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Favorite Garden Books: Two Gardeners

April 20, 2010

Book jacket - Two Gardeners In 1958, when Maine gardener and long-time New Yorker editor Katharine S. White published her first garden essay in that magazine (see Favorite Garden Books: Onward and Upward in the Garden), she received a fan letter from North Carolina gardener and garden writer, Elizabeth Lawrence. This was the beginning of a correspondence that lasted almost twenty years, until Katharine White’s death in 1977.

In Two Gardeners (Beacon Press 2002), Emily Herring Wilson has produced a beautifully edited collection of the letters between these two remarkable gardeners and writers. The subtitle Wilson has chosen for this book, “A Friendship in Letters,” is particularly apt; although Katharine White and Elizabeth Lawrence had only one face-to-face meeting, they became dear friends who shared their gardens and their writing, and provided support for one another through life’s difficulties.

The letters delightfully document the friendship that developed between these two women. At first, the letters flowed back and forth between “Mrs. White” and “Miss Lawrence.” Then, about one year into the correspondence, Katharine ventured

I owe you more thanks than I can ever say for all your help. And I find myself quoting “Elizabeth.” Do I dare call you that? Anyway, I’ll sign myself, Katharine.(p. 28)

and Elizabeth responded immediately with a letter that begins “Dear Katharine” and ends with this postscript: “I thought you did call me Elizabeth. I always call you Katharine in spirit.” A few months later, it was Elizabeth who first used the word “friend”

A nice person called me the other day to ask about A Southern Garden. She said a friend had written to her, and you had written to the friend. She said, “Do you know Katharine White?” and I heard myself saying, “Oh yes! She is an old friend of mine.” (pp. 41-2)

Perhaps Elizabeth felt a bit diffident about claiming the friendship of the more famous Whites because she reverted to “Dear Mrs. White” in the salutation of this letter. But Katharine confirmed the friendship in her next letter: “If anyone asked whether I know you, I would say, ‘Of course. She is a great friend.’” (p. 43) As the letters progress through the years, you get to know these women as they reveal more of themselves to one another. I have read this book several times, and I am invariably moved to tears when I get to the Epilogue, letters between Elizabeth and Katharine’s husband Andy (E.B. White) remembering Katharine after her death. It feels as though the loss is also mine.

Each of these women counted herself lucky to have the other as a friend. For Katharine, who often expressed doubts about her horticultural knowledge and the quality of writing in her New Yorker pieces, Elizabeth was both her “go to” person for horticultural information and her primary reader; if Elizabeth thought that a published essay was a good one, Katharine was satisfied. In turn, Katharine provided both encouragement and practical support for Elizabeth’s writing. Katharine’s connections in the publishing world and the exposure she provided for Elizabeth’s work as she reviewed it in the New Yorker helped Elizabeth to get and keep her books in print.

Over the years, these two garden writers exchanged information about plants and nurseries, recommendations for garden books and book dealers who could be relied on to help find those books, and actual books and plants. One February, when Katharine was hospitalized in New York, Elizabeth sent her a box of cut flowers and foliage from her North Carolina garden, accompanied by a note identifying each item. When Katharine found a rare book by Jane Webb Loudon, a writer whose work Elizabeth had introduced her to, she bought it as a gift and sent it off to Elizabeth. The letters between them are full of useful information, lively opinions, and humor. When Katharine poked fun at modern flower arranging fashions in one of her New Yorker pieces, Elizabeth responded by sending her supporting evidence. In one letter, Elizabeth included a newspaper clipping about a local flower show and added this commentary: “I wonder whether you know that a Sylvania sun lamp with fruit and flowers expresses peace and contentment in the home.” (p. 193)

In some ways, the letters between Katharine White and Elizabeth Lawrence are very much of their time; but they also remind me of the “virtual friendships” that thrive among garden bloggers. Here, too, gardeners share information and sometimes plants, praise one another’s gardens, encourage one another’s writing, provide support in times of difficulty, and sometimes meet in person. We can all be inspired by the letters and the friendship between these two gardeners.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2010 1:52 pm

    Such a nice post about gardening, writings and friendship. I have been stubborn enough to keep churning out posts on daily basis. It is just a way to maintain some kind of journal about gardening adventure. But it is the little communication between bangchik and kakdah, neighbours, friends, bloggers and blotanists that really reinforce the gardening spirit and enthusiasm. And we learn along the way…. Have a nice day! ~bangchik

  2. Elephant's Eye permalink
    April 20, 2010 2:39 pm

    I’m left wondering what future biographers will do. The letters between A and B will be some sort of electronic archive. Perhaps with the earlier years lost because technology has moved on?

