Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, by Eleanor Perényi

If you’re a writer who gardens, Eleanor Perényi writes in her foreword, “sooner or later going to write a book about the subject—I take that as inevitable.” There are some heavy-hitting precedents to Pereyni’s classic of the writer-in-the-garden genre. Charles Dudley Warner’s My Summer in a Garden (1870, and recently republished with a new introduction by Allan Gurganus), Celia Thaxter’s An Island Garden (1894) and Karel Capek’s The Gardener’s Year (1929). More recently, Jamaica Kinkaid’s My Garden (Book) centers on the discoveries the writer finds in transplanting her love of growing from her native Antigua to Vermont.

There’s something compatible about writing and gardening: the same dogged tending, the cultivating of a certain turf, the attention to seeing that small things grow, and to not letting them get unwieldy. Virginia Woolf and Beatrix Potter both famously tended gardens, but Perényi is in a category all her own. Novelist, essayist,  gardener, and a recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters literature citation in 1982, she died in 2009 at the age of ninety-one. She is also the author of More Was Lost: A Memoir (1946), on rebuilding her Hungarian baron husband’s neglected country estate at the edge of the Carpathians castle.

Green Thoughts, published in 1981, reads like a book well ahead of its time, consisting of 70 short essays on a wide range of garden topics. It’s also a document of experience, with advice, opinions, and appreciations—and Perényi is a woman of independent tastes. Of the dahlias she grows, considered “vulgar” by a visiting observer, she writes, “ me they are sumptuous, not vulgar, and I love their colors, their willingness to bloom until the frost kills them, and yes, their assertiveness. I do like big flowers when they are also beautiful.”

It’s the kind of book you can open to any page and find entries on such topics as Lawns, Tools, Hybrids, Artichokes, and something called a Belgian Fence, which turns out to be a method of espaliering fruit trees to create a fruit-bearing fence. There are also essays on less tangible matters: the Partly Cloudy (that features something we know well here in California, the drought), Invitations (not to other people, but on varieties of experience that certain plantings invite), and Magic. That entry is an especially interesting one, as it examines the tensions between science, art, superstition, and a certain enchantment, all of which coalesce in garden knowledge and lore. Of her lifelong subscription to Organic Gardening magazine, she writes:

“It isn’t that the editors believe in magic, they don’t; but neither do they believe that anything to do with plants can be an exact science or that we have found out all that we need to know.”

I happen to love working in the garden, minuscule plot that I have, but what I love as much is good writing—writing that has a tone of authority, sometimes skepticism, and boundless knowledge. It’s all there in Perényi’s prose. Her years of experience in the garden (that’s what writers and gardeners have in common after all—they’re both information junkies), makes her an authority, but her point of view is original and unsentimental. Here is she in a chapter titled Blue, on the color blue in the garden:

Nature’s favorite color is a washed-out magenta, the original shade (and the one their hybrids will revert to if they go to seed) of petunias, garden phlox, sweet peas, nicotiana, foxgloves and so many other that Thalassa Cruso says it is known in her family as Garden-of-Eden, on the premise that all flowers must have started out that color.”

Now, I have no blue flowers in my garden, and no idea who Thalasso Cruso is, but I love the detail here, and the idea, simply because of its unfamiliarity to me. Gardeners, and writers for that matter, rely on the new, on the novel and the unexpected juxtaposition. So while Perényi’s expertise in the garden offers copious growing tips, I find that it’s her gifts as a writer that make Green Thoughts one of my most valued books on gardening.

Read a short essay by the Paris Review’s Sadie Stein, on an urbanite’s view of Green Thoughts, here.

—Lauren Alwan

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