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Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell


Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life

Beatrix Potter is known to almost every parent, but not as well known as her most famous creation, Peter Rabbit. In Marta McDowell’s new book Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: the plants and places that inspired the classic children’s tales (Timber Press $24.95) we meet Peter’s progenitor. In 1890, the 24 year old Beatrix bought Benjamin Bouncer at a pet shop and used him as the model for Peter for some paintings that she sold. That was the beginning of a career that she never imagined, and that her parents never wanted for her. This charming book, illustrated with historic photographs, Beatrix’s paintings, and photos of her world as they are now, lets us follow her from the enclosed gardens of London parks, to the holiday estates of her youth and finally to the farms where she spent the last 30 years of her life.

The simple, delicately illustrated stories that Potter wrote do not suggest to readers today that they were conceived by an independent woman who became a passionate naturalist, a successful business woman and a conservationist who left thousands of acres of land in the Lake District to the newly founded National Trust.

Beatrix Potter was the quintessential shy Victorian daughter whose life was ruled by her parents. She was educated at home and her social circle was limited to relatives and family friends. Still she enjoyed her life and the gardens of London the were near her home, and country visits to the Lake County and to Scotland. She loved plants and flowers; with her younger brother Bertram she often had a menagerie of animals going.

Her love of nature led her to a serious study of mycology – mushrooms. Her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe who was knighted for his contributions to chemistry, took her to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to work, but although she was finally allowed to visit and study in the gardens, her insights and theories were ignored. She was a spinster, and an amateur. She could not possibly have anything to offer the scientific world. Her mycological and scientific work now resides at the Ambleside Museum in the Lake District. Her mentor, Charlie McIntosh, gave his collection of her work to the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland. Her paintings and drawings are so accurate and well identified they are useful today to those studying fungi.

McDowell carries us along on brief tale of the events of her life, but her focus is on  descriptions of the landscapes and gardens that were a part of her early life, and her later life as a farmer. Part Two: The Year in Beatrix Potter’s Gardens takes us on a charming tour of the gardens she created at Hill Top Farm and Castle Cottage listing plants in their season, as well as garden schemes and designs. What makes this book especially enjoyable is the use of Beatrix’s own words, from her letters and other sources.

Part Three: Visiting Beatrix Potter’s Gardens is a guide book that will give tourists the information they need to visit the gardens and landscapes of Beatrix Potter’s youth, as well the gardens she made in her maturity with her husband William Heelis. Again, this section is illustrated with wonderful and useful contemporary photos, and Potter’s illustrations of those scenes as she captured them so long ago.

Primroses were often planted in Beatrix Potter’s gardens

This is a beautiful book that gives a strong sense of the strong and practical woman that Beatrix Potter was. Nearly every page has a photograph or delicate painting from one of her books.

Five years ago I read the excellent biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature written by Linda Lear (St. Martin’s Press. It was there I first learned about her scholarship, the difficulties of her life with her parents, and the tragedy of the death of her fiancé, Norman Warne. It gave me such a different view of the kind of woman who would have told those stories of mischievous animals, illustrated them with such charming paintings, and insisted on the small size of the books for small hands.

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is a visual feast  and McDowell skillfully takes us through her life, only lingering with detail in the garden and the way they were transformed in her books. It also led me to the Beatrix Potter Society in England. It turns out 2013 is the 100th Anniversary of The Tale of Pigling Bland, a tale of adventure and romance, as well as the 100th Anniversary of Potter’s marriage to William Heelis. The Society has turned this occasion into a special event and an exhibit that includes parallels between these two events. I am happy to think that her own life, like her little books, had 30 years of happily ever aftering with Mr. Heelis. ###

Between the Rows  November 30, 2013

Don’t forget you can win a copy of Seeing Trees and a copy of my book The Roses at the End of the Road by leaving a comment here by midnight, December 12.



