Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

Wed., May. 11, 2022

By Mary Lineberger, Gardener

By Eleanor Perenyi

This is a wonderful little gem of a book written by an in interesting, smart, opinionated woman. Because it’s a collection of 72 essays on different garden related topics it does not require the commitment of reading from cover to cover. The reader can peruse the table of contents and choose a topic that piques their interest. Once you hear what Ms. Perenyi has to say about ivy, compost or blues, trust me, you’ll want to go back and pick another – maybe the essay on hedges, tools, or paths?

Eleanor was born in 1918 in Washington to the Stones, a naval officer and a novelist. In 1937, at a diplomatic dinner in Budapest, Eleanor, then 19, met Zsigmond Perenyi, a young, poor, but titled, socially progressive Hungarian baron. They were married that year and went to live in his family’s castle in Ruthenia, then under Czech control. There, as mistress of a 750-acre farm, a forest, a vineyard and a distillery, Mrs. Perenyi helped work the land much as it had been worked for centuries. (Margalit Fox, New York Times 5/6/2009) In 1940, with the war under way, Mrs. Perenyi, pregnant with their son, left Europe at her husband’s urging. She ended up in Stonington, CT where she gardened, applied keen observation and learned a great deal about plants for decades until her death at 91 years old. She never finished high school and yet was brilliant enough to also work as the editor at several magazines, among them Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle.

Her wonderful descriptions come from a life of getting her hands dirty, trying and sometimes failing, to grow many different plants and observing. She describes tree peonies as, “… among the world’s loveliest flowers, at once sumptuous and subtle in their golds and moonlight-pinks and snowy whites…” In the same essay on peonies, she gives the critique, “…those dazzling flowers are nearly invisible, hidden beneath the foliage… One white variety smells distinctly rank, like a mushroom going bad.”

Paeonia ‘Spirit of the Poet’, tree peony in April located in The Display Garden

In the essay, “Blues” she declares her love for the color blue and describes some of her favorite blue flowered plants.

Early spring Scilla Siberica, Siberian squill, located near the Corning Visitor Center and Helen S. Layer Garden
Early spring Pulmonaria, lungwort, can be found in the Layer Garden

She weaves history, art, mythical stories, philosophy and social commentary into her writing. Be warned, she knows what she likes and what she doesn’t like and gives intelligent arguments for both. She believes rhododendrons and azaleas should not be planted in gardens but should remain in their natural habitats.

Rhododendron mucronulatum, Korean Rhododendron in April in The Helen S. Layer Garden
   Rhododendron ‘Sham’s Ruby’ as seen in the June Room in May

Her essay on ivy made me think about that stubborn non-native in a gentler more favorable light. She describes the winding ivy taking over royal gardens after the bankruptcy of the French government in the reign of Louis XIV. “Balustrades and staircases sank into moss, trees grew up and were overcome by vines, statues were masked in ivy—neglected dream gardens… Paving the way for Rousseau’s romantic visions.”

                                                                                                         Hedera helix, English ivy in The Layer Garden

This book would make a wonderful gift for someone who loves gardening and/or smart descriptive writing. The essays are laid out in a fun alphabetical order from “Asparagus” to “Woman’s Place”. You can begin at the end with “Toads”, jump to “Onions” and save “Failures” for another time. It has been a joy for me to pick up and read an essay or two at the end of my day.

I’ll leave you with a quote from her essay on paths, “Have it broad enough to fit yourself and a friend, as attractive as possible to the eye and kind to the foot.”

Mary Lineberger

Mary Lineberger



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