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Two Hundred Years of Gardening : THE AMERICAN GARDENER A Sampler edited by Allen Lacy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $18.95; 367 pp.) : AMERICAN GARDEN WRITING edited by Bonnie Marranca (PAJ Publications: $23.95; 333 pp., illustrated)

August 14, 1988|Barbara Saltzman | Saltzman, editor of daily Calendar, is a garden hobbyist and avid reader of garden literature

It's been suggested that the ranks of amateur gardeners are swelling in these United States. If recent forays to nurseries, garden shows and botanical sales are any indication, renewed interest in garden writing is sure to follow. Once you've dug successfully in the soil, whether in a patio pot or in a back-yard plot, you'll no doubt start digging into the gardening literature, both how-to primers and personal odysseys.

Gardening seems to breed its own brand of readers and writers, with many outstanding garden essayists only recently recognized for their contributions to the field. Both of these volumes offer some of the best American writing on horticulture, from Colonial days to the present, and dispel the common notion that most worthwhile garden writing has come solely from the British Isles. Bonnie Marranca aptly suggests that her anthology is meant to be "read in the garden." Indeed, both of these collections read very well in the garden; small chapters make perfect tidbits between garden chores.

A distinguished and readable writer on gardening himself, Allen Lacy (he is, in fact, excerpted by Marranca), has brought together a good sampling of worthy efforts of the last couple hundred years. Not surprisingly, Marranca culls from many of the same authors, from Thomas Jefferson to Alice Morse Earle. Indeed, several selections in both books are identical, including Louise Beebe Wilder's delightful 1932 treatise on "Pleasures of the Nose" and Katharine S. White's plea for fragrant roses from her posthumous "Onward and Upward in the Garden" (a collection of her New Yorker treatises).

Lacy divides his selections into seven topics: to make a garden; color; fragrance; native plants; naming plants; pests and poisons, and lawns . . . or enclosed gardens? Within each segment, selected essays are arranged chronologically. Particularly worth ferreting out are Harlan J. Hand's 1978 essay for Pacific Horticulture magazine on "The Color Garden" and Thalassa Cruso's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" from her 1973 "To Everything There Is a Season."

Marranca organizes the material somewhat differently: seeds of inspiration; lives of the plants; travelers and the travels of plants; the play of art and nature, and reflections in a garden world. Though many of the writers are the same, Marranca offers a broader sense of history, though the essays are not offered chronologically. Short biographical notes at the end of each foray help put the writings in perspective, but would be more helpful at the beginning. Lacy offers all such information in a clump at the end of the book, a decided disadvantage for readers who might be unfamiliar with many of the contributors.

Strolling through Marranca's "American Garden Writing" you come away with a clearer historical perspective of Americans' intense interest in gardening through the years, especially the insights offered by distinguished plantsmen John and William Bartram and, particularly, for Southern Californians, Victoria Padilla's view of "The Franciscan Missionaries in Southern California." If you've ever been curious about Washington's flowering cherry trees, David Fairchild's essay on their origin is must reading, as is Amos Pettingilll's history of "White Flower Farm," a delight for any gardener who's ever browsed through that Connecticut nursery's extensive, well-crafted catalogue. Eleanor Perenyi's "Woman's Place" from her "Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden" will dispel any notion that women should be seen only in the cutting garden.

More than anything else, leafing through both volumes helps you understand that the leap between horticulture and literature is not as far afield as it may seem, that many of our keenest minds, from Jefferson to Thoreau, have crossed from one field to the other. As Marranca, a former theater critic captivated by gardening puts it, "Each gardener creates an ideal world of miniature thoughts that drift languidly into each other like flowers on a dry afternoon." Both Marranca and Lacy with these concurrent publications help us connect with those who've turned the soil before--and given it careful thought.

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