Greenfield Community Farm on Blog Action Day

Greenfield Community Farm – New Shed

Accessible healthy food is a basic human right. The Greenfield Community Farm helps insure this right to the Greenfield Community.

The Greenfield Community Farm out on Glenbrook Road is actually comprised of four gardens. First, there is a production market garden, operated by grant-funded David Paysnick and his assistant Daniel Berry, that grows produce for sale through the Just Roots CSA, at the Farmers Market, and Green Fields Coop. This garden includes a greenhouse where seeds are started in the spring, and a high-tunnel greenhouse that extends the season for tomatoes, and exotic crops like ginger. Extra vegetable starts, and seeds, are given to the Food for All Garden.

The market garden makes use of interns, from high school and college students to older people who sign up for a season. There are spring chores including working in the greenhouse and soil prep, summer chores including weeding, succession planting, and preparing produce for sale, and fall chores include marketing, farm upkeep, and mentoring a younger person. A full description of these internships is on the website.

A second garden, unpoetically named The Education Site, is a currently colorful demonstration garden created by students, parents and educators where students from 8-18 can engage in meaningful and creative work on the land.

Community Garden

Shelly Beck

Shelly Beck, Community Garden Coordinator, oversees the final two gardens. These are the community garden plots tended by their gardeners, and the Food For All Garden that grows produce for the Stone Soup Café and the Center for Self Reliance food pantry. I visited with Beck to see how the first growing season and harvest went.

“Pretty well!” she said with joyful enthusiasm. I could see that the better part of the harvest had been gathered in, but cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kale were still growing as were a few squash plants. Bright nasturtiums and marigolds bloomed here and there. Even hard core vegetable gardeners can’t resist a few brilliant flowers. It looked like a productive season to me.

The 50 community garden plots come in two sizes, 20×20 feet, and 20×10 feet. These plots were cultivated by experienced gardeners, novices, people who were interested in vegetables, some who only wanted flowers, and some who were particularly passionate about herbs. A Daisy troop took possession of one plot and inmates from the Kimball House, the Franklin County Jail’s Re-entry program cultivated another.

Volunteers built a handsome garden shed to hold tools (they can use more tools and wheelbarrows), and there is a drilled well to supply that all important garden element – water. Soil amendments are also available for plot holders. For those with the need there are also high raised beds to plant. More raised beds are in the planning.

Raised bed

Food For All Garden

“The Food for All plot has really been my plot this year,” Beck said, “but I’ve had lots of volunteers helping. Kimball House guys spend two mornings a week here, and community groups call and come. We even had a ‘weed-dating’ session!”

For those who are not part of the dating scene, speed-dating is an event where attendees spend a very few minutes talking to each other, exchanging cards, and then moving on to the next. “It’s more fun to chat over the weeds,” Beck said. “We’ll probably do it again, and we’d like more men to come.”

Beck had to explain to me that the Stone Soup Café is the pay-what-you-can café that is held every Saturday at noon at All Soul’s Church. Volunteers cook and serve up a great delicious and nutritious lunch. Those who can leave a donation. Even those who cannot attend, can send a donation to help cover costs.

Beck has taken an interesting road to bring her to the Greenfield Community Farm. She grew up in Massachusetts, but it was at Evergreen College in Washington State that she began taking eco-agricultural courses. “Evergreen immersed me in the world of growing things and sustainability. I never dreamed that organic would one day be so much of our culture so that you can buy organic produce at the Stop and Shop.”

In 1996 she moved back to Massachusetts and found a real home in Greenfield. She was a single mother with a child but she found housing at Leyden Woods where she started her first community garden. She began working Green Fields Market and said she really felt the community taking care of her.  She worked as a science teacher at the middle school, and  at Enterprise Farm. “It was a great place to see what farmers are doing on a big scale.” While she was there she helped put together the Mobile Market that brought fresh produce food deserts from Somerville to Northampton, senior centers, a YMCA and housing projects.

