Marta McDowell’s Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life

imageLike many serious gardeners, I collect books about gardens and those who created them. This one is a recent acquisition of mine that ranks among the best I’ve encountered! Subtitled ‘The plants and places that inspired the classic children’s tales’, it is just what it says it is: a look at the gardens (and botanical things) that inspired her children’s writings.

The author teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, has written one other book, Emily Dickinson’s Gardens: a Celebration of a Poet and Gardener‘ and is, not ‘tall surprisingly, an active member of the Beatrix Potter Society.

Though as a child you might not have noticed it, the characters in her works existed in a world full of flowers, vegetables, and gardens that drew heavily on English gardens in general and her own Lake District garden at Hill Top Farm in particular. Indeed a veritable what’s what of English garden botany is found in her drawings.

The book itself — and need I say that it’s lavish indeed with photos and drawings of Potter’s garden, her drawings, and plants? — has three sections, the first being a biography of Potter as framed naturally by her gardening life from early childhood to going native when she settled in the Lake District joyfully dropping the societal restraints of London. She’d eventually myriad farms including one which had a big orchard where she tried different apple varieties, some best eaten from the tree, others suitable only for preserving in jams and jellies.

All gardens follow seasonal patterns, so it’s fitting that the next section’s called ‘The Year in Beatrix Potter’s Gardens’. It’s worth stressing here that any personal material of Potter’s was destroyed per her wishes after her death, so we’ve not a clue if she kept a gardening journal. (Here at the Kinrowan Estate, Head Gardeners have kept them for centuries.) Thus this section depends upon her published writings and letters she sent in staggering numbers, artwork, and photographs both from her time and taken of her gardens now. It’s worth also noting that being born in 1866, Potter came of age in the Victorian Era when women still were not fully endowed with rights equal to those men held. So it’s remarkable that she was both a successful author and an owner in a serious way of property. She would die in the first years of the Second World War, but her gardens in some cases live on as she designed them.

Speaking of photos, there’s a remarkable number of them here of her. My favourite one is her against in stone wall at Hill Top Farm with her sheepdog Kep, taken in 1913; another of her at Castle Cottage with her Pekingese dogs, date 1930, shows her affection for all sorts of dogs; and the last one I’ll single out is one of her holding a large pet rabbit named Benjamin Bouncer, taken in 1890.

Most of this section is either illustrations by her or present-day photos. There’re extensive quotes from letters she sent, too.

The last part is ‘Visiting Beatrix Potter’s Gardens’, essentially a gardener’s guide to what still exists. Be warned her home in London was destroyed in the Blitz, though a primary school is now there. This guide includes places she noted as having visited such as the gardens of Hatfield House where Princess Elizabeth was told that Queen Mary was dead and she was Queen. Hill Top Farm is now a National Trust property —  the photo of the main building on 264 – 265 is remarkable!

While the afore noted Trust owns several of her other properties such as the Castle Cottage property, it oft times acquired them long after she owned them and that meant, as can be seen here, that her own gardens are long gone. All gardeners changes things to suit themselves — I do it and I’m sure you do.

Rounding out this book is two tables, one concerning the plants known to grow in her gardens, the other detailing the plants in her books. The first, by the way, shows how dependent her biographers are  on letters she sent and which the recipients made public as there’s just a handful of sources indicated, such as interviews and an article in Horn, the children’s literature journal.

There are of course citations, an index, and lengthy acknowledgements as is only proper.

Anyone interested in Potter will really enjoy this book as will any of you who are serious gardeners. It certainly would make a perfect gift for any such folk that you’re giving gifts to during this Winter Holiday season.

(Timber Press, 2013)

Gus the Estate Head Gardener

I'm the person responsible for both the grounds and the livestock which are raised here. I live with my wife in one of the cottages that has been here for centuries. I actually enjoy Winters here as my work load is considerably reduced as I let the younger staff members handle the needed work which leaves me time for reading, ice skating and skiing, not to mention just being with my wife. Bliss!

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