Boston Globe Garden Writer
Ruth Kassinger has written my favorite gardening book of the year (so far). This is the story of a homeowner who started with zero gardening knowledge, but built a lush plant conservatory onto her Maryland home that became a center for family life, entertaining, and most importantly her own revitalization after a bout with cancer.
Ruth Kassinger had been hit hard by her sister's cancer death at 45, followed closely by her own battle with breast cancer. Seeking a healing retreat, she visited conservatory of the U.S. Botanical Garden on the Washington Mall, That's where she got the idea to build her own private green oasis, "the perfect antidote to the losses and changes of middle age."
She surprised herself as much as her family because she had never before been interested in gardening or houseplants and hated earthworms and insects. But the indoor garden she envisioned would be a clean, bright, earthworm and insect-free cocoon for healing.
She searches out a builder, deals with zoning ordinances and gets houseplant advice from her local nursery. She visits specialty growers in Florida, Connecticut and California. She discovers which low maintenance kinds plants perform well in her growing conditions. She also learns how to grow butterflies in her conservatory and how to combat scale and spider mites. The first appearance of bugs in her paradise sets off a frenzied over-reaction, colored by her belief that she and her doctors had been slow to diagnose her cancer. But after researching the most toxic of insect killers, a kind of chemo for the greenhouse, she comes to her senses and employs Neem and other less poisonous Integrated Pest Management techniques.
Though it gets off to slow start, this book sneaks up on you. It gradually builds in technical complexity as well as emotional depth, so that by the time you finish it, you're surprised by how much you've learned while following the author on her journey back to life. There's how-to advice on building a functioning plant conservatory, up to date scientific information about green industry technology such as "living walls" that you can employ in your home projects, plus a history of greenhouses, and amusing character portraits of some of the country's leading houseplant growers.
Readers will find this book is an antidote for the blues of a midwinter's day or midlife malaise. But watch out. You may start out growing houseplants, and end up building a greenhouse.
I think this would make an excellent gift book for gardeners, and it is also a book of life and hope for readers who have struggled against cancer. And that is not exactly a small niche audience these days.
Also, this is a pretty book, and gifts should be pretty. The cover illustration of a charismatic white highland terrier peaking out of from the midst of a sun room full of giant tropical plants by artist Linda Button and the line drawings throughout the text by Eva-Maria Ruhl are both effective and appealing.
Kassinger's own epiphany at the end is that nothing in a garden, even an indoor garden, is static. Her original idea of paradise was to create an unchanging cocoon. But after making constant experiments with her own biosphere project, she has concluded that "Paradise" is a place where there's always something new to respond to, and to look forward to. Life is change.
"Paradise Under Glass; An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden," by Ruth Kassinger (William Morrow, $24.99)