Nowadays, Beck’s day job is as Pantry coordinator at the Amherst Survival Center which offers free health care, and a free store in addition to a free lunch and regular pantry food distribution. She worked with local farmers and made sure that the food pantry offered fresh produce as well as the regular non-perishable foods.

Fall Festival at the Greenfield Community Farm

If you have a garden you must celebrate the harvest. This is doubly true if you have a big garden, with many gardeners big and small. Sunday, October 27 the Greenfield Community Farm is hosting a Fall Festival with workshops, a farm tour, garlic planting and a pot luck meal. All are invited to come and learn more about the gardens, and celebrate this first of many harvests. The website has full information about the Fall Festival and all the gardens. ###

Between the Rows   October 12, 2013

Beaver Lodge on NESEA Green Buildings Open House Tour

Marie Stella

“I’m a designer. I’ve always been absorbed by fashion, interior and landscape design,” Marie Stella said when she began my tour of Beaver Lodge in Ashfield. Her current and ongoing design project is the landscape surrounding her beautiful house which has been give a Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating. This is very unusual for a residence.

LEED designations require that materials be as local as possible, that recycled materials be used when possible. For example, at Beaver Lodge floors are made with wood from trees removed from the site. Stella touched on many other examples as we walked.

Since her house has been designed with energy efficiency and environmental concerns in mind, it is no surprise that the limited domestic landscape shares these design constraints. The garden is designed on permaculture principles with a large emphasis on edibles.

Front view of Beaver Lodge

The first notable aspect of the garden that stretches to the south, in front of the house is the absence of lawn. In the center are large raised vegetable beds, with perennial crops like asparagus, rhubarb, blueberries, raspberries and dwarf fruit trees along the eastern border. A small new collection of shitake mushroom logs rests in the shade of the woods.

The western border includes a grapevine covered arbor furnished with a rustic table and benches to provide a shady resting space,. Closer to the house a wild garden filled with native pollinator plants nestles against the broad Ashfield stone terrace that is the transition between the garden and the house. Instead of grass, woodchips carpet the ground. This relatively small cultivated space is held in the embrace of a mixed woodland.

To the north of the house is an old beaver pond which gives its name to Stella’s model house and landscape. In addition to being a designer, Stella is a teacher, and she has designed Beaver Lodge as a teaching tool,. She gives classes at the Landscape Institute at Boston Architecture College, and online.

She did not begin her career as a teacher, and gardening was only an avocation.  However, 25 years or so ago, when her children were young, she took a couple of Elsa Bakalar’s garden classes at her house here in Heath. She found those so inspiring she was led to a course in plant materials at the Radcliff Institute in Boston. That was so engaging that she went on to complete the certification program, and then another one.

During those Radcliff classes she realized a new future was waiting for her. She could combine her earlier background as a historian with her interest in the landscape. She liked writing. Soon she was writing and lecturing about landscape history. She organized and led garden tours to Japan and Italy.

As fascinated as she has been with the history of the landscape, she began to look towards the future, and so came about the construction of Beaver Lodge which will be part of the free NESEA Green Buildings Open House Tour.

Water retention pond

Of course, Stella realizes that if you have a vegetable garden it must be watered. I was very impressed with the systems she has in place to supply adequate water to the edible gardens. At one end of the house the rain gutters bring water to a large stone retention pond that serves an important function, but is also beautiful since it is constructed of stone blasted from construction of the house. A pump brings water up to the vegetable garden when it is needed. She has added a bit of whimsy as well. She has created a small fountain that uses water from the retention pond, and then brings it back to the pond down a created stream bed.

Bubbling fountain

Marie Stella’s greenhouse

Since I visited last in 2009, Stella has added a small greenhouse that incorporates a cold frame and makes use of recycled windows. The greenhouse will give her a chance to get seedlings started early. Inside the greenhouse is a 550 gallon food grade plastic cistern that collects rain from the gutters at the end of then, and then pipes it into the garden.

She also has a root cellar where she can overwinter bulbs and tubers. The constraint for other uses is that snow build up in often prevents access during the winter.

