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How Does Your Garden Grow?

February 16, 2005

Susan Sarver
Michael DeMocker

In A Garden Book of Old New Orleans, Grace Matt Thompson has a bit of advice on New Orleans dirt: "Our muck soil is so much black gold. Add oak leaves, sharp sand. If you can get cow manure put plenty around camellias, shrubs of all kinds. Use cotton seed meal, if you cannot get the manure."

spr05_gardening_1It's not the kind of highbrow esoterica you might expect to find in the hallowed halls of the Academy, but it is the kind of robust and earthy stuff that any intrepid book lover might want to dig his or her fingers into.

In some ways, good books are like gardens. Just as a bare patch of ground holds infinite potential, so does the blank page. In either case, the skilled placing of a few basic ingredients in a proper setting can produce something unique and memorable. And when gardeners take to writing and writers take to gardening, something magical can happen.

And magic happens often amid the proliferating collection of books, catalogues and periodicals known as the Garden Library of the New Orleans Town Gardeners. Located on the third floor of Joseph Merrick Jones Hall in the Southeastern Architectural Archive and enshrined in sparkling glass walls, the library with its bounty of resources is as inviting to academicians and researchers as it is to common diggers of dirt.

Yet despite its appeal, the Garden Library might well be one of Tulane's best little secrets.

"We have some wonderful and important books," says Cathy Pierson, chair of theTulane Board, who is a member of the Town Gardeners. Pierson feels that Tulane does a great job of making the special collection accessible to the community. "It's been a beneficial relationship," she says.

"I would like it to be a premier collection of books on gardening in general with a particular emphasis on the South," says Kingsley. "I would also like it to become a center for research on gardens and garden history."


The ever-growing collection includes more than 1,800 volumes representing approximately 1,400 titles that encompass practical works, theoretical treatises, histories, biographies and references. The New Orleans Town Gardeners, a private group affiliated with the Garden Club of America, founded the library in 1983, and donated the collection to Tulane in 1986.

The Garden Library was originally housed with the other special collections in the lower level of Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, says Bill Meneray, assistant dean for special collections. The women who built this collection were committed to gardening, says Meneray, recalling the small committee of Town Gardeners that first approached Tulane about donating the collection. Their timing was ideal. It happened that William R. Cullison III, the retired head of the Southeastern Architectural Archive, was gathering architectural materials for a space devoted to encompassing gardens and gardening. The Garden Library was later transplanted to Jones Hall with the relocation of Tulane's other special collections, and it was dedicated in 1998.

The Town Gardeners provided additional resources to develop the library's tranquil greenhouse-like setting, including homey furnishings.

The collection currently does not circulate, and Kingsley sees that as kind of an amenity. "I think one of the charms is coming to this special room. It's really a beautiful space to work," she says.

Since establishing the library, the Town Gardeners have continued to support the collection, providing funds for repair and conservation of old works, new acquisitions and cataloguing. They also have created an enduring means of support by setting up an endowed fund, which generates interest to assure the collection's future care and expansion. Donations of personal libraries also have kept the collection's holdings on the rise. Members of the Garden Library frequently contribute new works.

The Town Gardeners say they hope the library will serve as a resource for collecting and preserving records, plans, photographs and other documentation of Southern gardens. "[The collection] is invaluable to the history of gardens and plants," says Town Gardener Ruthie Frierson (NC '62), who last year served as chair of the Garden Library Committee. She says the primary purpose of the library is to serve researchers, landscape architects and others in the South undertaking some kind of study. Anne White (N '62), current chair of the Garden Library Committee, believes the library is particularly useful to those searching for historical precedent.


Gardens from all over the world are represented in the books, says Kingsley. "It's all good. We have a number of rare things here. We are strong in some of the earliest publications on Louisiana. [The collection] is comprehensive. We have all aspects of gardens, plants, botanicals, flower arranging."

inside0401_library_1But the collection includes much more than books. "We've got runs for journals that have been donated," says Kingsley. "We also have collections of seed catalogues that were given by the Reuter family." The Reuter Seed Co. was a horticultural institution in New Orleans for decades.

Last year, the Garden Club of America provided the Garden Library with copies of a slide collection that looks inside some of the South's major gardens, including Rosedown and Bellingrath. The Town Gardeners assisted with the project, which is also on view at the Smithsonian Institution.

