Saturday, November 21, 2009

Old Ladies Who Garden: Elizabeth Lawrence

It's a beautiful, chilly gray morning out my window this Saturday and I'm on my third cup of coffee. My garden books are piled up around me and I'm happily perusing a correspondence between my new friends Elizabeth Lawrence (right) and Katharine S. White.

This winter as the chill hardens to a freeze, I'm going to be studying the world of old-fashioned garden writers, so forgive me if my prose starts to slide back in time and sound lock-jawed and pretentious. The era of letters posted rather than "sent" as lengthy, thoughtful correspondence between friends over days and weeks is in high contrast to our speedy electronic communications. And this morning, I was wishing for a little of that era, thinking perhaps that those folks had more time in their 24-hour day than we do in ours.

Oh, and the formalities of the period are so rich! Imagine addressing me as "Mrs. Lieberman," instead of Beth. I'd assume my mother-in-law was back from the dead. But still, imagine writing an email to me in this fashion. "Dear Mrs. Lieberman," preceded neatly at the top with a date, and the city and state from where you happen to be writing from. Next follows the gracious thank you for the letter received and the profuse exclamations of how much pleasure the letter delivered. "I read it over and over again." Such leisure time they had!

Mrs. Elizabeth Lawrence, according to her friends who maintain her Charlotte, North Carolina, home and garden at 349 Ridgeway, had a "desire and passion" to garden and to write about gardening.

Here is her biography, lifted from the website. Miss Lawrence’s. . . friendship with actress Ann Preston Bridgers, who collaborated with George Abbott to produce the Broadway hit, “Coquette”, became the catalyst Elizabeth needed to hone her writing skills. Ann and her sister, Emily, became her mentors and beloved critics. In the 1930’s she slowly gained publication in the smaller garden periodicals, and then in 1942, A Southern Garden was published. It was lauded immediately. In 1948, . . . Elizabeth and her mother decided to move to Charlotte to be near her sister, Ann, Ann’s husband Warren Way and their family. The two sisters purchased adjoining lots on Ridgewood Avenue. . . . Elizabeth designed her new smaller garden, and it is a reflection of her ingenuity, vision and thrift. Elizabeth’s house is a charming and inviting cottage with an enviable relationship between the house and garden. Elizabeth lived [there] for 35 years and wrote three more books; The Little Bulbs, A Tale of Two Gardens, Gardens in Winter and Lob's Hill. She also prepared over 700 columns for publication in The Charlotte Observer. One of the most significant and interesting aspects of her life was her friendships with plants people and gardeners from all over the country and the correspondence she enjoyed with them. Her relationship with Katharine White is just one of these, and the bookTwo Gardeners: A Friendship in Letters edited by Emily Herring Wilson records their exchange from 1958-1977. Katharine White wrote in her book, Upward and Onward in the Garden, “I have learned more about horticulture, plants, and garden history and literature from Elizabeth Lawrence than from any other one person.” Elizabeth Lawrence died in Maryland in 1985 and is buried at St. James Church, Lothian, Maryland.

So this morning I've made my way through multiple letters between Mrs. Katharine White and Miss Elizabeth Lawrence. I'm relieve to see that over time as their friendship developed, they dropped the formalities and became to each other just Katharine and Elizabeth. It was Elizabeth who noted the moment in a post script: "I thought you did call me Elizabeth. I always call you Katharine in spirit."

Taking delight in the slow pace of their lives, I could only imagine the luxury of having such a pen pal (and the pair each had dozens of others). They even sent packages of items from their respective gardens. "I enclose a butterfly lily, hoping that the scent will linger until it gets to you," wrote Katharine to Elizabeth. And the favor was returned: "I put the little Nandina seedling in with the hellebores, and a nice root of Ivy Fleur de lis that came up with the Nandina."

So now as I set my sails toward what this day and what this weekend will be--furious and frantic preparations for Thanksgiving, the pie crusts, ordering the turkey, planning the menu. And the excitment and anticipation of Claire's return home on Tuesday--washing her sheets and getting the stuff we've stashed on her bed out of the way.

And oh yes, some gardening? There might be time for it. The hard freeze is late this year and out front a courageous cone flower is actually in bloom. It bloomed narrow and tentative with just a tiny bit of pink playing at the edges of its cold, white petals.

In December of 1961, Miss Elizabeth, who gardened much farther south of where I do, noted a "mild before-Christmas winter," where she found more than a dozen things in bloom in her garden. "Even after ice in the bird-bath and beautiful white frost, the snowdrops are unharmed, and so is the wintersweet and the clematis and the one little crocus that the chipmunks have spared. I have been getting letters from all over the country about the things in bloom in December."

Where did all those letter writers find the time? The Putterer


  1. Never stop puttering, you have a gift!

  2. Thanks MaryGail! I love to putter.