Shakespeare once penned the line “Sermons in stones and good in everything . . .” Those who study and visit Beaver Lodge will find encyclopedias of  good knowledge in this living lesson book.

For information on visiting Beaver Lodge and all the sites on the Green Buildings Open House Tour on Saturday, October 5 you can go to the NESEA (Northeast Sustainable Energy Association) website,, and click on the Green Buildings Open House button. There you will be able to put in your own zip code and the distance you are willing to drive. Over 200 houses are on the tour in the whole northeast from Maine to Pennsylvania, but 37 house are within 30 miles of Greenfield. Several are in Greenfield itself with others in Montague, Colrain, Northfield, and South Deerfield, in addition to Beaver Lodge. The website will give you information about each house and it’s green elements, along with cost, benefits, and suppliers. The tour is free, but you should sign up.

Just browsing the Open House website will give you a lot of information and ideas. The owner of an historic house in Montague will be giving a talk from 10am-noon “about how we successfully survived a Deep Energy Retrofit with our marriage AND our historic windows intact!”

Between the Rows   September 28k 2013

The Monks Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Monks Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Last week I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to meet the noted landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburg and hear him speak about how he approached the challenge of redesigning the Monks Garden. He said that Isabella Stewart Gardener herself acknowledged that she was never satisfied with the small walled garden she called the Monks Garden. “That gave me the confidence and courage . . . to make a garden for the future of the Museum.”

Certainly the Monks Garden has been transformed. The last time I visited, a year or two ago, it seemed very bare and brown. In fairness, it was a gray early spring day and my mood may not have been the best. Now the Monks Garden was a sun dappled woodland, with groundcovers of hellebores and ferns. It was a surprise to enter this enchanted space that is so different from the structured geometry of the interior Courtyard.

Van Valkenburg said, “I wasn’t trying to channel Isabella Stewart Gardner . . . but her museum is not a practical place. The garden doesn’t have to be a practical place. The paths are not practical. They don’t have to take you from point A to point B. They don’t have to take you anyplace.” He wanted the garden to be a place where you could get lost.

Anne Hawley, Director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum said, “Michael responded to the spirit of the museum which is totally mad. It is just a romp.”

Hawley later explained that the final decision to choose  Van Valkenburg came after she visited his own garden on Martha’s Vineyard. She said it was ‘beguiling.” I was certainly beguiled, gladdened and delighted as I wandered through this magical woodland. The 7500 square foot garden feels spacious even though it is hemmed in on one side by the Palace, and by a curving high brick wall on the other two.

The undulating dark brick paths, subtly brightened by shist blocks, often wind close to each other and sometimes actually kiss, and yet you can rarely see across the planting bed to the opposite path. As I walked the paths I soon began to notice that there are subtle changes in grade. This garden is not flat. The dark brick paths narrow and swell, but they also rise and fall. I think this is another one of the elements that make this garden seem so march larger than it is.


There are many kinds of groundcover plants from the hellebores that will bloom, to evergreens like Christmas fern and European ginger with it shiny leathery leaves. Van Valkenberg said the garden “will be crazy  with hellebores in the spring.” When they have settled in and put out their own new growth visitors to the garden will have an even greater sense of privacy.

Amazingly the Monks Garden was installed just this year. It is a very new garden.  Van Valkenburg talked about the ephemerality of a garden. We gardeners know that a garden is never the same from week to week. Certainly when early spring arrives next year and the bulbs, hepaticas and hellebores come into bloom, no one will remember this fall’s sheen of newness.

Van Valkenburg said one of the goals of the plan was to stretch the seasons. Although there was only one brave hellebore blossom last week, there will be flowers rising through the groundcovers over a long season. Four varieties of camellia, in shades of white and pink will bloom spring and fall. Several stewartia trees will come into bloom in July with their camellia-like flowers. Species daylilies and tall cimicifuga will follow. Several climbing hydrangeas have been planted against the brick wall, another rich variation that will grow over the years.