  3. April 20, 2010 3:20 pm

    Hi Jean, these two ladies and the friendship they forged through letters is a timeless tale for anyone who loves writing and gardening. We have books by both and do appreciate their take on gardening at large during their time. Our times are different, but gardeners can still communicate with each other about exactly the same types of topics. I am lucky to have my friend Gail, of Clay and Limestone, met through blogging to share thoughts with, among others. It is so important to be connected.

    • Jean permalink*
      April 20, 2010 10:18 pm

      Bangchik and Frances, It does seem as though connection with other gardeners is an important part of gardening, and that what has changed is the means we use to make that connection.

      Diana, When you see letters like these you do have to wonder at the loss to future historians and biographers. What will they make of our 21st century means of communication. I heard this weekend that the United States Library of Congress is now archiving all tweets as an historical record!

  4. April 20, 2010 3:46 pm

    I’m definitely going to read this, Jean. I love old-fashioned correspondence — and still attempt to maintain the tradition today, although sadly it is getting quite difficult as no one prefers the difficulty of writing actual letters to simple e-mail. 😦 But you are right that bloggers can and do develop such wonderful virtual friendships; perhaps that is our generation’s good fortune, and Luddite that I am, I have difficulty letting go of the old forms.

    In today’s post I mentioned that I acted upon another of your suggested readings, although that one you recommended to me in a comment. 🙂

  5. April 20, 2010 6:05 pm

    Hi Jean – how lovely. It sounds like a must read for the summer. And you are so right about how the friendships we make blogging are similar to these types of old correspondence friendships. But we are exposed to so many more opportunities for these friendships thanks to technology.

    • Jean permalink*
      April 20, 2010 10:26 pm

      Meredith, If you love old-fashioned correspondence you will love this book. I must admit to being one of those people who has stopped writing letters, even though I still have boxes and boxes of gorgeous notecards. Carol at May Dreams Gardens recently did a review of a new collection of Elizabeth Lawrence’s correspondence, also edited by Emily Herring Wilson.

      Heather, This really is a wonderful book. When I look at how many people both Katharine White and Elizabeth Lawrence corresponded with, I’m not entirely sure that our technology connects us with more people. As I re-read these letters, I found myself wondering if these women would have been garden bloggers if they lived today. I have doubts that Katharine White would have been; she was such a perfectionist about her writing. But Elizabeth Lawrence is another story; she collected correspondents who would write to her and tell her the dates when things bloomed in their gardens! It is fitting that the Garden Bloggers Bloom Day meme was inspired by something that Elizabeth Lawrence wrote.

  6. April 20, 2010 11:17 pm

    I’ve never heard of this book. I’m glad you have chosen to write about it, I”ll be snooping around the library for it soon. I wonder how many gardeners are lucky to have such a close gardening friend to bounce ideas off, etc.?

    Christine in Alaska

  7. April 20, 2010 11:48 pm


  8. April 21, 2010 9:59 pm

    It’s a pity that writing letters becomes an attribute of the past. Texting , e-maling, twitting… What’s next? …Thank you Jean for an interesting review!

  9. April 21, 2010 10:35 pm

    I’ve heard this to be a fabulous book.. I must get it!

    • Jean permalink*
      April 22, 2010 7:55 pm

      Dirty Girl, Thanks for visiting. I would agree that this is a fabulous book; enjoy!

      Tatyana, It is interesting to think about what we have lost with letters. Electronic communication is so different. Because it is seemingly ephemeral, most people don’t take the same care with what they have to say as they did when they were writing on paper. While I’m reassured that the Library of Congress is archiving tweets, I don’t think they’ll be the same kind of literary treasure trove that letters have been.

      Jess, I’m glad I’ve persuaded you to take a look at Two Gardeners. I wasn’t kidding when I designated it as a “Favorite garden book.”

  10. April 22, 2010 8:27 pm

    I enjoyed this great review. It makes me want to read the book, for sure! Too sad that writing letters has become a lost art!

  11. April 23, 2010 4:05 pm

    Thanks so much, Jean. It looks like a wonderful book.

    • Jean permalink*
      April 24, 2010 8:29 pm

      Deb and Gardener in Grime, This really is a wonderful book; it almost makes me want to take the time to write proper letters (something I haven’t done in decades!).

  12. April 25, 2010 6:49 am

    This sounds like a wonderful book that I would enjoy reading. Thank you for the revview.


  13. May 2, 2010 4:49 am

    Got this book as a Christmas present from a friend Jean but it is still in the to be read pile. Looking forward to reading it even more after your description.

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