A New Leaf the Latest Works of Two Writers Focus on Gardens, Large and Small

By Becky Homan Post-Dispatch Fashion Editor | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), July 21, 1996 | Go to article overview
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A New Leaf the Latest Works of Two Writers Focus on Gardens, Large and Small

Becky Homan Post-Dispatch Fashion Editor, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

THERE WAS a time when rich American gardeners would plant mint around their swimming pools just to mow it for bathers who liked walking on scented leaves.

There are stories about a turn-of-the-century botanist who instructed all of his students to stare at new plants for three days straight before doing any reading on the species.

And there are rumors that a rich industrialist felt so guilty about his company's output that he created a world-class, environmentally sound garden as an antidote.

What all of these eccentric gardeners have in common is that they did their plantings in the Midwest.

A new book called "Gardens of the Heartland" ($45, Abbeville Press) documents how their efforts live on in beautiful, often unheralded gardens that are open to the public.

Laura C. Martin, the author of the Heartland guide, visited the Missouri Botanical Garden recently as part of a country-wide tour for her book.

But she wasn't the only garden writer of national stature to come through town.

In the heat and haze of summer - when many gardeners are taking a break from work outside to read about the work they'll start next fall - Ann Lovejoy arrived.

She was here to collect an award for garden book of the year from the American Horticultural Society, holding its annual meeting in St. Louis for the first time.

In her "Further Along the Garden Path" ($40, Macmillan Inc.), Lovejoy celebrates American plantings of a very different kind.

Lovejoy's gardens are recent creations from the Northwest by residents within a 10-mile radius of her home, near Seattle. And her choices are as quirky and small-scale as they are '90s cutting-edge, all written up in the style of a month-by-month reflection on the joys of a gardening life.

Talks with these two authors uncover equal doses of passion for observing the ways that diverse groups of people have related to their own little patches of land.

For Martin's part, the Heartland book follows a study of gardens in her own part of the country - the South.

In that earlier work, the handsome, dark-haired Atlanta native and former newspaper columnist focused on romantic histories and opulent facades of several Southern gardens.

In the Midwest, she found something quite different.

"I was unprepared," Martin says, "for the depth of the research, the collections and the excellence of display in the Midwest."

She discovered soil-rich areas that had been pioneered in the last century by settlers who literally busted the sod. In the bargain, these settlers eliminated many prairies, forests and native plants. But some of the Midwestern gardens that have taken their place are restoration projects.

These are gardens that "evoke the natural wonders of the past, imitate, emulate and even perhaps improve on the present-day natural landscape of their region."

Her research included trips to six arboretums, five parks, seven community gardens, six estates and eight botanical gardens, including St. Louis' own. Besides lively histories and lush photos by Allen Rokach, her book gives detailed travel tips on each.

"Great estates" is the category that features gardens established by some of this country's more interesting, early entrepreneurs.

It was engineer/industrialist Charles Kelley King who mowed the mint for swimmers visiting what is now Kingwood Center - a series of themed flower gardens and landscaped terraces surrounding his French Provincial mansion, Kingwood Hall, near Mansfield, Ohio.

George G. Booth, publisher of the Detroit Evening News, was the force behind Cranbrook House and Gardens at Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Booth's love of the arts-and-crafts movement in America lead him, at his family estate, to focus on "landscape architecture that he considered one of the essential arts," says Martin. It is also one of the largest public gardens in the country to be maintained solely by volunteers.

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