To provide easier access to the library's holdings, Kingsley brought in a student worker who has been inventorying and listing each piece of the collection on Voyager, the Tulane library online catalog. The cataloguing is critical to Kingsley's work in building the collection, filling in gaps and adding works in key areas, including books on roses and writings by women.

"Gardening has been a woman's occupation since the beginning of time," says Kingsley. "There are records of women in Roman times and medieval times doing gardens. And it's one area of publication in which women excelled in the 19th and 20th century."

Kingsley also wants to build the collection of photographic records of gardens and hopes to add more scrapbooks. "I would like more records of what people did to their gardens -- their garden journals. I want it to become more than a library," says Kingsley, who would like to see the Garden Library serve as a repository of all kinds of records of Southern gardens.


Though the library has largely served researchers, its function and appeal can be more broadly described.

"Because we've got rare books or things that are not available elsewhere doesn't diminish its role as a resource for people who just want to know what to plant in their gardens," says Kinglsey. "I'd like the public to come in more to use the books."

The collection offers plenty of general works alongside an abundance of narrowly focused selections, including an 11-volume Orchid Album, more than 50 volumes focused on Chinese and Japanese gardens, and more than 25 books on camellias. The collection also includes all of Caroline Dormon's works. Dorman, a Louisiana forester, botanist and environmentalist, helped establish the state's first education program for conservation and launch a campaign to save nearly 600,000 acres of Kisatchie Wold, which was later designated the Kisatchie National Forest.

In addition to its more academic resources, the collection includes books on bugs and cacti, gardening with rocks and gardening in pots, bulbs and seeds, groundcover and dirt, annuals and perennials, flower arranging, women in the fields and even Shakespearean gardens. Styles vary from the colloquial to the florid, the pithy to the protracted, the dry to the humorous, all of which reveals a community of voices that understands the profound and compelling urge to lure something living from the earth. Even those who have never cultivated so much as a weed may here gain simple appreciation for all that grows.

Louisiana gardeners will find plenty of advice on contending with a subtropical climate. The forward of Gardening in New Orleans spells out the challenges. "Gardening in New Orleans is so very different -- our spasmodic heavy rainfalls, the alkalinity of our water supply, our semi-tropical climate conditions with its accompanying infestation of pests --that it calls for a garden manual all its own."

Some just tell it straight, in the manner of a friendly neighbor leaning over a backyard fence. In A Garden Book of Old New Orleans, which was cited at the beginning of this story, Grace Matt Thompson comments on the creatures that keep a Louisiana gardener company in the steamy sub-tropical heat -- the birds, frogs, turtles, lizards, harmless snakes, ladybugs, and night moths. "It is a pleasure to sit quietly and watch the life in the garden. It is like a small city."

Other writers focus tightly on a subject and promise more elaborate presentations. For instance, in A Natural History of British Grasses, a 243-page work by E.J. Lowe, the dedication alone assures a serious and thorough handling of the subject: "Dedicated to J. Dalton Hooker, ESQ., M.D., F.R.S., F.L.S. of the Royal Gardens, Kew; so eminently distinguished for his knowledge of botany, and so universally esteemed for the assistance he is ever willing to render to his fellow labourers, the present work on the 'Grasses of Great Britain' is with permission respectfully dedicated by the author."

There is perhaps no specimen that manifests the garden's link to the divine better than the perfect rose. Those embarking on the rather addictive quest to achieve rose perfection might be aided by Old Garden Roses, a 1936 first edition by Edward A. Bunyard. The author takes the reader on a world journey, perusing the rose through its roots in Persia, China, Europe and America. Bunyard asserts, "The rose has long held her place as the flower most near to human hearts. From the early days of Greece, through the reviving splendours of the Renaissance, she has been the theme of poets, the emblem of Christian virtues, and the badge of Kings."

There is nothing quite like a garden for rewarding hard work with a tangible product, for providing a natural surface to weed out worries, and for finding that often elusive thing called happiness. In Some Ancient Gentleman, Tyler Whittle gives a gardener plenty to ponder with the ancient Chinese proverb:

"If you wish to be happy for a day, get drunk. If you wish to be happy for a week, kill a pig. If you wish to be happy for a month, get married. If you wish to be happy forever and ever, make a garden."


