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An interview with author Marta McDowell of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life

by Timber Press on January 15, 2014

in Natural History

Hill Top, Beatrix Potter's home. Potter coordinated interior design with the gardens outside, including hanging landscapes, using peach tones in the sitting room, and daisy-patterned patterned wallpaper in her bedroom.

Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s home in the Lake District of England. Potter coordinated interior design with the gardens outside, including hanging landscapes, using peach tones in the sitting room, and putting up daisy-patterned wallpaper in her bedroom.

Beatrix Potter was an author, businesswoman, and conservationist. She was also a gardener. This part of her life, often a direct inspiration for her work, has been neglected by historians. Until now. Author Marta McDowell shares here some of what she discovered while writing Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, a book Deborah Needleman calls “a biography written through plants.”

Beatrix Potter, circa 1913. The dog's name was Kep. Via Wikipedia

Beatrix Potter, circa 1913. The dog’s name was Kep. Image via Wikipedia

Why is garden history important?

Gardens are at the intersection of nature and nurture, and their history tells us something about ourselves, about the human condition. Garden history surrounds us; we inhabit it. Walk down a city block in the shade of street trees. Sit out on your patio with a cold drink. Dig and divide a perennial. Pick a tomato. Repot an overgrown houseplant. These simple acts can tell rich stories about our relationship to the environment and how that has changed over time.

What can a garden tell us about its gardener?

A garden is the mirror of the gardener. Neat or sloppy? Prim or flamboyant? Casual or controlling? My garden is an expose: too many plants, always a new project underway when I should spend more time weeding, awash with self-sowers that germinate in the brick edge instead of at the back of the border where they belong.

Were there any surprises in what Beatrix Potter planted or in her approach to gardening?

Given her social class and period (1866–1943), one would have expected her garden to be prim, for her to have a conservatory, a designed garden and horticulturists on staff. Her cousin Edith, who lived on the other side of Windermere in the Lake District, had just that. Instead she had an energetic garden, flowering with the new energy of the Arts & Crafts movement: local stone, wrought iron gates, and cottage style borders mixing flowers, fruits and vegetables.

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Summer in the Hill Top garden.

What would Potter’s garden be like today? What kind of gardener would she be?

Beatrix Potter pre-dated the environmental movement, but today I think she would be an organic gardener interested in plants native to the Lake District. She would still be a food gardener, as she was then, so she would fit in with locavores and the slow food movement.

Entrance to the garden at Hill Top. Image via Wikimedia.

Entrance to the garden at Hill Top. Image via Wikimedia.

What can modern gardeners learn from Beatrix Potter?

No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to make a new garden. Beatrix didn’t have a garden of her own until she was forty. And she was making new garden plans right up until her death.

No matter how busy you are, you can still have a garden. Beatrix had a Darwinian approach to gardening. Her ornamental plants had to be tough to survive.  Busy with her farms, her conservation efforts, her books and her art, her time for garden maintenance was limited.

No matter how sad you are, gardening is the best therapy. After Norman Warne, her fiancé, died, Beatrix found consolation in making new garden beds, transplanting perennials and putting manure tea on the apple trees in the orchard.

Do you have any advice for would-be garden historians?

Try to find a survey course in garden history. I took an evening course at the New York Botanical Garden called “Landscape Design History and Theory” with Marie Stella that was life changing.

Is there another gardener you’d like to see written about and why?

43 of them in fact!  I’m in the midst of researching a book about American landscape history as seen through the lens of the White House grounds. As a result, I’m researching the horticultural interests of the presidents as well as their spouses and gardeners. What better place to see our gardening American-style play out over time than at the White House?

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Q&A with Marta McDowellMarta McDowell writes and lectures on gardening topics and teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where she studied landscape design. She is an active member of The Beatrix Potter Society.

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Click image below for a look inside this book:

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This work brings Potter, as much as her garden, to life, as an energetic, sturdy soul.—New York Times

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Walter Pickup June 12, 2014 at 8:03 am

I just finished reading Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life – what a wonderful read! I did not know about this side of Beatrix Potter. What I find most striking is the fact that I had delighted in Beatrix’s tales as a young boy and now, as a 76yr old gardener, I am again delighted by this story about her. Thank you, Marta McDowell.

2 Brian Ridder June 12, 2014 at 1:41 pm

Hi Walter! Thanks so much for the feedback. I’ll pass your comment on to Marta. She’ll be delighted.

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