Who doesn’t love a good garden? There’s nothing quite like having the sun on your face, the breeze in your hair, and flowers blooming around your feet. Ellen Herrick, author of The Forbidden Garden, couldn’t agree more. So here, she’s rounded up some of her favorite gardens in literature, and writes about the impact that they’ve had on her life.
Long before I even thought about putting my own words on paper, I read and read as if words were air to me. And, long before I became a gardener myself or wrote about the magical way gardens weave themselves into people’s lives, I read and read about them, as if flowers were food. Here are just some of the books and words that have inspired me into growing and writing my own gardens, and gardeners. What connects these books is both their gardens and the underlying reality that nothing lasts forever but that the seasons will bring with them, one after another, a natural joy that only the rhythm of nature and the ebb and flow of life can give.
This seems an obvious choice. But, honestly, redemption stories don’t get much better than this unless it’s The Little Princess. First off, the central character, Mary Lennox, is discovered alone in a great house after her parents and all the servants have succumbed to cholera. Alone, surrounded by death! Then, she is transported to a country estate where she discovers a walled garden behind a locked gate that has not been visited in years. The sorrow that lies beneath that garden is revealed over time, as Mary and a boy, unable to walk at first, become friends and adventurers together. Colin finds his feet, literally and figuratively, the lord of the manor is able to release his sorrow, and the garden, in all its fragrant beauty, is finally released.
If you haven’t read this treasure, run, don’t walk to your bookstore or library. Tom, the main character, is sent away from a measles outbreak in his country village and is quarantined in his aunt and uncle’s city flat. Bored, lonely, and sleepless Tom hears the foyer grandfather clock strike thirteen and creeps down to investigate. He discovers that the door to the clockworks now leads him into a sunny garden where he meets a young girl. Unbeknownst to him, he has slipped back in time to the Victorian era when the house was a fine estate, not a collection of flats, and a grand garden swept away from it instead of an alley of rubbish bins. Over the weeks he is quarantined, he returns again and again to the Midnight Garden and his friend, Hatty, slips between ages and years, as Tom remains a child. I won’t reveal the ending; it is both bittersweet and satisfying.
This is a collection of linked short stories all connected by a garden behind an old house in a New England town. Alice Hoffman is one of my absolute favorite authors and a huge inspiration. As with many of her novels, there is more than a whisper of magic beneath the words in The Red Garden. It introduces readers to the founder of Blackwell, Massachusetts, a young woman who fears neither blizzards nor bears, and then to a young man who flees New York City with only his dog for company. One garden, where only red flowers grow, binds the characters and the town together. The image of that garden still haunts and enchants me as it does all who pass through it.
Finally, if I could slip between the pages of any of these books it would have to be this one. From Virginia Woolf to Roald Dahl, Beatrix Potter to William Wordsworth, these are the gardens that gave such pleasure and inspiration to writers of all stripes. There are cottage gardens rife with Allium and floppy roses, manicured parklands, wild woodlands, formal parterres, tiny patches outside sheds, and grand estates with rolling hills of green. Each of them evokes the character of their owners and tells their own stories as well as being the finest of muses.
I was introduced to this poem by the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins by the musician Natalie Merchant. In her album Leave Your Sleep she sets the poem to melancholy music so appropriate that I can barely listen without weeping. Margaret sees the leaves falling from the trees and mourns the passing of summer into autumn. Hopkins gently tells her that she will mourn much greater things, far greater losses in the future but that sorrow feels the same no matter the cause. Although summer is a bountiful time for gardens and their tenders, fall is my favourite time because I am drawn to the bittersweet ending of the growing season. I highly recommend listening to the Merchant song on YouTube. I promise you will be undone.
This may seem an odd choice but in 1977 I was a freshman in college and my mother was planting her first garden. She watched the Victory Garden program on PBS and read the accompanying book as if she were a starving child in World War II America instead of a city woman in a country house by the sea. The book was organized month-by-month through the gardener’s year, which is March through February. The photographs promised such bounty! And James Underwood Crockett’s no nonsense instructions and commentary made it all seem terrifically possible. My mother was an accomplished cook but a novice gardener. At the end of the first season my father came into the house with three green beans and a thousand zucchinis and declared the harvest a success.
Ellen Herrick was a publishing professional in New York City until she and her husband moved to London for a brief stint; they returned nearly twenty years later with three children (her own, it must be said). She now divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a small town on Cape Cod very much like Granite Point.