On a horrible day recently I abandoned my plans to play in the garden all morning and instead took myself to a favourite chair with a favourite garden book. Elizabeth and her German Garden is not strictly a gardening book. You get no tips, and there’s not a single explanation of how to do things.
Instead you get the joy, fun and saving graces of gardens – as well as the frustrations Elizabeth felt at not being able to do the gardening herself, manual work being unsuitable for a Pomeranian countess in 1896.
Elizabeth von Arnim was born Mary Annette Beauchamp in Kirribilli. She married Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin and fell in love with his family’s rural bolthole in Pomerania, where she discovered her love of gardening.
Her first book is a desultorily kept diary of her first few years there, part satire on conservative Lutheran and aristocratic life, part paean to nature. It was published anonymously and so madly successful that it was reprinted 20 times in its first year.
I first read it as a guest at a country house I had gone to see because its garden was designed by Edna Walling. My hostess had put her own copy by my bedside and I stayed up way too late reading it.
Elizabeth would have loved the wildness and surprise of that Edna Walling garden. Walling was by no means Australia’s first woman garden writer and designer – Mrs Rolf Boldrewood had written The Flower Garden in Australia: a book for ladies and amateurs in 1893, making her just as famous as her husband, author of Robbery Under Arms – but Walling remains our best known.
Her Gardener’s Log is a lovely read, a collection of pieces she wrote as a garden diary for Australian Home Beautiful magazine, first collected and published in 1948, and re-issued in 2003. Walling gardened in a different climate and with different plants to von Arnim but they share a similar spirit and the belief that plants should never be in a straight line unless they are a hedge.
Von Arnim fought long battles with her German gardener who liked the annuals marching in straight-lined formation down the flowerbeds, while Walling memorably wrote that the best way to place a grove of trees was to toss a bucket of potatoes in the air and plant the trees where they landed.
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