land girl, Beth Pelly, cook, Stella Adderton and mistress of the house, Lady Diana Symonds are all intertwined in the war effort and the heartbreaking events of the war.

In 2021 Emma Lovell is hired to restore the neglected Highbury House gardens to their former glory. As a business owner she struggles to stay above water and the commission to restore these sumptuous garden rooms is a plum that she must not let go of. She must also shake off the doubts her mother has about her choice of career.

It is sometimes difficult to keep track of the five story lines in the book especially since three of the women are living in the house at the same time. That is the 1944 year of World War II. The mistress, Diana, is mourning the loss of her husband, the orphaned land girl, Beth, is anxious to settle where people care for her and a longtime servant, Stella,  aches to get away from the strict class structure of the estate. 1907 and 1944 include secrets that are left to the 2021 garden restorer, Emma, to discover.

This historical romance explores the social constraints women faced in all three eras and their unique solutions to surmounting them. Along the way the author provides numerous depictions of bountiful garden room designs.

This is Venetia’s plan for the tea and the  lovers’ gardens:

“I wanted to shock a visitor walking from the calming, feminine plantings of pale purple heliotrope, light pink echinacea, and creamy peonies into a room almost obscene with color. Rich red roses, deep purple salvia, and the red flowering spikes of persicaria, Banana plants, Japanese maples, dahlias, tulips – I wanted it to make people gasp.”

In her author’s note Julia Kelly writes:

“I believe that much like books, gardens are organic, unpredictable things, revealing their beauty how and when they choose. It’s up to us to remember to pause and enjoy that beauty every day.”

When we can’t enjoy walking in a garden, reading descriptions of well -planned gardens can be a pleasant substitute and a fount of ideas for our own gardens.

Larry’s Party, Carol Shields

Carol Shields takes the reader forensically into her characters, in this case, Larry Weller. We follow Larry from awkward, directionless teen to a 46 year old, famously successful, garden maze designer. Even Larry wonders how it all happened.

Larry and his first wife, Dorrie, are just clueless kids when she gets pregnant and they get married. Larry went to floral design college (Dorrie thought it was actual college) and gets a job in a flower shop. Larry’s parents give them a tour of England as a wedding gift. That is where Larry becomes obsessed with hedges in general and mazes in particular.

“The hedges were everywhere. Out in the countryside they separated fields from pasture land, snaking up and down the tilted landscape, criss-crossing each other or angling wildly out of sight, dividing one patch of green from another, providing a barrier between cattle and sheep and flocks of geese. …  In the towns the clipped hedges served as fences between houses, a stitching of fine green seams, and gave protection and privacy to tiny garden plots. Luxurious and shapely, they seemed pieces of tended sculpture, and now, late in a mild winter, their woody fullness was enveloped by a pale furred cloud of green. Buds in March. It seemed impossible. Young leaves unfolding.”

In Manchester Larry finds a book in the bargain bin – Hedges of England and Scotland. He studies it for the rest of the tour until the last day when they pull up to the maze at Hampton Court.

“The interior of the maze had made him dizzy. … The green walls rose about him, too high to see over. Who would have expected such height and density? And he hadn’t anticipated the sensation of feeling unplugged from the world or the heightened state of panicked awareness that was nevertheless, repairable. Without thinking, he had slowed his pace, falling behind the others, willing himself to be lost, to be alone.”

When Larry finally stumbles out of the Hampton Court maze, his life is changed forever. The obsession leads him to fill his tiny yard in Winnipeg with a maze. That leads Dorrie to hire a bulldozer to tear it out.  It is too much for Larry who calls it quits. Although his marriage failed, Larry’s maze career succeeds wildly. He moves to Chicago and acquires a new wife, Beth, a college professor specializing in female saints.

The overlapping chapters of Larry’s life finally culminate in Larry’s party in Toronto. He’s launching his latest most creative maize.

“Larry hopes, and this was the view he presented to the press this morning in a prepared statement – that the maze will incorporate the essential lost-and-found odyssey of a conventional maze, but will allow the maze walker to forget that the shrub material is a kind of wall and think of it, rather, as an extension of a dreamy organic world, with the maze and the maze solver merging to form a single organism.”

Both ex-wives are going to be in town so his girlfriend, Charlotte, convinces him to give a party. She would help. She’s always helping. Larry likes her but can’t love her. She bites too hard at the biscuit of life, he thinks.

Larry is a bit lost at his own party, especially when his second ex-wife shows up 7 months glowingly pregnant. It turns out to be a raucous, illuminating party for Larry. As he tells Dorrie at the end of the evening, he’s discovered he no longer wants to be lost, he wants to be found.

Some run the Shepherd’s Race – a rut

                Within a grass-plot, deeply cut

                And wide enough to tread –

                A maze of path, of old designed

                To tire the feet, perplex the mind,

                Yet pleasure heart and head;

                “Tis not unlike this life we spend,

                And where you start from, there you end.

                                                (Bradfield, Sentan’s Wells, 1854)

Being There, Jerzy Kosinski

Chance was a gardener. He had been one for as long as he could remember, since he was six years old and the old man took him into his home and told him that was his job.  The years went by. Chance gardened and watched TV in his spare hours. He never learned to read; everything he learned was from the television set and the garden.

But then the old man died and the executors of the estate arrived. There was no record of Chance working there, no record at all of Chance’s existence. He was told to vacate the premises by noon. So he found a suitcase in the attic and some of the old man’s clothes which were of good quality and fit him perfectly.

