If you are looking for inspiration for your garden, these books are a good place to start.
‘A Tapestry Garden: The Art of Weaving Plants and Place’
By Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne; Timber, 263 pages, $34.95
A garden needs time, skill and toil to become something. To become great, it also requires passion. All of these elements have come together in the Eugene, Ore., garden of Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne. You might add imagination to the mix. If you are horticulturally savvy, the image of a woodland mayapple growing in a pot with coleus may be the most mind-blowing. In this simple pairing, the rules of grouping plants by their ilk are thrown out the window.
The O’Byrnes have built a garden that is regarded as one of the best in the country in its horticultural sophistication, variety and richness. Thumbing through these pages (with great photos by the authors and photographer Doreen Wynja), you see that this is a feat achieved from knowledge gathered during each growing season. An opera singer is judged by one appearance at a time, a great gardener by the sum of all his or her performances.
What became Northwest Garden Nursery started for Marietta O’Byrne as a run-down, 70-acre farm in the 1970s. The couple later ran a landscaping business as they developed their garden. In time, they couldn’t bear to leave it each day, so they used it as a base for their wholesale nursery specializing in the perennial plant named the hellebore.
Hellebores are well-represented here – including many of the O’Byrnes’ spectacular hybrids – but that is just one facet. The landscape now features such treasures as a rock garden, a shade garden, perennial borders, a chaparral garden, a vegetable garden and more. These are mere stages for their respective plants. The plants and the devotion to them define this garden. The tapestry in the title is a reference to the interwoven nature of the countless flora. But the tapestry is also, clearly, a place threaded by time and by the lives of its creators.
From her kitchen window, Marietta surveys a Mount Fuji flowering cherry tree whose horizontal branches form sheltering arms 40 feet across. “I planted it in 1973 as a fragile stick with spindly arms,” she writes, “little imagining how wide it would spread and how many shrubs and ground covers would thrive under its umbrella.”
‘City Green: Public Gardens of New York’
By Jane Garmey; Monacelli, 224 pages, $50
Today, New York’s Central Park on a balmy Saturday is a picture of thousands of city dwellers walking, jogging, picnicking and generally being in love with urban life. It must be everything its 19th-century creators, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, had wanted. But their underlying idea, that green spaces could elevate a city and its inhabitants, became lost. Just a few years ago, New York was a study in the effects of environmental decline on social degradation, and vice versa. Many parts of the city were dirty, trash-filled, unpleasant and even dangerous.
New York’s revival, while bringing other social ills, is something to celebrate. People see the crowds, the skyscrapers, the development as the physical manifestations of the revival. What isn’t so well-perceived is how New York’s green spaces – the city’s parks and gardens – have been essential to this renaissance.
Garden writer Jane Garmey and photographer Mick Hales remedy this in their survey of 25 gardens that have been created or revived over the past generation. Garmey chooses plant-focused gardens over parks, though some gardens are in parks and, as she writes, the distinction between them “can get blurred.”
Some need little introduction – the High Line, the Conservatory Garden in Central Park – but others are hidden gems. The three-acre Heather Garden at Fort Tryon Park is a spectacle of shrubs, perennials and bulbs along with heathers and heaths that bring echoes of the Scottish Highlands to the Hudson.
A chapter on a business that has built organic farms on rooftops in Queens and Brooklyn brings home the can-do spirit and optimism of young urban farmers. At its two sites, Brooklyn Grange produces more than 50,000 pounds of produce annually. Thirty beehives yield 1,500 pounds of honey. In one photograph, we see rows of half-harvested kale, with their lower leaves plucked, making them look like tiny palm trees before the distant skyline of Manhattan.
Some of the city’s peripheral gardens are just as enticing. The book left me wanting to see the Noguchi Museum Garden in Queens and the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden in Staten Island.
‘Pasta for Nightingales: A 17th-century Handbook of Bird-Care and Folklore’
By Giovanni Pietro Olina et al, translated from the Italian by Kate Clayton; Yale University Press, 144 pages, $22.50
William Blake warns against our cruel dominion over other creatures and tells us that “A Robin Red breast in a Cage/ Puts all Heaven in a Rage.” But the practice of caging wild birds was long established in Europe by the time Blake wrote “Auguries of Innocence.” Birds were caught and sold, yes, for food, but also in large part to keep caged. They provided ornament and song in a world before recorded sound. In Germany, the nightingale, that most melodious nocturnal wonder, was traded by the quart like a commodity.
We learn this in “Pasta for Nightingales,” which combines a 1622 treatise on songbird cultivation by the naturalist Giovanni Pietro Olina with the original colored drawings, by artist Vincenzo Leonardi, that inspired Olina’s accompanying illustrations. This handsome new edition features an introduction by Helen Macdonald, author of “H Is for Hawk.”
Leonardi’s bird portraits are in an elongated Renaissance style and infused with childlike charm. The drawings were groundbreaking for their time, and they reveal some deft technique in trying to bring such things as iridescence to life. The text, though, is more compelling, revealing the captor’s relationship with native songbirds that today is unthinkable (and illegal), but in its time was common to a decorated domestic life.
The title comes from the recommended diet for a caged nightingale to induce it to sing. The keeper was advised in winter to add saffron and pine nuts to the chickpea pasta. If the bird was still mute, you were to keep it in a room where there is conversation or music. “If you make a sweet Concert of sound or of voices, it will be wonderfully fired up to sing.”