Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect literature as a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
“A Southern Garden”
by Elizabeth Lawrence
UNC Press, 1942 and 1991
There are some things in life that are difficult to write. Good writing about visual art is incredibly difficult to find. Nature writing that is dynamic and informative, yet reflective without being self-indulgent and slow-moving is rare and beautiful—much like an elusive bird sighting. Elizabeth Lawrence blends writing about both visual art and nature in her magnificent books about gardening in North Carolina. “A Southern Garden,” published in 1942—and brought back into print by UNC Press—was the book that signaled to the world she had arrived.
North Carolina gardening circles revere Lawrence. Her house and garden in Charlotte have been preserved and opened to the public to tour. I first discovered her when an old friend asked me to track down one of her out-of-print books as a birthday present for his wife, who is also a landscape architect. When he began rattling of Lawrence’s achievements, I was blown away: The first women to graduate from NC State with a degree in landscape architecture topped the list. That was in 1933, during the Depression.
She began writing about gardening and produced some poetry. But in 1942, with the release of “A Southern Garden,” she found her voice and calling. As she (now famously) pointed out to William Couch, the director of UNC Press, no book of this kind existed for Southern gardeners. Lawrence developed the manuscript primarily from her own garden in Raleigh (she moved to Charlotte in 1948). Combining her meticulous notes with her correspondence with other gardeners, and comparing against gardening books from around the country, she produced a manuscript specifically aimed at gardeners in the “Middle South”—not as hot as the Deep South and with winters not as strong as Mr. Jefferson experienced at Monticello.
Lawrence primarily focuses on flowers and ornamentals rather than vegetable gardening. Though many plants she discusses are edible, as well (and medicinal). But her goal is to surround the home with color all year long. In the back are tables of “Earliest Date of First Bloom,” “Last Date of First Bloom” and “Length of Bloom,” based upon her own notes and research.
It is not a book for looking up information on individual plants. Lawrence is involved in a sustained conversation about painting the yard with colors of nature. It is not something she can break down into simple one-page entries, with headlines and bullet points. She chatters away about the experiences her friends have had transplanting trees from Wilmington to Raleigh. Or the cuttings she got from a friend in Chapel Hill. Or the issues she has with snow-drops. It is like getting a master class in how to design and develop a garden, as well as spend a lifetime deepening a relationship with it. She writes:
“Early in September I saw in Mr. Clement’s rock garden a prostrate marigold that is one of the most charming dwarf annuals I have ever come across. He said it was called ‘pigmy gold’ and the seeds come from California.”
Lawrence goes on to detail her experiences with the plant, why she recommends it and where. Apparently, fall annuals are in short supply, but marigolds seem to be the solution for boarders or rock gardens.
Her conversational writing style is such that I can dip in for a quick insight when I’m in a parking lot, surrounded by asphalt and needing a touch of nature to soothe my soul. Or I can spend hours absorbed and re-planning my next gardening project—because her passion for each plant has me thinking about where I could incorporate it into the plan and also where to acquire it.
Whereas many gardening books are laid out in alphabetical order, Lawrence discusses the annual lifecycle of a garden. So she begins with discussing how misunderstood winter is in our state. She points out we usually have mini-summers in January, which allows us time to sit in the sun or finish up tasks left undone from the fall. Yet, so many people abandon their gardens from Thanksgiving until the daffodils.
“Spring Comes in February” introduces the season so many associate with April showers. Instead, Lawrence is busy with early bloomers and a long list of plants to put in now for summer and fall, including an entire section on roses in the South and the loss of old roses.
“The Climax of Fall” brings the beauty of the wandering late heat of September through early November, and the amazing displays of fall color—which seem to be the great reward for Lawrence.
Perhaps my favorite chapter is “Frost- And the Garden Year Begins Again.” Here is the opening: “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 the cold blue sky.”
Make no mistake: This is not the only book Lawrence wrote. Her additional works include “Gardens in Winter” (1961), “Little Bulbs” (1957) and “Lob’s Wood” (1971). Meanwhile, she was a regular garden columnist for the Charlotte Observer from 1957 to 1971. Her columns were collected into “Through the Garden Gate.”
Speaking as someone who has written a weekly column for the better part of the last decade, to continue to produce material of value on one topic (in this case gardening) for almost 15 years is no easy feat. As many of her devotees observed over the years, Lawrence’s curiosity kept her work and writing interesting. She writes with equal interest about the plants she has acquired via the mail as she does the plants that come in seed packets from “the dime store.” Perhaps that’s the secret: She is fascinated by all aspects of gardening, but especially sharing. She loves to share cuttings, flowers, seeds, sources, and most of all information.