The small slow growing trees will bring their own color that will carry even into winter. The foliage of the paperbark maples and stewartias provide good autumn color. In the winter the paperbark maple has beautiful exfoliating bark in shades of cinnamon and reddish brown, the gray birch has chalky white bark, while the stewartia has a subtly mottled bark providing substantial interest..

The one large tree in the garden is an ancient katsura with rough gray bark growing against the brick wall lending an air of majesty to this very informal garden.

Van Valkenburg has designed large parks and urban sites. He has won prizes and awards for his work, including the 2003 National Design Award in Environmental Design awarded by the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, and the 2011 American Society of Landscape Architects Design Medal. Still he says he always remembers the advice given him when he was beginning his own business by Kevin Lynch, the noted urban planner and designer, to make as many gardens as you can. Along with large projects like the 85 acre Brooklyn Bridge Park which is still under construction, he has always maintained a consistent focus on small scale gardens.

Monks Garden at the ISG Museum

And that brought him to the end of his talk with a beaming smile as he invited us into the Monks Garden saying, “I don’t know that I’ve ever had more fun making a garden.”

Between the Rows    September 21, 2013

Phoenix by Xu Bing – in detail at Mass MoCA

Phoenix by Xu Bing

PHOENIX by Xu Bing is on display at the Mass Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Massachussetts. It is very difficult to photograph the whole with a little point and hope camera. But the details of the construction debris that comprise these two magnificent birds can be appreciated.

Coronet of one Phoenix by Xu Bing

The Phoenix is a mythical immortal bird that rises from its own ashes.

Coronet of the second Phoenix by Xu Bing

Xu Bing’s Phoenixes. which will eventually fly in Beijing , symbolize the rise from greed and corruption to compassion and justice.

Bamboo and steel

Now for the details.



Grinding wheels

Steel plates

View from under the tail


Postcard – night view of Phoenixes in Beijing

The next stop for Xu Bing’s 12 ton Phoenixes is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC.

For more (almost) Wordlessness on Wednesday click here.

International Women’s Day – Beijing Memories

Women of China Magazine staff 1990

On April 16, 1989 my husband and I flew to Beijing where I had taken a job  with a women’s magazine. There I first learned of International Women’s Day where it is a  big event. And certainly I learned a lot about the life of Chinese women while working as  a ‘polisher’ for Women of China English Monthly.  I worked with translators (whose English was excellent) who translated articles about women in China’s history, and the women who were taking women into a very different era for China. I then ‘polished’ them to make sure grammar and vocabulary were accurate, but I found the biggest problem was  giving a bit of context as when I was given a story about a factory that was now making jewelry for sale. What was newsmaking about that? It was  explained that Beijing was now selling consumer goods, like jewelry, that had not been available to the general population before.

The photo above, of me with the Women of China staff, was actually taken at my farewell party in April 1990 – after many amazing adventures.

We arrived just as the events of the Beijing Spring were beginning, and that culminated in the Tianenmen Massacre on June 4.

Like almost the entire international community living in the Friendship Hotel (more like a campus than a hotel) where we were billeted and elsewhere in Beijing, we left the city. We flew out on the day that the People’s Liberation Army entered and declared martial law. We flew to Hong Kong and got in  touch with our daughter Betsy who was living in Kenya and nearing the end of her Peace Corps tour. We then flew to Bombay and then Nairobi  where we waited for Betsy to meet us and take us on the 6 hour bus trip to her village in the hills.

