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Bookman's holiday - in a harvest garden

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BASEBALL is a great way to measure time if you have all summer. So is gardening. Recently, as I lugged my lawn mower up the stairs from the basement for a final run, I bumped my head on something bouncy. I looked up. A hugh sunflower swung there, heavy with seed, nodding, curving its tough, hairy stem toward earth. A whole summer is packed into those seeds, food for blue jays and gerbils. Beyond the sunflowers, the little garden my wife and son planned in the spring is now a riot of color. In a circle about 10 feet in diameter, memories of the California coast and Central Valley vie with New England natives for water and light. A hardy yucca plant crowds a Peace rose. Fire-tipped spikes of celosia shoot above golden poppies. Over lowly gerbera daisies floats a Tropicana rose. Strings of sweet peas - all pink, lavender, and pale green - cling and climb a 10-foot oak post capped by a wrought-iron whale, a New Englandy version of a Renaissance fountain.

``Blessed be agriculture! - if one does not have too much of it,'' wrote Charles Dudley Warner in ``My Summer in a Garden'' (1870), one of the pieces by American gardening writers collected in Allen Lacy's The American Gardener, a sampler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 367 pp., $18.95). Warner reminds us that the little farm, the villa rustica, praised by leisure-loving Horace, was within earshot of the emperor's villa, where power was celebrated in gardens of Oriental splendor, in the midst of which was a tiny island, reached by two retractable drawbridges, every man's getaway.

As Louise Beebe Wilder noted in 1932, ``Nor is the fragrant garden ever wholly our own.'' Our little effort blessed the lady across the street. We put her in charge of the roses while we were away this summer; when we came back, her house was fragrant. As I work, my mind's eye sometimes opens on the image of my father's bent back bronze in the valley sun. Still, however self-absorbed the gardener becomes, his garden blesses many, as my father's did.

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