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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Book reviews

The book “Chasing the Rose: An Adventure in the Venetian Countryside (Knopf 26.95)” tells the story of Andrea di Robilant’s quest for the name of a rose that grew on his family’s former estate near Venice. His journey took him from the wild overgrown park on the estate that had left his family decades before, to Eleanora Garlant and her rose garden, the largest in Italy with 1,500 roses, as well as to tales of his great-great-great-great grandmother Lucia with her love and knowledge of roses, the Empress Josephine and the histories of many individual roses.

For centuries people have considered the rose a romantic flower, inspiring poets, artists and rose hunters who dared the treacherous and distant mountains of faraway China. Di Robilant’s research is a romantic quest in itself and while his explorations and discoveries are fascinating to a rose gardener and lover, there is an enchantment in his travels, captured by Nina Fuga’s simple and graceful watercolor illustrations.

When I planted my first old-fashioned roses, I chose Madame Hardy, Comtesse de Murinais, Konegin von Danemark and Madame Plantier and other roses honoring people famous enough or loved enough to have a rose named after them. When I walked past these roses early in the dewy morning, I imagined us all primping and preparing for the day together. My reaction to the roses is very similar to di Robilant’s in Signora Galant’s garden: “When I saw the ‘Empress Josephine’ spread out against Eleanora’s corner pergola, I inevitably conjured up the real Josephine. And so it was with the other roses arrayed around it. I was no longer simply walking along a path looking at the roses on display, I had stepped into a crowded, lively room filled with roses that were looking at me.”

Although di Robilant sometimes writes of the gardens of the wealthy, it is the stamina and resilience of these old roses that fascinate him, and me. I was moved by the amazing story of Pierina, a teacher who married a civil engineer and followed her husband to Irkutsk in Siberia, where he was overseeing the building of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. There she continued to teach school and wrote about conditions for labor organizations. She survived the Russian Revolution and many other trials until, at age 74, she walked to Vladivostok and from there made her way home — and continued to teach! Stamina and resilience. Signora Galant named one of her new hybrids Pierina.

While “Chasing the Rose” is the tale of a quest, Jan Johnsen’s book “Heaven is a Garden: Designing Serene Outdoor Spaces for Inspiration and Reflection” (St. Lynn’s Press 17.95) shows us how to make our garden a place to return to time and again, a refuge of cool tranquility.

Johnsen is a noted landscape designer who has worked around the world and teaches at Columbia University and the New York Botanical Garden. She brings us her varied experiences with the cultures of the world and ancient principles of design to illustrate ways we can organize our garden and landscape space to be comfortable, beautiful and meaningful.

Although we don’t often think in mathematical terms when we are in our gardens, Johnsen reminds us of the importance of proportion and the Golden Mean. Even a rectangle can lack harmony and therefore be unsettling or uncomfortable. The golden ratio, “a universal constant,” used by artists and architects requires that the long-side of the rectangle be approximately two-thirds longer than the shorter side.

Other geometry in the garden includes graceful circles and ovals. She reminds us “that designers should enhance our fondness for circular gatherings by creating protected, circular spaces for conversation ... that are not cut by paths or movement.”

One chapter is given over to the magic of water. Every year I come to an ever greater appreciation of the power of water in the garden. Johnsen shows us cascades, musical streams and fountains, including a mist fountain. But even a bowl of still water has power. I remember an exhibit at what was then the Arts Council on Franklin Street. One element was a peaceful corner that contained nothing but a large pottery bowl of water on a slightly raised platform and a bench. When classes of teenagers came with their teachers, I was amazed to see how many of them sat quietly in meditation before that bowl for as long as they were permitted.

Fortunate are those who have large stone outcroppings. Many years ago, an acquaintance asked me what to do with the stone ledge that rose out of his lawn. I suggested some plants that I thought would thrive in its crevices or at its borders. My ideas were dismissed and he went looking for large delivery of soil. I saw this as a missed opportunity and Johnsen illustrates what loveliness could have been created.

“Heaven is a Garden” contains beautiful photographs illustrating the elements of water and stone, of trees and flowers, of soothing green and brightly colored garden corners.

Most of us will not be able to install grass steps or arrange for standing stones, but Johnsen shows us how we can all create an unhurried garden where we can lose track of time.

On the hot summer days that await us, we can find adventure as we read “Chasing the Rose” in the shade, or we can re-evaluate our plantings on leisurely strolls and consider ways to discover that “Heaven is a Garden” in our own garden.

Pat Leuchtman, who is The Recorder’s garden columnist, has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her Web site: www.commonweeder.com.

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