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Miracles Abound in These Gardens of Eatin' : FOXGLOVES AND HEDGEHOG DAYS: Secrets From a Country Garden by Daniel J. Blajan, Houghton Mifflin, $22.95, 170 pages : THE 3,000 MILE GARDEN by Leslie Land and Roger Phillips, Penguin, $13.95, paperback; 330 pages

April 07, 1997|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Call it fate. Blame the end of the millennium. One day, an earwig drops from a bunch of roses onto Daniel Blajan's table, and before you know it, he's junking his chrome furniture for country oak and his city life for a cottage in rural Belgium. All because of a little bug--so out of place on the cold glass of his coffee table. But that's how nature talks to us. It doesn't shout through a speakerphone. It scuttles, it rustles, it chirps. Which is why it's such a comfort to us hard-wired urban types. And why books like Blajan's "Foxgloves and Hedgehog Days" are piling up on our night stands.

As we face the Big 2000, who doesn't dream of chucking everything to tramp the woods and grow a tasty round tomato? Who hasn't yearned to throw the fax away and communicate with songbirds?

Since most of us can't and still support ourselves (Blajan works seasonally as an officer on a cruise ship), we have to read these books instead. Blajan's is small, short, easy to lug to bed and fall asleep with. His chapter titles give him away: "Miraculous Mushrooms," "Cackling Cones," "Gnomes." But if you missed the point, here it is: "He who does not believe in miracles leads an empty life indeed."

In fact, miraculous nature shines amid the book's brief, poetic musings. Lounging in his garden, keeping watch from his windows, Blajan witnesses a parade of wonders--a shrew family marching forth from under a hedge, a stinkhorn fungus growing several inches in a morning, a nymph metamorphosing into a dragonfly, irises weeping, primroses dancing. He feels the thrill of being part of it--and the satisfaction, as a self-described "horticultural nitwit," of creating beauty nonetheless.

Given the driven-urbanite-retires-to-the-country theme, Blajan's book invites comparison with a richer, more personal work, Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence." Read Mayle if you haven't--then Blajan for his garden details and jaunty hedgehogs, as well as a winning recipe for bird food.

The most passionate green thumbs--and food lovers--might want to skip Blajan altogether and go straight to "The 3,000 Mile Garden," a selection of letters between American Leslie Land (food and home editor for Yankee magazine) and British writer-photographer Roger Phillips on "gardening, food and the good life." The two met in 1989 at a mushroom conference (!) in New Hampshire, became friends and began firing back and forth the kind of old-fashioned, chatty missives people wrote before fiber optics ruled the world.

Land and Phillips scribble on until their arms ache--he from his London house with its three-acre communal garden, she from a Maine farmlet--both bursting with horticultural enthusiasms, planting tips and recipes for great meals. Land confesses that she came to gardening via her stomach--in search of culinary herbs and vegetables she couldn't find in any market. For Phillips, who writes garden books, life without digging dirt is unthinkable--but so is life without delicacies like "gran paella" prepared in the woods, fried puffballs, and quince jam "strained through a baby's nappy."

But what emerges during their five years of correspondence (a public television series based on their exchanges aired in the U.S. last year) is not simply the stuff of two pros talking shop. In addition to formulas for coddling ferns and cooking ham in the heat of a compost pile are ruminations on just about any subject: sex (Phillips: "I feel that for sex to work there must be a fundamental . . . desire towards procreation. . . ."), politics (Land: "Couldn't stop crying when the tanks rolled into Lithuania. . . .") and money (Phillips: "The only way for the likes of us to make any real cash is to get on telly").

Amid the exhaustive plant lists and funny cartoonish sketches of themselves, they show off, flirt, pry a little into each other's lives as well as comfort each other, all in the cozy tone of people who know themselves to be accepted and loved. The only awkwardness in their exchange comes in the overblown joy both affect over Land's news of a new boyfriend. They don't know where to put this fact, how to treat it in the presence of their own unconventional intimacy.

For their readers, though, the message is clear: Whatever the new century holds, salvation lies in the familiar pleasures of growing things, good eating and good friends, which we need as much as plants need water and sun.

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