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Thinking Garden in Midwinter

The soil is a transforming medium expressing color, artistry - and fresh vegetables

Bleak landscape. Frozen soil. Dreary weather. A writer once referred to February as the 3 a.m. of the calendar year. But some of the most creative gardening happens in midwinter, when the only things blooming in northern climates are found in the pages of garden books.

Winter provides some perks for gardeners. The basic chores - planting, weeding, raking, pruning - are put to rest along with the hedge-clippers. A gardener in winter quickly learns that there's never a shortage of literature. Often, reading about plants is the only thing he can do (besides making a pest of himself at indoor flower shows).

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From the cozy confines of home, these individuals let their imaginations take over and reinvent yards and decks and vegetable plots without ever leaving their chairs.

The charm of gardens is that they are many things to many people. For a suburban homeowner, the garden is an extension of the house - a space to be admired and to encourage family recreation and relaxation. For an inner-city apartment dweller, a plot of soil in a community garden provides fresh vegetables and a green oasis in an otherwise gray urban landscape. To a landscape designer, a garden represents artistry, texture, and color.

Today, voices are emerging that speak of the soil as a medium to teach people about themselves and how to connect with a larger community.

These voices also speak about the transforming power of gardens on people's lives and attitudes.

Fortitude and resilience marked the career of Ellen Biddle Shipman (1869-1950), who has been called the dean of American women landscape architects. Judith B. Tankard's well-researched and finely written book, The Gardens of Ellen Biddle Shipman, sheds light on this neglected artist, while the introduction by Leslie Rose Close gives a helpful overview of women in the profession.

Women in the early part of this century were tolerated in the field of garden design because gardens were considered an extension of home.

Training programs for women landscape architects offered the same skills as for men. But women were also required to take stenography.

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Ellen Shipman arrived at her career through a backdoor. She had always loved gardens, and her talent in sketching garden- and house plans was recognized at an early age. When she embarked on her professional association with the architect Charles Platt in 1910, she was in her early 40s, with three children under age 12 and an absent husband whom she later divorced.

Nonetheless, after working extensively with Platt, she opened her own office in New York and for 35 years kept a practice that helped employ other women as landscape designers and draftsmen.

By the time of her death in 1950, she had completed more than 600 projects for clients that included tycoons such as the Fords, du Ponts, and Astors.

While Tankard admires Shipman's tenacity as a divorced working mother, the author reserves her enthusiasm for Shipman's emergence as a first-class designer. Black and white photos (most of them historical) give ample proof of Shipman's skill, which was distinctly American and favored Colonial-style gardens.

While Shipman understood her wealthy clients' desires for beautiful settings in which to entertain, she shaped her gardens with an eye for intimacy and seclusion rather than grandiose formality that characterized European gardens.

Shipman's gardens for the most part do not survive. Tankard explains that because she relied on horticultural effects rather than architectural elements, Shipman's gardens were susceptible to decay, fashion, and the whims of her clients. Such circumstances make Tankard's book even more valuable as a reflection of this remarkable woman and her work.

Gardeners in winter often seek the inspiration and advice of books that stick to a single subject. Rosemary Verey's English Country Gardens is a luxurious stroll through 12 of England's most beautiful private gardens in each of the four seasons.

This book could be subtitled: Gardens to Swoon Over. Verey, a famed landscape architect in her own right, lends the text a quaint, personal touch as she reminisces about these gardens and their titled owners. The color photographs are stunning.

In the Garden Club of America's second volume of Plants That Merit Attention: Shurbs, this pedestrian plant receives their due as the hardworking second-story element in gardens. Everything worth knowing about shrubs is contained in this book, along with information about botanical gardens and arboreta in which the shrubs can be seen. A remarkable and thorough effort.

Many gardeners are partial to ivy as a ground- and wall-cover. The Gardener's Guide to Growing Ivies is botanically intensive in its writing, but the close-up photographs of ivy leaves and the variations among types makes this an attractive and useful book for serious gardeners.

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