Nancy Goodwin's Montrose: Life in a Garden is far more than a book on gardening, but since it obviously is, at least in part, a book on gardening, I'll start there. Its genre--tracing out the succession of events in the author's own particular patch of earth during the course of a single year, is one of the standards of horticultural literature. Charles Dudley Warner, Louise Beebe Wilder, Christopher Lloyd, and many other writers have written such books. (Indeed, Nancy Goodwin herself has already explored this genre: The letters about our gardens that we exchanged in 1998 were published in 2001 as A Year in Our Gardens.)
Montrose is a sixty-acre historic property in Hillsborough, North Carolina, that Goodwin and her husband, Craufurd Goodwin Ph.D. '58, a professor of economics at Duke, acquired in 1977 from the descendants of its first owner, William A. Graham, a governor of North Carolina and secretary of the Navy under Millard Fillmore. The name Montrose, which was taken from the Graham family's ancestral home in Scotland, today resonates strongly with American gardeners for two reasons. First, from 1984 until 1993, it was the home of Montrose Nursery, delectable for its spring and fall catalogues describing many species of hardy cyclamen and other rare plants available hardly anywhere else. Second, since the nursery closed, to the great regret of many customers, Nancy Goodwin and her small staff have developed Montrose's many separate gardens at a ferocious pace, quickly achieving international acclaim.
Montrose: Life in a Garden beautifully exemplifies its genre. Admirers of the catalogues of Montrose Nursery will not be surprised at the book's vivid yet precise plant descriptions, which are wonderfully enhanced by 168 pencil and watercolor botanical drawings by Ippy Patterson that combine accuracy and grace. (Patterson has illustrated gardening columns for The New York Times and has written several other books on plants. In 1990, she won the National Academy of Sciences Illustration Award for No Bones, a children's books about slugs, ticks, and other invertebrates.)
As a garden book, this is a classic. It stands out as the best American garden book of the past fifteen years because it transcends its category, embracing so much more than plants and gardens. The most important word in its title is not "garden" but "life." This home ground of first the Grahams and now the Goodwins has of course its flora, both native and cultivated, but it also has its fauna, wild and domesticated. It is home to beavers and deer. Once, briefly, a bear may have visited. Here live songbirds in great variety and number; the velvet ant (not an ant at all but a female wingless wasp), and the sphinx moth; blacksnakes and an occasional copperhead. Montrose is also home to a remarkable congregation of well-loved housecats, including Impy ("a remarkably affectionate gray tabby, always in motion even when she was a tiny kitten"). Impy gets her eulogy on the penultimate page: "she was serious and small; most people thought she was a kitten, even at age eighteen."
Patterson's drawings, again, complement the text. Her full-page drawing of the white butterfly-shaped flowers of the ginger lily Hedychium coronarium is so fetching that I can almost smell its haunting fragrance.
Although the main narrative of the book takes place within a single year, that year does not confine it. Goodwin moves back and forth through time with fluid ease. She evokes her childhood frequently. Events in the present call up echoes of the distant past. In the final chapter, a spectacularly destructive ice storm delays the Goodwins' planned flight from RDU to London by two days. Once they are finally in flight, Nancy recalls her first airplane trip in 1957, flying to Canada to meet her future in-laws. It was a stressful journey. "I suddenly wished I could go home on the next noisy, rattling plane," she writes. "It was less frightening."
The pursuit of art, not horticulture, brought about that trip to England. The Goodwins went to visit Tony Bradshaw, an expert in the art and crafts of the Bloomsbury circle. Montrose is distinguished not only for its gardens but also for a remarkable personal collection of this school, including paintings by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell and a table that Bell made for her sister, Virginia Woolf.
Nancy Goodwin was a serious musician before she was a gardener. She gave piano lessons before she started a nursery. Her musicianship is plainly manifest in the structure of her memoir, as patterned in form as a sonata or a fugue. In her final paragraph, she writes that she "began this record a year ago," and asks, "How do you end a circle?"
She knows the answer, of course. You write a theme with variations--like Bach's Goldberg Variations. If Goodwin ever cuts back on her time in the garden, she thinks she might spend time at her harpsichord, practicing the Goldberg. I would love to hear it.
Lacy '56, Ph.D. '62 is professor emeritus of philosophy and horticulture at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He is the author or editor of thirteen books on gardening and was a garden columnist for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.