Nature-themed books (along with positive outdoor experiences) can initiate a child’s life-long appreciation of nature. Whether employing alluring illustrations or placing wildlife in humorous situations, books can take the outdoors from the mundane into the magical.
Here a few of the titles, some old, some new, that appealed to my three elementary-school aged sons and helped them gain a new consciousness of what lies outside.
I Am a Bunny
By Ole Rissom, illustrated by Richard Scarry
(Random House, 1963)
All three of my boys dearly loved this book when they were toddlers and still regard it with tenderness. The story follows a small brown rabbit in red overalls as he experiences a year in nature. He picks daffodils in spring, reclines in the summer sun to watch the birds, and curls up in his hole in the tree while snow cascades outside. The book sets a charming rhythm to the seasons and the illustrations by Richard Scarry make this book timeless. My sons always lingered on the back of the book, where the bunny is depicted laying in green grass and gazing at a cricket while a variety of other insects gaze down on the bunny.
Children of the Forest
By Elsa Beskow
(Floris Books, 2001)
Though first published in Sweden in 1910, Children of the Forest seems very contemporary (especially considering the popularity of fairy gardens). The sweetly illustrated forest floor hosts a tiny family who live under the curling roots of an old pine tree. The father sports a pinecone cap and mother and children wear white-speckled red caps (so they can pretend to be mushrooms if in danger). This story follows the family through the seasons, richly illustrated with flowers and mosses and ferns. Drama occurs as the children taunt ants (and get stung) and the father battles a snake – the boys loved that scene. But mostly the family as they interact peacefully with the squirrels, bats, frogs, and owls who share their world.
By Paige Braddock
(Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015)
Cecil the toad spends his days with his amphibian friends (and a reincarnating fly) at the pond until he discovers a freeway construction project aimed right at their homes. The creatures band together to try and thwart the project and save their pond in hilariously doomed attempts. My kids laughed out loud when the toad released his stinky self-defense mechanism and when the hawk swooped and dropped pebbles on the bulldozer. All three boys were thoroughly entertained by this comic book-style comedy of endangered wildlife who ultimately win.
Flowers Are Calling
By Rita Gray, Illustrated by Kenard Pak
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)
Gorgeous watercolors depict the symbiotic relationship between flower design and the insects, birds, and bats that collect pollen. It invites appreciation for how plants lure their pollinators with a gentle rhyming text that gave my boys the “Aha!” moment, opening their minds to understanding why flowers look the way they do to attract certain insects and birds. The blooms on the cardon cactus, which are pollinated by nectar bats, particularly intrigued my boys, as did the moonflowers that “called” to the sphinx moths at night.
As the longtime fiction editor for The New Yorker, Katherine S. White helped to shape more than three decades of American literature, discovering and supporting hundreds of writers, including Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, and James Thurber. Her “favorite reading matter,” however, remained elsewhere: within the pages of garden and seed catalogs. Here, writes White, she finds the potential for a special kind of reading: “I read for news, for driblets of knowledge, for aesthetic pleasure, and at the same time I am planning the future, and so I read in a dream.”
New York Review Books Classics is publishing on March 17th a handsome new paperback edition of Onward and Upward in the Garden, which collects all of the essays White wrote on gardening for The New Yorker between 1958 and 1970, ranging from critical readings of seed catalogs to meditations on 18th century flower painting. Whether she is extolling the virtues of the lawn—“What pleasanter surface on which to walk, sit, lie, or even to read Tennyson?”—or deriding the modern extravagancies of the ruffled snapdragon—“an abomination,” she insists—White writes with the lucidity and poise of a sharp editorial mind.
In his introduction to the book—part love letter, part critical biography—E.B. White, Katherine White’s husband, writes that White “refused to dress down to garden,” and would often appear in Ferragamos and a “handsome tweed skirt and jacket” while among her plants—more the image of the literary editor then the green-thumbed gardener. As White notes in his introduction, “to write of Katherine simply as a gardener would be like writing of Ben Franklin simply as a printer.”
Onward and Upward in the Garden is the only book by Katherine S. White, who had intended to write one more essay—a reminiscence on the gardens of her childhood—before her death in 1977. If this classic is not already on your garden bookshelf, now is the time to order your copy of the book The New York Times once called “a bouquet, the final blooming of an extraordinary sensibility.”
Check out the newest bookazine from the team that brings you your favorite garden magazine, Country Gardens. Gardening for Birds & Butterflies celebrates the increasingly green-hearted spirit of gardening. Gardening for Birds & Butterflies will inspire you to transform your home landscape into a healthy haven for friends, family, and wildlife. From creating backyard bird and butterfly habitats, and organic vegetable gardens to nurturing prairie habitat and wildflower meadows and native plant collections, Gardening for Birds & Butterflies will help you find easy and practical ways to garden—and make choices—with respect for all living things. This issue is packed with helpful hints, inspired locations, easy weekend projects for the whole family, and profiles of community role models who are doing their part to leave this planet a better place, one backyard at a time. Look for it on sale now at newsstands nationwide.
