Book Review: Garden of Secrets Past by Anthony Eglin

Garden of secrets past

Book Review: Garden of Secrets Past by Anthony Eglin: An English Garden Mystery
Minotaur Books, 2011

I have been a big fan of Anthony Eglin’s books since reading the first English Garden Mystery, The Blue Rose. He caught me immediately with his protagonist, Lawrence Kingston, who was a learned and avid gardener as well as a bit of a sleuth in the traditional English model. I considered Lawrence Kingston a bit of a garden-digging Hercule Poirot. Sure, he doesn’t get things right all the time and he is often a bit naive about the personal danger he places himself in, but he loves the hunt like a faithful hound who never strays from the scent. Of course, in these books the scent is more likely to be from a beautiful rose or fragrant lily than that of a fox.

In Garden of Secrets Past, Eglin steps up the mystery several notches with the inclusion of even more shady characters, a secret code and a bit of a love interest for, no longer young, Kingston. He also expands our knowledge of Kingston’s relationship with his his friend, Andrew, who looks staged to become a sidekick in the vein of Poirot’s Captain Hastings or Miss Marples various friends and relations that accompany her on her mysteries.

While the gardening information is a bit light in this episode of the English Garden Mystery series, the mystery is top-notch. Sure, the story revolves around a major garden, but we don’t get lessons in Water Lily propagation or the reasons why a blue rose is basically impossible. It mattered little in the end, though, as the mystery pulled me through the book quite quickly. Despite reading it on a vacation in Sicily, between family visits, long meals and excursions, I finished the book in about 4 days. I caught myself, several times, reading long after I should have retired for the night while I looked for that final twist or clue that would make everything clear. To me, this is the best judge of the quality of any book. You should never really want to put it down.

It is good to see the character of Kingston developing a bit of a “history” as the book continue. Where before people took little notice of the gardening academic, now his reputation proceeds him with both police and those he is interviewing and questioning. I like seeing the growth in the character and his reputation, just as I would in a real person.

As I have said in past reviews of Eglin’s books, the combination of gardening with mystery suits me perfectly. I love both and to find a place where they are seamlessly merged is a bit of reading nirvana. I look forward to the next episode in Lawrence Kingston’s career.

I was provided an advanced review copy of this book from the publisher, but the opinions here are expressly my own.


Seedlings have exploded!

It is quite amazing what can happen in 3 weeks while you are away traveling. The small basil and tomato seedlings I left behind jumped dramatically under the care of our friends who were housesitting. Here is what they looked liked just before we left.


Here is the basil now… (upper left in above photo)

Basil has grown

…and the tomato seedling from the lower left…

Tomato plant after 3 weeks away

I am always amazed at how plants can suddenly shoot up and take on a while new look in just a few days. I hope to get a few tomatoes off the seedling, although it is late in the season and I am growing the basil as the start for an entire bed of basil intermixed with the lavender in the front garden. It is one of the few places that seems to get enough sun to support it.

I Like This – August 18, 2011

    A collection of gardening items I found interesting this week.

  • Meet the Beet Buckets – August 18, 2011

Photo: Fresh almonds in a Sicilian garden

There are some food experiences you can only have if you grow your own and I was introduced to another one a few days ago on our last days in Sicily with family.

I had noticed and photographed these almonds growing on Serafino’s tree earlier. A few days ago, though, I noticed that the pods had started to dry and open. When I mentioned this to Serafino and Francesco, they immediately asked if we would like to harvest them. They knew something I never new — fresh, white almonds, fresh out of the husk are a delicacy. We picked the open pods and then Francesca used a hand piece of lava from Etna to break open the shells.

The almonds were amazing — tasting like the epitome of what an almond should taste like. Of course, you won’t see almonds like this in any store. They have to be caught at exactly the right movement — say when you are wandering through the garden on a warm, Sicilian morning.

Keep your eyes open for such opportunities and you will be rewarded with some amazing taste opportunities.

Opening almond shells with a piece of lava from Etna

Almonds (Mandorla) on the tree Almonds in husk and raw almond out of shell Serafino and Francesca harvest almonds Almond in husk and shell

Photo: Olives near Morgantina, Sicily

Olives, originally uploaded by dewelch.

