I was honored to be asked to write the spring book round up section on garden and landscape books for the Wall St. Journal’s weekend edition, April 11, 2018.
The Golden Age of the Garden: A Miscellany” (Elliott & Thompson, 272 pages, $18.95) might better have been subtitled a “Potpourri”—and a delicious one at that. This charming small volume, edited by Claire Cock-Starkey, is a treasure trove of wonderful short extracts from writings made during the transition in 18th-century England from formal garden design to a more romantic, picturesque style, one featuring vistas, woodlands, meandering paths, and lakes and streams to reflect light, all intended to create a “scene that invites the landscape painter to capture it.” With no table of contents, this is a volume meant to be dipped into and savored like an anthology of poetry. Historically appropriate black-and-white engravings and small drawings decorate the text. Commentary and footnotes by Ms. Cock-Starkey, the former series editor of Schott’s Almanac, give just enough context to many selections from well-known landscape designers, writers, gardeners, philosophers, diarists and poets. Gardening has long been a national passion in England and its traditions have influenced those of other countries, including America, France and even Russia. Catherine the Great is here quoted in a letter to Voltaire: “I am madly in love with English gardens. . . . Anglomania rules over my plantomania.”
Don’t be put off by the word “biophilic” in the subtitle of “Nature by Design: The Practice of Biophilic Design” (Yale, 214 pages, $35): It simply means that people have an *affinity for the natural world that is vital to their health and well-being. This posthumous book by Stephen R. Kellert, a pioneering social ecologist at Yale, provides beautifully illustrated examples of designs that successfully integrate nature into built environments. Some are as modest as providing greater interior natural light and allowing access to natural air while others are more ambitious planted interior courtyards and exterior green spaces. Kellert does not dictate a how-to approach but offers ideas for practices and strategies that can enhance current and future building projects by integrating nature in the plans.
Elizabeth A. Dauncey and Sonny Larsson’s “Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants” (Princeton, 224 pages, $29.95) will appeal to everyone interested in plants, from the amateur gardener to the professional botanist. Like all living creatures, plants evolved to protect themselves against their most likely predators, and those featured here developed mechanisms that contain a deadly poison or annoying irritant. The book’s ten sections are clearly laid out, with information about each plant’s cellular structure and proper nomenclature discretely tucked into the clear, expository text. Since the poison in most plants is contained in their flowers, the accompanying color photographs make for a visual treat. Over time, man learned how to avoid the most dangerous poisonous plants, using some to create lethal weapons while also finding ways to transform others into nutritious food. The final chapter, “Turning Foes Into Friends,” reviews the use of some of the most dangerous plants to produce helpful medicines, including quinine, aspirin and anti-depressants. Fascinating bits of history are included throughout, including the suggestion that one such drug—digitalis, or foxglove, formerly used to treat epilepsy—may have caused a yellowing of vision in Van Gogh, affecting the colors in his paintings.
Twenty-five public parks and gardens located throughout the five boroughs of New York City are featured in Jane Garmey’s “City Green” (Monacelli, 223 pages, $50). The rich mix, captured in magnificent photographs by Mick Hales, includes traditional gardens and contemporary designs, large-scale and small community gardens. During the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, many of these green spaces would have disappeared but for the extraordinary efforts of dedicated and talented individuals. Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, for example, created the public-private partnership that saved Central Park and provided a model for the rejuvenation of parks and gardens around the country. Others whose work is featured here include Gregory Long (New York Botanical Garden), Marco Polo Stufano (Wave Hill) and the ubiquitous Lynden B. Miller. Ms. Garmey applauds how, as more people have become city dwellers, “green has triumphed over tarmac and plants over weeds” and how the quality of urban life has been enhanced by our public parks and gardens.
—Ms. Robinson is the author, most recently, of “Heroes of Horticulture: Americans Who Transformed the Landscape.”