I fear that garden writer Allen Lacy is simply no longer read as often as he should be. Lacy was a native Texan, a philosophy professor who gardened and wrote on the side. Living in southern New Jersey for most of his career, he was a garden columnist at the Wall Street Journal for five years and at the New York Times for seven.
Lacy wrote or edited ten books. Favorites of mine include Further Afield (1986), In a Green Shade (2000), and The Garden in Autumn (1995). If I had to pick just one, however, I would unhesitatingly go with Home Ground (1984). Except for The Garden in Autumn, all of these books are collections of short essays.
Cheerful, earthy, and erudite are three adjectives which all describe Lacy’s prose. His passion for gardening was heartfelt, and he was subject to serial and alternating obsessions: for daylilies, for daffodils, for hostas, for Oriental lilies. But he maintained a sense of perspective and a sense of humor.
My favorite passage from Home Ground concerns his attempt to camouflage his emerging daffodil obsession:
“I’ve got this daffodil catalog from Oregon,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t betray mania, obsession, or grave infatuation. “Did you know that a daffodil called Lyrebird costs $100 for just one bulb? What kind of damned fool would pay that kind of money for one bulb?”
“Be careful now,” she said. It was clear that she thought I might be precisely the sort of damn fool I referred to.
“What do you mean, ‘be careful’?” I asked.
She had me cold. I once bought the same shirt in eight different colors, and I had just shaken a mania for daylilies … I had no intention of buying Lyrebird, but by dwelling on its outrageous price I was perfectly capable of convincing myself that at only $50 Impressario was an outright steal.
In addition to abnormal gardener psychology, Lacy’s essays deal with the virtues and defects of a variety of plants, with what makes a garden inviting and beautiful, and with a variety of other subjects including the decline of decent watermelons since his childhood in Texas. I particularly liked his parody of certain garden advice columnists of the day and their tendency to deal in worst case scenarios.
Your diefenbachia is infested with artichoke mites … Unfortunately, they carry Herpes IX, a virus which spreads rapidly to apple trees, juniper, sedum, delphiniums, zinnias, and humans, where it causes impotence, a yearning to travel to places you can’t afford, and sometimes an untimely death. Burn your house to the ground immediately, see a physician, and make certain that you have a valid will.
Advice like this makes it clear that we all would benefit from reading a copy of Home Ground, or some of Lacy’s other books.