Morgantina is an ancient Greek city her on the island of Sicily. It was taken over by the Romans in 211 BC. Substantial ruins remain and we toured them the other day. In the parking lot, the major patch of shade on this extremely hot day was provided by this olive tree.

Olives are everywhere on the island, from front yards to back gardens to large fields covering the hillsides.Our cousin, Serafino, says that even his small collection of olive trees yielded a substantial amount of olive oil for his own personal use.

There is something so appealing in growing something that you can use throughout the rest of the year and share with friends. Olives seem to grow well in Southern California, too, so perhaps this might be a tree to add to the garden when I have to remove the pine trees that are infected by beetle. Hmmm, always a possibility.

Photo: Sicily Chestnuts at a history-laden farmhouse and orchard

Yesterday we spent most of the day on the south slope of Mount Etna (Mongibello in Italian and Muncibeddu in Sicilian) at the 100+ year old farmhouse of a family member. It isn’t inhabited full time anymore, but remains a vacation house for a variety of family members that own part of the property.

Over the last 100 years or so, it has been a farm with extensive orchards of pear, apple, sorba (rowan) and chestnuts like the one’s in the photo below. In talking to our cousin Marcello, he revealed that the first house on the property dated to the mid-1700’s, while this home was from around the mid-1800’s. His grandfather had lived there for years until he passed away around 2 years ago. Electricity came in 1984 and the water supply has always been a cistern fed by the tile roof. This collects rainwater and snow melt, as the home is high enough to be snowed in a good part of the winter.

You can see the long, rod-like flower stalks of the chestnuts at the top of the photo. These covered the trees and were visited by a host of flies (mosca), bees, (apl) and wasps (vespa) as I sat beneath them watching. The ground was also covered with spent flower stalks and the husks of last year’s remaining crop. The farm is no longer actively cultivated, due to the costs involved and its somewhat remote location. Even knowing all the work that goes into running a large orchard operation, it made me wonder if it might not be returned to a productive state and turned into an agroturismo location where visitors could come and stay and help in the production. It is in an amazing location with a clear view of Etna’s summit and a short walk to a 1992 lava flow that came within a 100 yards of the property. Agroturismo is very popular here in Sicily. In our drives around the eastern and middle parts of the island we have seen many such locations.


For more photos from our 3 week trip to Sicily, visit my Flickr Photostream

100+ year old home on Etna's South Flank

They are limited in the improvements they can make to the property as it is entirely inside, and part of Parco Dell’ Etna, a National Park. The ownership of the parklands is divided between national park, local communities and a large amount of private land such as the orchard that surrounds the house.

As it is, though, it remains an important part of this Sicilian family’s history and will remain so for perhaps another 100 years to come, if not more.

I Like This – August 9, 2011

Espresso Cups planted with small cacti

Our cousin, Vito in Regalbuto, does some wonderful plantings, including bonsai olive trees. Here, he has made great use of the traditional cups used for coffee in the ubiquitous Sicilian bars that are on nearly every corner. I love the effect gained by massing a bunch of these together on a shelf. I think it is very striking and would be a wonderful centerpiece for any succulent or bonsai garden.

Cacti in Espresso Cups 1

Cacti in Espresso cups 2

Photo: Pears on the garden

Our cousin, Serafino, grows some amazing fruit in his garden, including these wonderful pears. This even during construction of a new house practically on top of his garden for his daughter, son-in-law and 3 grandchildren.

Things are in quite a state with construction equipment and supplies everywhere, but the garden still continues.

It is always heartening to see how well plants and trees can grow even when confronted with a bit of adversity.


Photo: Daniela in her balcony garden

Apartments can be quite small in Sicily, but this doesn’t mean you can’t have a wonderful garden. Our relatives love fruit and but trees but also love having tons of flowers about. These pictures of from Daniela’s balcony garden in Nicolosi, Sicily.

Daniela in her balcony garden

Daniela in her balcony garden

Daniela's Balcony Garden

Geranium in Daniela's Garden