May 31, 2006

Between The Covers

For sure there is no dearth of attractive and informative gardening books, despite the Internet and all those instructions accompanying catalogues, plants, trees, seed packets, fertilizers— not to mention the advice, solicited and otherwise, offered by store owners and zealous friends.

So what sets one beautifully photographed tome apart from another? What makes Leila Hadley's recently published A Garden by the Sea stand out? Subtitled "A Practical Guide and Journal," A Garden by the Sea, though proceeding by chapters that move through the seasons, starting with spring, is essentially an extended diary of observations and thoughts based on 81-year-old Hadley's long and loving experience with gardens, outdoors and in.

Personal comments make the book memorable, consideration of gardeners, amateur and pro, gives it wide significance, and the quality of Hadley's prose puts it in the category of literature. Apartment dwellers take note: though the author has known and grown gardens all her life, starting at the age of six, one of her finest achievements was a trellis of morning glories on a Manhattan balcony no bigger than a bath mat. Hadley seems to have read everything organic gardens being just one of her deep and abiding interests — and traveled everywhere (admirers should get hold of her travel memoirs).

Though The East End can boast several gorgeous gardens, Hadley's may be unique, located as it is on rocky terrain, flanked by salt water and buffeted by high winds. The recent widow of Henry Luce III, who surprised her 15 years ago with a cliff-top house and five acres on Fishers Island in Long Island Sound, Hadley named her new domain Brillig (hello, Jabberwocky fans), and set out to establish a chemical-free environment for plants, trees, birds and butterflies. The knockout color photographs only hint at her success, and the annotated bibliography and source list of where to buy what, at her graciousness. Leila Hadley talks to everyone. She also generously acknowledges those who have assisted her and on whom she continues to rely for physical work and recommendations. Even the quip in her epilogue "A thing of beauty is a job forever," with its allusion to Keats's Endymion — credits Milton Berle. Not incidentally, Hadley's ease in moving between high and low culture is just another reason to read A Garden by the Sea.

Although she comes from a world of privilege, references to nannies, maids, cooks and gardeners in no way give the impression that Leila Hadley has been anything but her own fiercely independent person. She recalls hearing the word "garden" when she was a child pronounced "Godning," and she made a connection that has stayed with her all her life: "I still think sprinkling seeds no bigger than i-dots, on the ground, seeing them sprout, grow, leaf, bud into flowers is a miracle."

Of course, she hastens the miracle with research and a respect for anecdotal evidence. Planting trees? Put a half dozen potatoes in the hole. Want more fragrant roses? Try garlic around the stalks. Give bulbs Epsom salt. Worried about snow and ice? Toss around a mix of sand and baking soda. She does have a dream garden — white flowers gleaming in the light of the moon. Though hydrangeas are not a favorite, she responds to their need for watering, a "plea" that can be "as demanding and as irresistible as that of a baby at midnight." Queen Anne's lace? "Killers and dangerously invasive."

Winter evokes as much poetry as other seasons at Brillig: "A light snow turns gold in the sun, smoky blue in the shadows, and intensifies the greens and blues of the conifers, the browns and blacks of trunks and branches, and the orangery-bronze leaves of the Siberian iris with their dangling blue-gray seedpods." Starting in autumn, she brings as many plants as she can inside. "Houseplants are good for you," though she confesses that keeping the South African yellow cliva, "the Holy Grail of the horticultural elite around the world," eludes her at Brillig, so she makes sure to transport it to the city. Leila Hadley Luce is a remarkable lady who, despite asthma and emphysema, is still going strong. She talks to her plants, particularly the irises, telling them they are "Exquisite. Exquisite. Exquisite." So is this book.

A Garden by the Sea : A Practical Guide and Journal by Leila Hadley. Rizzoli, 217 pp., photos, index. $35.00.

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