For Novelists with Gardens in their books: Plants for Atlantic Gardens


Snow, yes, there is snow all about.  Early March. It’s the time of year in the northern climes when it does feel like a collective hallucination.  Was there ever a time when roses bloomed, when fields of sweet hay swayed in July breezes, and the night air was alive with the smell of blossoms and the salty bay, fire flies flickering through the Bouncing Bett (that’s an old fashioned night-fragrant flower, people), and I praised mystic lava lamps that I’d returned to Nova Scotia where summer is truly the sweetest and most divine?

Winter is fine, for a spell. And then it grows wearisome. I want six months of summer and two months of winter.

I look out the kitchen window at a massive snow drift we call the Sphinx, that blocks my view of the herb and rose garden.  Yes, it’s March, and March is supposed to be whispering of freaking spring but this year, it seems, for all the world, still January. But of course the season will change, and the Sphinx will melt, and there will be life.  I tell myself this now that my love of mono colour fades, har har.

And what heralds the arrival of spring?   This book, that I just flipped open while the snow storm blew. Plants for Atlantic Gardens by Jodi DeLong.  It’s a gardener’s companion and an indispensable resource book. The book is beautifully written, both knowledgeable and personable, and at times poetic. And remarkably, the stunning photos were all taken by Delong.

As blogging is still very new to me and at times I writhe in despair over what to write, I’ve decided to profile books that speak to me. I review books professionally but here I want to explore books and writers that I find interesting, not because they are assigned to me.  So let us consider Plants for Atlantic Gardens and why this would speak to me as a novelist (I assure you, I am not gardener, although I have a passion for growing roses of all kinds).

When I first published Heave I was asked to do a top ten books of the year for The Coast, a nifty publication in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that has interesting political and cultural coverage. Anyway, I put together the list of books that I thought were the best of the year, and one of them was the Nova Scotia Road Atlas.  Now why would a literary fiction writer have an atlas on her top 10 list? It’s because, a writer like I am (I don’t know what I mean by that exactly, a writer who loves information, arcane information, nomenclature, people with specialties, focuses, areas of expertise), who uses references books when she writes.  Much of my work is either set in rural Nova Scotia, or it’s inspired by rural Nova Scotia, so a book of detailed maps that was put together for emergency workers to find the most obscure backwoods location, was a dream book. It opened up the land, if you will, the literal land and the landscape of my mind.

And so this is my new dream resource book, which is opening up the doors to the garden. I’ve been hard at work on my second novel, Listening for the Island, which links to Heave through setting—Lupin Cove and character, Fancy Mosher.  Listening for the Island features a walled garden. Yes, yes, I know that this climate does not lend itself to walled gardens but in my book the garden is built on Petal’s End, a rambling estate by an Englishman in Lupin Cove, built to replicate the climate of England. (Yes, yes, I loved the Secret Garden, a book I read as a child and have read with my stepdaughters.)

And a few years back, when I was staying in Northern Ireland, I traveled to the Republic of Ireland and there encountered, in the country on the River Boyne, near the town of Drogheda, a walled garden.  It was an abandoned estate, the Oldbridge Estate that of a family, landed gentry, who had apparently fled during the Troubles.  It’s an interpretive centre now but back then, it was forsaken. The country home looked out over the river was boarded. And to the side was a tangle of trees and the walled garden. And yes, yes there was a hole in the garden wall and through it we slipped. I’d never seen anything like it, a forgotten garden. It was magical, even in its wild state, the remains of a greenhouse, the kitchen garden, flower gardens, elaborate stone work and what had once been formal gardens. It was easy to sit on a mossy stone bench and imagine the garden alive with people, a garden tended and orderly, fruitful, tame.  Perhaps part of me preferred the lost garden and the story I could make up for it.

Upon my return to Canada I began work on my novel and part of that has involved a great deal of research on gardens, on what would grow in a walled garden, both in England, and here in Nova Scotia. I became interested in The Lost Gardens of Heligan, as part of my research, another walled garden, this one in England, lost in time, rediscovered and restored.  Oddly enough, down the way here in the Annapolis Valley, an English horticulturalist set up The Telegraph Tearoom and Garden School. And she was involved with the restoration of the Lost Gardens of Heligan. And when I would go to the tearoom this English flower lady would talk about local garden writer, Jodi Delong. Jodi is something of a legend and it was some time later I actually made her acquaintance. And so it was with delight I laid my snow-cold fingers upon her new book and fell, through the pages, into spring.

The book is gorgeous to look at and easy to use.  While I love gardening and flowers seem to love me back, I don’t do much gardening. I prefer to sit in a lawn chair and watch others garden, offer suggestions, which I know are most appreciated, especially when I shout them out. But if I wanted to garden, this book would make it easy.  The book is organized in sections, Shrubs and Trees, Perennials, etc., and each of these has an alphabetic listings of plants.  Each plant has its own page, with using information and a wonderful description on the plant, its history, how to grow it.  And if anything equals her botanical knowledge, it’s the wonderful narrative voice she writes with.  I can hear her voice, as I read, Jodi’s laughter and thoughtfulness, her ability to make gardening seem easy, worthwhile, giving each one of these plants significance and importance, and personality.