Betsy’s mud hut in Munyaka, Kenya

Betsy gave up the bunk bed to me, and she and Henry slept on the floor. The choo (outhouse) was in the backyard, but she had a ‘sunshower’ arrangement in the house. She was there  working on a water project renovating one large water tank and building a new one as well as laying a water line from a spring higher on the hill. While that project was going on she had to carry all her water, just like the other women in t he  village. We certainly learned a lot about the lives of Kenyan woman and the new issue of birth control, in a country where men had more than one wife and each wife could have ten  children. We also learned how small the world had gotten. In this village of mud huts, in the higher elevations of Kenya they had heard about the attacks in Tianenmen. In our farewell to Munyaka they all gathered at Betsy’s house to ask us questions about China. Betsy ran around serving chai, and a couple of the men told us it was very odd to see Betsy acting like a woman, serving tea, when they were used to her working like a man.  Of course, Betsy would say that women worked like horses, doing immense amounts of heavy physical labor, not just planning and organizing. I don’t know if they celebrated International Women’s Day.

Beidaihe resort

After checking with our new friend Leilani who had remained in Beijing we made plans to return. Our house was rented for the year and we really did want to continue in China. Because of the ‘turmoil’ that made so many Foreign Experts (that was our official designation) leave, the government declared that those who had stayed could have a vacation at the important resort, Beidaihe on the Bohai Sea. We were even given soft seats on the train. Of course, we had to be accompanied by our translators, and the staff  of the Beijing Friendship Hotel took up posts at the Beidaihe Friendship Hotel – but with a little extra time off for vacation. We  could see what seemed to us the odd standardization of the new consumer economy. There were lots of bathing suits for sale, in sizes, but in only one fabric pattern, little white stars on a solid ground. Of course, you could get a red bathing suit, or a blue one.

We were taken on one outing to the place on the seashore where the Greaat Wall of China begins. As we worked out way  through  the crowds strolling on the wall we were stunned to have Xiao Pan say, “It ‘s nice or us that are so few people are here this year.” Everything is relative, I guess.

Beidaihe party

During the day we went to the beach or sightseeing with new friends from our Beijing hotel. Muhammed (second from the left) was a polisher for a magazine distributed in Africa. On our final afternoon with Muhammed, and Aftab from Pakistan and a couple of others we had gone exploring, looking for the  pavillion overlooking the Sea where Mao Zedong had written some poems. We were a little late getting back for the farewell party and were chastised by Xiao Pan ( far right) who was our translator. “We are having fun, but we are on a tight schedule,” he said sternly. This has become a standard phrase in our household on many occasions.

At the party we each had to provide some entertainment. Ayjay from India did magic tricks  but the only thing Henry and I could come up with was the children’s song Two Little Blackbirds Sitting on a Fence.

Beijing Alley

Back in Beijing we spent time sightseeing on our bicycles with Leilani and other friends. In 1989 it was the best way to see the city. Near the Friendship Hotel was this Uyghur neighborhood where  there were great noodle shops. I had to get used to a new idea of what a ‘restaurant’ looked like, but the food was fabulous! The Uyghurs are a minority people living in Xinjiang Province.

There was work, of course, but I only had to be in  the Women of China office three mornings a week. I did some of my work at home on my Kaypro computer. Lunches were in the Foreign Experts Dining Hall where the food was good but cheaper than in the hotel’s other restaurants, and there was lots of discussion among the other Foreign experts about what had happened, and what was going to happen, and every thought began with the phrase, “Well, it is very complicated.” Then came a nap, which is granted by the Communist constitution!

Betsy at Tianenmen Square

After the ‘events’ at Tianenmen Square in June, it was closed to the public until the great 40th Anniversary of the Founding of New China when thousands and thousands of workers in their work units performed dances  and there was a great show of fireworks.  We Foreign Experts had excellent seats for the show. When Betsy visited in January (she was seeing as much of the world as she could on her way home from Kenya) we took her on the tourist trail, from Tianenmen to the Great Wall. Betsy in in the blue hat, I’m in faux fur and the two others are Peace Corps friends.

