Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Garden memoir stays out of the dirt

Author gives us only glimpses of her difficult realities

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Gardening is "a journey, not a destination," says Liz Primeau in the prologue to her uneven new memoir. "It's a wise instructor in the art of living."

A gardener for 50 years, the former Winnipegger was the editor of Canadian Gardening magazine when it first appeared in 1990 and the star of Canadian Gardening Television.

She takes us along on her journey, which is a sometimes gentle stroll, but more often a turbulent ride, as she learns the lessons of life framed by a passion for her garden.

Gardening becomes her therapy for welling panic attacks apparently brought on by an unhappy marriage.

Later it leads her to a job, to a second marriage, to world travel and, eventually, to national television fame.

She tells of her early years growing up in Winnipeg, with the prairie only "about a mile" from her verandah-shaded house.

She worked pulling weeds with her father in his Victory vegetable garden, a "marvel of geometric precision," while the rest of the garden consisted only of a dense patch of lily-of-the-valley and a couple of lilacs.

She was indelibly marked by the "prairie dusks, when time seems to stand still for hours as the sky changes from vibrant pink and gold to mauve and deep purple before a grey haze obliterates all the colours of the landscape."

Here life was safe and serene until her father is felled by an early stroke.

After her father's death, the 14-year-old Liz and her family moved to her mother's native southern Ontario, and Liz adopted a new mentor. Her uncle Ren grew flowers and lured her into the garden with dinner plate dahlias and "spikes of cobalt-blue" delphiniums.

Dreaming of becoming a model, Liz moved, a few years later, to Toronto where she met and married her first husband, Joe.

They had four children, but all the while, Liz felt suffocated. The panic attacks set in.

Starting with a tomato patch and two narrow flower borders, Liz coped by working with the crumbling earth to coax a tangy sweetness into her life from her tomatoes and a few annuals.

The story of her continuing life journey is interwoven with the gardens she grows, each one a reflection of her evolution as a gardener.

Along the way, she slips in historic garden vignettes, advice from world famous gardeners and a little garden wisdom of her own.

She concludes by outlining the six stages in the evolutionary life of a gardener, starting with the early yearning for blossoms, the bigger the better, and soon replaced with quieter, more appreciative phases.

"Come to think of it," she writes, "these stages echo the stages in our lives from the desire for immediate gratification in our youth to the deeper and mellower pleasures of maturity."

My Natural History is a quiet book. As a memoir, it leaves a few things to be desired.

Primeau gives us only glimpses of her difficult realities, which she has hidden, even from herself, behind the everyday pursuits and distractions of her garden.

This can leave the reader a little frustrated at times, looking for missing details: Where did she live in Winnipeg? How old were her children when she left them?

As far as garden books go, however, My Natural History deserves an eight out of 10, if only for helping the reader escape from his own dreary realities.

Dorothy Dobbie is the publisher of Manitoba Gardener, the host of a weekly gardening show on CJOB and the president of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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