On this day, his first outside the walled garden, Chance was hit by a limousine as he crossed the street. His leg was mildly injured. The limousine occupant was a wealthy woman, married to a powerful financier. She insisted on bringing him to her home for care. There he met her powerful but dying husband. When asked his name, Chance replied Chance the Gardener. The woman thought he said, Chauncey Gardiner. So that was who he became. She also assumed from his clothes that he was of her class. His years of watching TV served Chance well, as he acted out the mannerisms he had observed on TV.

The financier was so powerful that the president stopped by to pay his respects. He asked Chance what he thought of recent political happenings. Chance thought for a while and then answered slowly and deliberately with what he knew to be true.

“In a garden,” he said, “growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well.”

Amazingly the financer and the president were wildly impressed by his refreshing and optimistic statement. So began Chance the Gardener’s ride as the darling of the intellectuals. He may have been a few bricks short of a full load but the movers and shakers in the world of politics and media loved him.

A short allegorical satire of our shallow world, Being There rings as surprisingly true today as it did in 1970 when it first came into print. A movie was made in 1979 staring Peter Sellers as Chance and Shirley MacLaine as the wealthy woman who rescued him from the street.

Never underestimate the power of gardening. It allowed Chance to fool important people for at least a week. But it left his little brain bewildered. At a party where big wigs were discussing the possibility of running him for vice president, Chance stepped out into the garden.

“Taut branches laden with fresh shoots, slender stems with tiny sprouting buds shot upward. The garden lay calm, still sunk in repose. Wisps of clouds floated by and left the moon polished. Now and then, boughs rustled and gently shook off their drops of water. A breeze fell upon the foliage and nestled under the cover of its moist leaves. Not a thought lifted itself from Chance’s brain. Peace filled his chest.”

The Heirloom Garden, Viola Shipman

This story connects an 80 year old World War II widow with a young family dealing with PTSD from the Iraq War. The widow, Iris Maynard, lost her husband in combat, but his body was never recovered. A few years later her young daughter died of polio. She built a high wall around her property and sought solace in breeding flowers.

Abby and Cory Peterson move in next door with their little girl, Lily. Cory is suffering from PTSD, Abby is trying to manage his treatment while trying to navigate the male world of chemical engineering in her job as a creator of paint colors. Lily is trying to understand why her world has changed from lovingly safe and comfortable to risky and unpredictable. In her childlike wisdom, Lily gravitates to the old woman next door because, she says, they both have flower names.

There’s a lot of grief to go around and healing is sorely needed by each character. The story does get a bit preachy and wordy on issues of women’s struggles in the workplace and the need for dealing with the pain of war for both the combatants and their loved ones. But the setting is a delight – Grand Haven, Michigan, a summer destination on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Iris is a true gardener.

“I love the earth in my hands, the feel and smell of it. It I meet a gardener who tells me they don’t, or who says they hate to weed, mulch or deadhead, I will know they are not a true gardener.”

Iris has walled herself off from the world in her cottage by the sea. She breaks out of her years of self-isolation to convert the Peterson family into gardeners and even shows that gardening can help with Cory’s PTSD.

“Monet once said of Van Gogh. ‘How did a man who loved flowers so well manage to be so unhappy”’ I look directly into Abby’s eyes.  ‘ I often ask myself that same question. But life, Mrs. Peterson, as you are learning, can be crushing in its relentless cruelty. I’ve learned that I can protect my gardens from much of the harm of the world, and they reward me with their beauty. I’ve learned that you can wall out pain.’”

She explains to Cory her personal take on garden therapy.

“The ground grounds us. Our fingers in the soil, our knees on the earth, our bodies in the sun. This…’ I stop and pick up a clump of dirt and let it trickle through my fingers. ‘This earth is the only thing that connects us all. It is the only thing that will outlive us all. Whether we’re here in Michigan, or a soldier fighting in Iraq, this earth is our common denominator.”

Cory and Abby find two surprising ways to repay Iris for her generous help. And their gifts, in turn, help Iris heal from her decades of grief.

Viola Shipman is the pen name of memoirist Wade Rouse.

Tales from Two Pockets, Karel Capek

Read Karel Capek’s stories and you’ll find the truth of the whole human race told in an intimate way with black humor to boot. Capek was a Czech intellectual writing between the wars in the unstable years of the 1920s and 30s. He is famous for inventing with his artist brother the word ‘robot.’ It comes from the Czech word ‘roboter’ meaning serf work. His book The Gardener’s Year was my first introduction to his writing. The title sounds plain and boring but it’s nothing of the sort. In the introduction Verlyn Klinkenborg says:

“What sets Capek apart as a garden writer is his willingness to look beyond the inherent estheticism of gardening, beyond the specialization and technicality that overcome what he calls the “serious maniacs” beyond even the solace of growing plants. For him, the only way to understand what gardening means is to understand the complexity of human nature.”

And it is the complexity of human nature, not gardening, that Capek sets out to study. There are 48 tales in Tales from Two Pockets. One of them, “The Blue Chrysanthemum” chronicles the hilarious search by a whole village for the growing place of a rare blue chrysanthemum that the village idiot Klara keeps turning up with. Gardeners can turn into plant-aholics when they must at all costs obtain a plant that no one else possesses.

These tales of mystery are different from the crime-writing traditions of other countries. Sometimes there is no crime, sometimes the answer is already known, but always there is a study of the bizarre things that humans do. In the blue chrysanthemum case there was a sign:


So no one went there to look for blue chrysanthemums.

                “What power there is in a warning sign, mister…Only crazy Klara went there, because she was an idiot and didn’t know how to read.”

Capek’s take on human nature was true in 1938 and just as true in 2021. He died along with his country when Nazi Germany came marching in. His death was just as much from grief as it was from bad lungs.