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Garden road trip: A guide through nine exotic gardens

There is no shortage of books on gardening or on travel, but Vivian Swift’s book “Gardens of Awe and Folly: A Traveler’s Journal on the Meaning of Life and Gardening” (Bloomsbury, $17.99, 176 pages) is a breed apart.

For starters, Swift is not a gardener. She has neither indoor plants nor a flower bed. And while the book is illustrated with her beautiful watercolors of gardens in Paris, Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, Marrakech, Key West and other places that called to her, Swift only took up painting 12 years ago, when she was 48. Her first book, “When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler’s Journal of Staying Put,” was published four years later. And she’s never taken an art class.

We spoke to her by phone at her home in Long Island, N.Y., where she resides with her husband and seven cats. The following is an edited transcription of our conversation.

Q: You say you’re not a gardener, so why gardens for your latest book?

A: It’s a travel memoir — part memoir, part biography. I have scrapbooks of gardens I’ve visited during 25 years of traveling. The older I get, I realize that I was experiencing these places as a nongardener. The Paris gardens are garden experiences — I see them as thought-provoking spaces. All gardens have a context. People get hung up on the details of a garden — about specific plants. Some gardens just captured my attention or made me curious. I want to share part of the experience, so the stories are all in context with a map. (Each of the nine gardens is highlighted with quotes, curious history about the original owner, insightful tips and Swift’s own take on the garden.)

Q: When did the travel bug hit you?

A: I had a very boring childhood in the suburbs (Philadelphia) and was raised in a working-poor family. I took French classes. It used to be so easy to work for nine months and travel for three. I’d spend three months in France, Scotland or the U.K. It was just escape that got me traveling, and then I got hooked. I’ve been married for 10 years; I’ve settled down a lot, but I went to France in December to see Monet’s garden Giverny in winter.

Q: Out of the nine featured gardens, do you have a favorite?

A: I can’t get the Brazilian garden out of my mind. It’s the whole reason I wrote the book. It’s dreamlike to me. (She calls the garden in Rio de Janeiro “The Once in a Lifetime Midnight Garden.”) I do keep journals – and that is the kind of garden I compare all the other garden experiences against. I also got a crush on roses while doing this book after visiting the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s rose garden.

Q: How did the urge to paint come about?

A: I was an embroiderer since I was 8 years old. I used to be able to thread a needle in the dark, but it was getting harder to do that at age 40. And, I had a certain idea for a reading experience I wanted to create. I don’t paint for pleasure – I’m an illustrator, a miniaturist. Gardens are not easy to paint. There’s a lot of green. The size of the pieces in the book are quite small.

Q: How is this book different from the first two, which were hand-lettered?

A: My first book was done on vellum. I rewrite sometimes as many as 10 times. When I did the other two books, I had to use a knife and tweezers to remove a few letters and replace them. I created a new font, so that takes care of (the revising process). Being a nongardener, I made a list of garden books and words that I’d never use in my book – things like “sacred space” and “solid” and “nature.” Nature is a word a lot of people use, but it’s shorthand for something else. It’s more interesting to write about the garden than call it nature.

Q: Did you paint the gardens on site?

A: Because the gardens are so immersive, it was different for me, and you couldn’t do it with just a quick sketch. I paint from my photographs — I use nothing but reference photos. I visited or revisited gardens for the book, and I took a lot of pictures. I have a blog, and my readers watched me paint this book (as it progressed).

Q: What do you hope readers will get from the book?

A: The object of the book is part of the experience. My books aren’t on tablets. I plan them like a two-page spread. I know what I like to see in a book. It’s like a box of chocolates. I want readers to feel like we’re on the journey together. I hope I’m their traveling companion and we’ve been in a conversation.

Q: Do you have another book in the works?

A: I couldn’t include Giverny in this book, and it’s far and away more than just a garden. I have to process this garden a lot — context is very important.

Q: How would you best describe yourself?

A: I love eccentrics and crackpots. I have a taste for the quirky. I’ve been a former Faberge expert at Christie’s auction house, an administrative secretary, a receptionist at a hedge fund, a freelance writer. I’ve had an odd career path.

Q: And your cats?

A: I’ve had as many as 14. They come to me.

Delve more into Vivian Swift’s garden-travel adventures at her blog vivianswiftblog.com.

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