There is a food blog, themediterraneandish.com, produced by a friend of mine who is really into, well, Mediterranean cooking. It was my good fortune one day to be a taster for a new recipe of hers. It was a particular breed of lamb (Merino) and it was outstanding! But what caught my eye were the colorful vegetables. Notice the carrots and beets in the photo. It reminded me of the philosophy of Matthew Benson, who operates Stone Gate Farm in New York. His attitude can roughly be stated as: If you’re going to grow something anyway, you might as well choose the pretty varieties. It is amazing how much more enjoyable a meal can be when it’s colorful—a visual feast as well as a gastronomic one. As you’re ordering your vegetable seeds this spring, choose unusual looking varieties. Almost any imaginable vegetable comes in a range of colors. Eggplant, beans, peppers, tomatoes, beets, carrots, squash and on and on. Browse websites of reneesgarden.com, rareseeds.com, seedsavers.org, and other vendors of heirloom seed. You will be surprised and delighted!
Who says you can’t improve on a classic? Our friend and contributing editor Lauren Springer Ogden most certainly did improve on a classic when she thoughtfully revised her best-selling book The Undaunted Gardener: Planting for Weather-Resilient Beauty (Fulcrum Publishing), originally published in 1994. Engaging, lyrical, and often quite humorous, Lauren’s newest edition provides practical and environmental perspectives, describes a myriad of well-adapted plants for the home landscape, and offers a uniquely aesthetic approach to gardening in a challenging climate. And she should know. Lauren’s suburban garden on the edge of Fort Collins, Colorado, teems with wildlife, as it borders a river corridor and wild land stretches to the west and north for hundreds of miles. Her top two most-limiting outside forces in her garden: deer and drought. Included in the book is a list of plants Lauren has observed over the deer-filled years that seem to be less appealing to what she calls the “lovely yet highly destructive interlopers.” And, with this new edition, she has become even more stringent in categorizing plants as truly drought-tolerant. To be considered drought-tolerant, a plant needs to grow well on 1 inch of water total—rain and/or irrigation—every two weeks during the hottest stretch of a summer. “I’m the same plant-mad, obsessive gardener who tries almost anything and who kills an inordinate number of plants or yanks them for lackluster performance or for sheer impatience,” she writes. “I design with plant and site in mind rather than around hardscape or following arbitrary artistic rules. My gardens are filled to the brim with the generosity of plants that are happy to grow there.” Find out more about her plant-driven perspectives in the Spring 2015 issue of Country Gardens, on sale March 10th.
It is with great sorrow I share the news of the passing of our dear friend and Country Gardens contributing editor (from 2009 to 2013) Lee May. Lee, 73, died at his home in Georgia last Wednesday morning after a brief illness. Lee was diagnosed with cancer in mid-September and, after chemotherapy and a short hospitalization, he returned home to hospice care. “For three years, Lee wrote here about his gardening life in Connecticut and in Georgia,” posted his wife Lyn on his blog site. “While his greatest pleasure was digging in the dirt, nurturing his plants, bushes and trees and creating artful gardens, he took constant delight in exchanges with his readers and fellow gardeners.” Lee was a journalist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Los Angeles Times for more than twenty-five years. He was a news writer and editor before becoming a food and gardening columnist for the Journal Constitution, and was the newspaper’s first African American editorial writer. During his tenure with the Los Angeles Times he wrote on a variety of issues including immigration and economics, and he covered the White House during the Reagan Administration. He moved from Washington to become the Times’ Atlanta bureau chief in 1989.
I interviewed Lee for Country Gardens’ back page “Over the Garden Gate” feature back in 2009 (above) and we featured his serenely beautiful garden in Connecticut in the Summer 2013 issue of Country Gardens (below). Here’s what Lee had to say to me in an e-mail last spring titled “midnight train to georgia” just before his return to the South:
“. . . Really. That’s our plan. To ride Amtrak overnight to the Peach State, where we are buying a home. We are scheduled to close the sale on our East Haddam home in mid-May and complete the purchase on a home in Marietta, Georgia, about a week later. It’ll be my third (and last) time, moving to Georgia and the second for Lyn. We can be helpful to our Georgia daughter, who is divorced, with an 8-year-old son—while she can be helpful to us, in case we ever get old. Of course, we loved our previous life in Georgia and expect to enjoy being there again. At the same time, we’ll be leaving dear friends, along with the home and garden of a lifetime. The long goodbye is underway. As is the anticipation of building one more garden. We began thinking about moving in January but didn’t offer our home and garden for sale until this month. I’m letting you know as soon as I feel enough certainty that the selling and buying will happen. I’ll miss working with you. But if your travels take you to my part of Dixie, you know I’d love to see you.
All the best, James,