Edith Wharton's Gardening Life
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
“I am intrigued by writers who garden and by gardeners who write. The pen and the trowel are not interchangeable, but seem often linked.” Marta McDowell wrote that in the intro to her lovely book Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life.
Edith Wharton’s biographer Hermione Lee also sees a link between writing and gardening. Lee writes,
“Wharton did not write a novel about a gardener, but it might not be too fanciful to think that gardening and novel-writing have something in common. The mixture of disciplined structure and imaginative freedom, the reworking of traditions into a new idea, the ruthless elimination of dull, incongruous or surplus materials, and the creation of a dramatic narrative, all come to mind - not to mention patience, stamina and attentiveness.”
But it also seems that a garden reflects the gardener. As Edith Wharton’s sister in law Daisy Chanler writes, “... her garden is somehow an image of her spirit, of her inmost self. It shows her love of beauty, her imagination, her varied knowledge and masterly attention to detail; like her, it is somewhat inaccessible. Her garden is a symbol of the real Edith.”
I have always found my own garden reflects my strengths and struggles. I have boundary issues, for example, with people and with phlox which always are encroaching into the irises and the hostas, the black-eyed susans and the russian sage. But this year, I have stood firm. I dislike the look of phlox peeking out, a lavender bloom amidst the bright yellow rudbeckia. I’m learning to garden with some of Edith Wharton’s managerial assertiveness. (Lee cites one garden expert who suggested that “in making her garden [Wharton] displayed all the energy and forthrightness that had made her novels so popular.”) And I’m finding that this new willingness to set appropriate boundaries and say no to encroaching phlox is carrying over into a willingness to say no to the people in my life.
I’m also learning to feel what delights me in my garden. My husband likes me to put in a vegetable garden every summer because the practicality and security of having a kitchen garden in the backyard appeals to him (he has lots of 2nd house planets is how I explain this to myself:). I think there’s a romantic quality to the kitchen garden - Wharton had one herself at The Mount, it seems: “In her memoir, Wharton recalled ‘a big kitchen-garden with a grape pergola, a little farm, & a flower-garden outspread below the wide terrace overlooking the lake.’” And I enjoy growing onions, peppers, tomatoes and strawberries to use in the kitchen or share with neighbors. But my real pleasure is in perennials. We have such a brief opportunity for color and bees and butterflies and hummingbirds here in Minnesota. The brevity of our growing season was brought home to me by Wharton’s description of her French gardens: “that roses begin to bloom in June and go on till December; that nearly everything is ‘remontant’ and has plenty of time to flower twice over; this blessed sense of the leisureliness and dependableness of the seasons in France, of the way the picture stays in its frame instead of dissolving like a fidgety tableau-vivant, creates a sense of serenity in the mind inured to transiency and failure.”
In zone 4, we don’t have that leisurely dependability of flowers that bloom twice-over in a season. We’re cramming our blooms in from May to October, if we’re lucky. And the gaps in bloom-time and failure to thrive that can strike unexpectedly (as when four-lined plant bugs found my catmint - a reliable early bloomer much loved by bees and, unfortunately, four-lined plant bugs) seem more frustrating when the summer is so short.
Idyllic climate aside, Wharton was not immune to the perfectionism, disappointment and heartbreak that any creative endeavor can, at times, entail. She writes in a letter, “I should be delighted to have your gardeners come and see the Pavillon Colombe, but this is a very bad moment, as the roses, which have been beautiful, are nearly over and will not be on again for another fortnight, and the Madonna lilies are also over, and the big herbaceous border, which is very backward this year, will not be ‘en beauté’ for another two weeks. I don’t know how other people manage to avoid this period at the beginning of July when there is an interruption between the roses and lilies and the later things, but I have always struggled against it in vain.”
Yet her pleasure in gardens - and books - sustained Wharton in her elder years. And I like to envision her as she describes herself: “But here I am again in a sunny garden, and among my books, and still to wake in the mornings is an adventure for me! Oh, incorrigible lover that I am!...”