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Musings » Beautiful at all Seasons
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Lawrence, Elizabeth
Durham, North Carolina Duke University Press 2007

Judith Taylor’s Library Notes
February 2008

Not surprisingly we focus our gardening gaze on the Bay area in particular and the Pacific states in general yet there is an enormous amount we can learn from this book written by a woman who spent her entire life living and gardening in North Carolina. Elizabeth Lawrence (1904-1985) published four books during her lifetime. Four more appeared posthumously. This one is the very last, a selection from the more than 700 columns she wrote for the Charlotte Observer until 1972.

The English garden writers such as Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville West are generally supposed to be the last word in horticultural writing but there are some who say that Elizabeth Lawrence more than matches them in skill and style. I tend to agree. I have been looking at other English garden writers of the mid 20th century and feel that Vita Sackville West “sucked up all the oxygen” very unjustly. Quite a few of her contemporaries were every bit as good. It was just that she radiated an enormous amount of glamour by dint of being an aristocrat and having a very unusual marriage.

By contrast, Elizabeth Lawrence’s life seemed very uneventful. She was a single woman who stayed at home and took care of her mother. Considering her background in the genteel middle class it was perhaps a little unexpected that she enrolled at the precursor of the North Carolina State College in the late 1920s and took a degree in landscape architecture. It turns out she was the first woman at that college to do this but she made no fuss about being a pioneer.

Her life can be followed through her letters. Miss Lawrence was devoted to many friends, some from her childhood and others she met through gardens and horticulture. She stayed in touch with them by frequent letters. Two of her newer friends were quite famous: Eudora Welty and Kathryn White from The New Yorker. (re: Mrs White, see the Gazette for December 2007).

Miss Lawrence grew up in Raleigh and learned to garden from her mother. In 1948 they moved to Charlotte and built a house on a vacant lot. In that new garden Miss Lawrence used all her professional skills. Her first book, A Southern Garden, appeared in 1942. It sold very many copies as did her subsequent ones.

She expressed a constant tension between the strictures of landscape design and the pull of individual plants which attracted her powerfully. Her books may have sprung from this creative tension. When her mother needed a lot of care during the last seven years of her life, Miss Lawrence could not find time for the long periods of quiet thought needed to produce new books so she turned to writing for the newspapers. The first column appeared in 1957.

Critics have all said she combined great technical knowledge with a flair for the English language. The key was a continuous wonder at the beauty of plants and her extreme joy in working with them. This compensated for whatever may have been lacking in her life.

Elizabeth Lawrence wrote her columns as the seasons changed but the editors have arranged the pieces in useful groupings such as “Perennials and Annuals”, “Trees, Shrubs and Vines”. There is one section headed “Seasonal Flowers”.

While she maintained a very attractive voice she was never saccharine. She could be sharp and even tart if necessary in a good cause. This is what she had to say about a certain variety of honey suckle: ” Nearly every garden in the South has a large ungainly Christmas honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, that is dull at its best, shabby at its worst and never the least bit beautiful even when in full bloom.” Gardener be warned. This plant could not be compared with the witch hazels which flowered at the same time. It is the clearly personal tone which makes her columns worth reading, much as one might talk to a colleague. One can agree or disagree but the chat is never dull.

Copyright © Judith M. Taylor December 2007