My favourite section in the book is The Salt-Sprinkled Garden, yes a section on plants that grow near the ocean, plants which can endure salt, or as Jodi calls them, salt-tolerant. I’d never really thought about plants that grow on the beach, or near the beach, plants and flowers that exist in salty fogs and brackish mists, the obscure sea buckthorn, sea pink, dianthus…

Another enchanting section: Ferns in the Garden. If you’ve ever wandered in the woods in Nova Scotia, inland or near the shore, or if you’ve wandered the Nine Glens of Antrim along the Irish Sea, you’ll know the ethereal power of the fern. Of course I had no idea there were so many different kinds of ferns, until I flipped to this section.

If you want to meet Jodi, go to one of her events, listed below. And if you live far away, then you’ll meet her in the pages. Reading the book is like having a conversation, sitting down with her on a stone bench, near the chestnut tree, surrounded by ferns and saltwater roses, and having Jodi walk you through your garden.  You’ll learn how to make your current plants thrive, and what new ones to add that will love their Atlantic zone.  And you’ll also learn from Jodi that sometimes plants die, and that’s okay.  Gardening is not about always getting it right. It’s about experimenting and discovery.  And for a writer creating a fictional garden full of intrigue, ghosts and deadly blossom tea, a book like this is an essential on the bookshelf in writing studio.

Where to Find Jodi

She’ll be signing books at the Box of Delights book store in Wolfville, NS on March 5th from 2-4 pm. She will also be speaking at the Woodlawn Library in Dartmouth on March 10th at 7 p.m.; to the Dartmouth Horticultural Society on March 14th; the St. Margaret’s Bay garden club on March 16th, the Brookfield garden club on March 22nd and at Ouestville Perennials in West Pubnico on April 9th.

Her interesting, informative and by times, hilarious blog :

Plants for Atlantic Gardens is a soft cover, 252-page book, published by Nimbus Publishing. It retails for $29.95.

Q & A with Jodi DeLong

Q: When did you first start gardening?  Your earliest memory of gardening…
A: My earliest memory of gardening is helping my DeLong grandparents on their family farm. Blue potatoes, strawberries, shelling beans, apples; these are my foundation plants on the edible side. My Chisholm grandparents in Berwick, Nova Scotia, grew a veggie garden where my grandfather claimed he was regularly chased out by the squirrels. My grandmother had a flower garden, so big orange oriental poppies, lupins, and Johnny-Jump-Up pansies still ring my floral bells.

Q: Do you have any formal horticultural training?
Jodi: Sort of. I went to Agricultural College to be a veterinarian, and fell afoul of calculus not once, but twice. At that point I cried uncle and switched to my secondary passion, plants. I did a plant science technician program at AC, then some years later went to Acadia with a whack of transfer degree credits in biology, especially botany and related topics, and picked up an Honours degree in English (with a double minor in botany and history) and then a Masters, just because I could.

Q: How did you get into garden writing?
Jodi: My project advisor at NSAC, Tom Halliburton, told me back in the day I wrote like an English major, very chatty and conversational and artistic–not the way science papers are wont to be! Later, after Acadia, I had begun doing a little freelancing, and remembered the mantra to ‘write what you know.’ I pitched a gardening column to one of my clients, Atlantic Co-operator, and all these years later, I still do Down to Earth. Others followed, of course. But I don’t only write about plants, of course.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

Jodi: Because of what I do, giving talks, writing columns and features, blogging about gardening, etc, I get a LOT of questions. Plus as a gardener, I’ve had and continue to have MANY questions myself about plants and gardening. It’s an ongoing education. But I wanted to write a book to encourage others, whether seasoned gardeners or just beginning, about how to garden in this climate. What to plant where. There are scads and oodles of fabulous gardening books, but they’re not all tempered to our climate and its peculiar challenges, so we needed something focused on us–though I’m assured by people across North America that this is a handbook for most every gardener, most of the time. So I’m glad it’s being found useful.

Q: Have you ever thought of doing YouTube videos, on how to do certain things, for hesitant gardeners, like me?  For example, forcing blossoms in the winter, forsythia etc.?

Jodi: People have asked me about that, and I’ve never really given it much thought, primarily because I’m not a video oriented person myself. I’d rather read a 100 page article than watch a video online, for example, and yet gardening IS hugely visual. So I shall say I never say never, and see what happens. 🙂

Q: Do gardens people keep reflect their personalities?

Jodi: That’s a really, REALLY good question! I would say yes, at least for my own garden, which would look chaotic to others, but has a joyous, ruthlessly eclectic design to it. Others are more formal, still others a riot of colour…it’s probably not the case for all, but I must look at that more closely when I go visit gardens this year.

Q:  I’m curious about gardens that have been lost in time. Do you have any thoughts on forgotten gardens? By this, I mean when you find the old foundation of a home, from years ago, and the remnants of the garden are there, lilacs, lilies, pinks, roses, lily of the valley, other plants that naturalize (as you gardeners call it, I think?) and seem so out of place in what has essentially become a pasture or field?  My feeling: these forgotten gardens, or lost gardens, are enduring symbols of beauty, quite testaments to lives

Jodi: Forgotten gardens make me both happy and sad. I love finding hidden treasures around abandoned farmsteads–roses, perennials, herbs, other shrubs–but hate finding the bad (goutweed or Japanese knotweed) that sometimes also takes over. I like the sense of history in a forgotten garden, and how it spurs my imagination to wonder many things. It also makes me elegiac, as I think about gardens that my family has left behind, different times we moved when I was growing up, and how often those are gone now, replaced by lawn, grass or other uninspired plantings. I wonder what will happen to my garden when I am ashes under the metasequoia (dawn redwood) out in the back field. I could go on and on about this…

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