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The literary garden

Living in the moment is difficult for people who garden. Your predilection is to look ahead to the next flowering, the emerging crop, a coming season. Here in Zone 9, the late-winter, early-spring weather is high growing season, and our gardens are at the peak of fecundity. I wake up to find that the beds of snapdragons and delphiniums seem to have doubled overnight. The geraniums are exploding. Nascent tomatoes the size and color of early peas have appeared on vines. I smell gardenias and orange blossoms.

Still, in the midst of this profusion, my mind turns to summer, that bleakest of seasons for Central Florida gardeners. I anticipate the heat and humidity that will reduce the flower beds to mush and the vegetables to sun-burnt ruins, the black spot that will defoliate the roses, the weeds that will run riot because I will be too enervated by the heat to pull them out.

Oh, sure, the plumbago and pentas can be counted on to look good through September, and hibiscus plants are old reliables. But starting in early June, my yard is pretty much on its own, having to fend off pests, disease and renegade plants without my intervention. I close all the windows. I turn on the air-conditioner. And I garden vicariously by reading books about other people's gardens. My favorites are not those with gorgeous photographs or practical advice. They are books by good writers who write about gardens and gardening the way MFK Fisher wrote about food, which wasn't really about food. I have several shelves of such books.

As I write this, I think that when I get home from work, while the weather is so beautiful, I should sit by my pond and count the goldfish or contemplate my lavender bushes in full bloom. (Okay, I'm bragging.) Then again, I need to think about planting a new batch of herbs. And I expect a shipment of books for the coming hibernation. The books on order are old _ one was written in the late 1800s _ and out-of-print editions that have been recently reprinted: Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perenyi; We Made a Garden by Margery Fish and Graham Stuart Thomas; The Gardener's Year by Karel Capek, and My Summer in a Garden by Charles Dudley Warner. Perhaps they will arrive today; I look forward to them.

Selections for your perusal

My picks for good garden reads enjoyed during past summers are listed in no particular order. Some are new enough to be available at local book stores and I have noted that. Some are out of print but can be ordered through Internet sources such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble or, if you're lucky, at local used book stores:

Second Nature and The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. Pollan likes to dig deep, literally and metaphorically. In Second Nature, he writes about creating a garden on an intractable piece of land in Connecticut. His manic pursuit of a woodchuck is an intellectual version of Bill Murray's demented groundskeeper in the movie Caddy Shack. In Botany of Desire, his premise is wonderfully contrarian, that humans have been operating under the delusion that we are domesticating nature when it's the other way around. He ruminates on apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes evolving and surviving by satisfying our desires. Funky stuff but beautifully written. Both are available at local book stores.

Vita's Other World by Jane Brown: I first read this book more than a decade ago when my husband and I were trying to create a grand garden on a beautiful site in the southern part of St. Petersburg. This book disabused me of that pretension and taught me what a grand garden and gardener really were. It is a biography of Vita Sackville-West, and just as much a biography of her magnificent obsession, her garden at Sissinghurst. It is a powerful and moving story with terrific period photographs. Do not mistakenly order, as I did, Sissinghurst: Portrait of a Garden, also by Jane Brown, which is a tour of the garden as it is today along with a brief history.

Garden Tales _ Classic Stories From Favorite Writers: A slim volume of short stories in which gardens figure. Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party, Eudora Welty's A curtain of Green, John Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemums, Nathanial Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter (a personal favorite) and Saki's The Occasional Garden. Color photos by Jane Gottlieb are pretty but beside the point.

Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katharine S. White: After his wife's death, E.B. White assembled this collection of gardening columns she wrote for the New Yorker. She is not the writer he was, but she shares her husband's incisiveness and wit, whether reviewing the prose of seed catalog writers or the subtle politics of garden clubs. The introduction by E.B. White is worth the price of the book.

The Writer in the Garden edited by Jane Garmey: Any collection that can establish a common thread between Andrew Marvell, Edith Wharton and Charles Kuralt gets my vote. This is a fun book because, with 63 essays, stories and poems, you can pick it up and put it down whenever you want without dropping a narrative stitch.

My Garden (Book) by Jamaica Kincaid: The author pokes fun at herself as she takes us along on personal journeys such as a trip to the Chelsea Flower Show where she considers stealing a plant and a dark night of the soul during which she agonizes over ordering too many seed packets from catalogs. What gardener hasn't had such outlaw moments? Available at local book stores.

Making Hay by Verlyn Klinkenborg: The author is an editorial writer at the New York Times and writes gracefully for those pages. He is really more a nature than garden writer and this book is about haying season on his uncles' farms in the Midwest and on a Montana ranch, not subjects I think about. But I love a guy who describes cattle as "grass made flesh" and who can juxtapose lyrical descriptions of a pickup truck's "tail of lucent dust" with a quote from his Uncle Elmore Jack about the hogs "that rooted up a field real good."

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