Just for fun, flip through a catalog from Chris Reuter High Grade Seeds and Bulbs, located on 1033 Decatur St. where, in 1928, cotton seed sold for $2 a bushel, Louisiana seed rice went for $7 per 100 pounds and Florabama Southern-grown watermelon seed could be purchased for a mere dollar a pound. Terms of purchase are stated clearly: "Remittances were expected in P. Office money orders, express money orders, drafts or checks on New Orleans or New York."

spr05_books_gardenReuter's straightforward disclaimer is thorough and logical: "No responsible seed man gives any warranty. This doesn't mean that we lack confidence in the seed we sell, but we have no control over the seeds after they leave our hands. Neither can we fully control anywhere or at anytime the operation of natural law as it affects seed."

Gardeners who harbor a passion for perfection of a particular specimen are likely to find support on the shelves of the Garden Library. Take the tomato, for instance. In Ortho's All About Tomatoes, a common corporate-generated info-manual, tomato aficionados will find corroboration on what they know to be true, that biting into a tomato within moments of its departure from the vine will spoil an eater forever.

"During the birth of the tomato, there are moments of awe," says the unnamed author, readying the reader for the simple truth about tomatoes. "Something good happens to the tomato that is ripened on the vine. The same good things don't happen to the tomato that is ripened off the vine. The quality of the supermarket tomato is the concern of the tomato breeder, growers and all of us."

And you never know what secret the next page may possess. A deceptively ordinary member of the Garden Library collection, Floral Keepsake, holds a few surprises. Its former owner carefully pressed clovers between some of the pages. Also found are three sketches by a young artist who was clearly accustomed to seeing dogs and sheep intermingling in a great lawn and observing women tending the field in long skirts.

While some pages reveal themselves in humility, others revel in grandeur. The introduction of Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird pulls no punches. "Without green plants we would neither breathe nor eat. On the undersurface of every leaf a million movable lips are engaged in devouring carbon dioxide and expelling oxygen. All together, 25 million square miles of leaf surface are daily engaged in this miracle of photosynthesis, producing oxygen and food for man and beast. Of the 375 billion tons of food we consume each year the bulk comes from plants."

Though sophisticated architectural landscapes often reflect affluence, beauty can be found in the simplest of gardens. A.J. Downing's 1853 publication, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America; with a View to the Improvement of Country Residences, begins with a timeless truth that urges gardeners to keep it simple and to stay grounded:

"Insult not Nature with absurd expense, Nor spoil her simple charms by vain pretence; Weigh well the subject, be with caution bold, Profuse of genius, not profuse of gold."

The Geo. Coster & Co.'s Family Almanac of 1854 features advertising for everything from cotton seed and wholesale groceries to products for treating every imaginable ailment or perceived ailment of the era. For example, Woodman's sugar- coated bilious pills are recommended for nearly everything -- the cure of headache, pains in the back, breast and sides, dyspepsia, fevers of all kinds, female complaints, liver complaint, nervous complaints and other diseases arising from impurities of the blood and obstructions in the digestive organs. A bit narrower in its therapeutic scope, Dr. Wheeler's Tonic Sherry Wine Bitter promises that the tonic produced from roots and herbs compounded with sherry wine will create an appetite and promote digestion.

While the post-modern world might find amusement in these antiquated advertisements with their broad promises, today's garden is as easily influenced by centuries-old advice from another continent as it is by innovative approaches generated in a modern laboratory. The Secrets of Many Gardens, the 1924 work by Mrs. Philip Martineau, emphasizes a point that still holds true: "...Every garden period of the past may be studied with profit."

These selections are just the beginning. There is just so much to reap and enjoy within the gleaming glass walls of the Garden Library. Patrons learn the secrets of subtropical gardening, take a virtual journey to gardens all over the world, or luxuriate in the company of those who understand the simple joy of working a parcel of land and bringing it to bloom year after year.

Whether laid out beneath a sophisticated architectural plan or serendipitously sprung to life, a great garden, like a good book, is a thing of beauty that reflects the unique relationship between an individual and the earth -- a relationship that ultimately, our lives depend upon.

Susan Sarver is a registered nurse and grants manager in the section of hematology and medical oncology in the Tulane University Health Science Center Department of Medicine. She also is a freelance writer whose garden-related essays have appeared in Reader's Digest, Country Living and Christian Science Monitor.


Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000