A jewel of a book

  • Article by: Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 24, 2009 - 10:21 PM

Whether you're looking for a last-minute gift idea or a gardening read to curl up with after the holidays, check out our reviews of "Jewel of Como"and other recent releases to guide your search.


Photo from "Jewel of Como: The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory," shows Como's glass palace when it opened in 1918.

Photo: Jewel of Como: The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory,

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A lived-in glass house

I walk my dogs past the conservatory in Como Park nearly every day, winter, summer, snow, rain. I take my family there in the ennui of Christmas afternoon, to view the glowing poinsettia show and bask in the humid air. But I have been dense about its history.

Had I known that a rare century plant breached the conservatory roof back in the 1960s? Had I known that a hailstorm shattered much of the glass, which was replaced with -- gasp -- fiberglass? Had I known that the beautiful structure that defines my St. Paul neighborhood had been in danger, not all that long ago, of being torn down?

I hadn't known any of this until reading "Jewel of Como: The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory," by Leigh Roethke and Bonnie Blodgett (Afton Historical Society Press, $40). It's a lovely history, illustrated with contemporary color photographs as well as hand-tinted postcards and historical photos. It traces not just the beginning of the conservatory (opened in 1915) but of the park itself, which was established in 1873.

As I read, I longed for a map that could show me the places no longer there -- Willow Walk, Cozy Lake, Avenue of Palms, and, such fun!, Banana Walk. Still, even map-less, the book is informative and interesting, a reminder of the old days when Como Lake was named Sandy Lake and was surrounded not by bike paths and a golf course, but by a verdant field of potatoes.


Terrific terrariums

OK. Admit it. You hear the word terrarium, and you think of an abandoned aquarium with a lid. Or worse, you think back to the days of rigging a 2-liter Pepsi bottle so that it held a few ferns until it got moldy and you tossed it.

"The New Terrarium" (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, $25) confronts those images and gives us stunning ones in their place. The book is filled with tiny arrangements of mosses, flowers and ferns, mixed with precious collectibles, all thriving in beautiful glass cases and bell-shaped jars.

I dove right in, only to read that terrariums have had "a critical influence on our lives. What a dictionary can't define is the far reaches of a terrarium's impact."

And later: "The opaque quality of a steamy case, with water droplets dribbling down and the plants inside partly obscured behind the sweating panes, is part of its romance. It's also a sign that a small world is progressing as it should."

And then: "You could easily furnish your home in the lush green of ferns and never, ever grow bored."

Decorating and gardening books often paint a world of fantasy, and that's why we enjoy them. But by the time author Tovah Martin suggested that a "winter terrarium might help fend off seasonal affective disorder" I was ready to close this book and go straight to the Como Conservatory instead.

While the photos are beautiful and inspiring, the text is long on hyperbole and short on practicality. So take this book with a grain of peat moss and keep your expectations under glass.


The wizard of grass

"Ornamental Grasses: Wolfgang Oehme and the New American Garden" (Frances Lincoln, $45) focuses worshipfully on Wolfgang Oehme, the German immigrant whose pioneering designs helped propel ornamental grasses into the mainstream of American gardening.

Written for a European audience by Stefan Leppart, the book presents Oehme as the kooky but wise wizard who steered lawn-crazy Americans back onto a righteous gardening path. Strangely, Oehme is nearly mute in this book, though he and the author were in a car together touring the East Coast gardens he helped design. Oehme, a lifelong vegetarian, eats a lot of fruit in this book and we hear several times that he likes to weed at midnight and eat the edible results. He is a truly odd genius who designs fantastic gardens, and I would have preferred to hear less glorification from Leppart and more from the master himself.


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