Xiao Pan and his family with Henry

Our time in China was growing short. We were granted a vacation in the south of China and requested that Xiao Pan accompany us as translator. This was a typical Chinese arrangement. Xiao Pan had not been able to visit his family in a couple of years and they lived in Suzhou, the Venice of China, just where we wanted to go! We had a wonderful dinner with his family. Papa did all the cooking  in the alley on a little charcoal stove, in a way that all international women can applaud, but came in for the final toasts.  Suzhou is also the city of many famous gardens, including the Master of the Nets garden. A single courtyard of this garden has been recreated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

Xiao Pan and Henry

Before we left we attended a banquet with my work unit to celebrate International Women’s Day. They could not believe that I had never heard of this international holiday. Everyone had gotten to know Henry pretty well and appreciated the help he gave them, and me. He was named an Honorary Woman, and given an All China Women’s Federation pin to prove it.

All China Women’s Federation pin


Being in China during such an historic year made us  wonder if we would ever return to see the changes that we could tell were beginning to take place. And we did!  In the spring of 1995 I left for Beijing and my old post at the Women of China English Monthly. And that turned out to be another historic year! The Fourth World Conference of Women organized by the U.N. was held in Beking that September. But that is a whole other story.

On this International Women’s Day I celebrate all the amazing women I met in China, and my own three daughters who have made such a difference in my life and in  the life of their own communities.


Plant Hunters – John Bartram and Chinese Wilson

Photo courtesy of Arnold Arboretum © President and Fellows of Harvard College. Arnold Arboretum Archives.

Where do the plants in our garden come from? How did plants get from the heights of the Himalayan mountains, or the Appalachian mountains, to our gardens?

It would be hard to count the number of plants in our gardens that were first seen by the intrepid explorers of the last three centuries. John Bartram (1699-1777) of Philadelphia was possibly the first American botanist and plant hunter.

Bartram was a farmer with little formal education, but he was always interested in medicine and medicinal plants. In addition to his regular farm crops he began keeping a garden of plants that he found interesting. From that modest beginning he created a nursery and went on plant hunting trips first in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, later he went on to Virginia and the uncharted Appalachian mountains. Later still he traveled in Florida. Everywhere he went he collected seeds, nuts and cones that he could send to Peter Collinson, a wealthy British merchant, the man who introduced beautiful American plants to the nobility who were in the process of improving their estates. Our American natives were England’s desired exotics.

The business Bartram and Collinson embarked upon was amazingly successful in part because with Collinson’s advice Bartram devised a way of shipping seeds across the ocean so that they would still be viable when they arrived. One of the problems Bartram had was that he did not know the names of the interesting plants he was passing along, because he had no botanical education. The two men worked out a system so that Collinson could identify the seeds and thus request more of specific varieties from Bartram.

It is amazing to me that while his botanical education was limited at first, he ultimately became expert in shipping seeds and even plants, and learned Carl Linnaeus’ new binomial naming system, becoming a great proponent of that system.

The British fell in love with native plants like magnolias, azaleas, mountain laurel, and rhododendrons as well as sugar maples, viburnums and sumacs which gave them beautiful autumn color. They planted these on a mammoth scale, sometimes creating whole forests.

In 1765 Bartram sent King George III a box of his most special seeds. It was received with such pleasure that Bartram was named the King’s Botanist, a title he treasured.

Of course, this was a time when relations between the colonies and England were becoming strained by events like the passing of the Stamp Act which put a tax on paper, used for everything from newspapers, and legal documents to playing cards. It was fortunate for Bartram that Americans were becoming wealthy enough to think about their own gardens, giving Bartram a new market.

Bartram’s two sons, William and John Jr., continued to maintain the garden their father had created, and the business, sending plants and seeds around the world. Some of the plants named in the family’s honor include Amelanchier bartramiana and Commersonia bartramia. Amelanchier is our familiar shadblow or serviceberry tree, while the Commersonia is an Australian tree.

Bartram’s Garden remains a fascinating public garden to this day.

Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) later known as Chinese Wilson, was British and as a young man he worked in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. In 1898 James Veitch of the Veitch and Sons nursery asked Kew for a likely young man to send to China to find and bring back plants for the nursery. Wilson was recommended and chosen. For his first trip to China his assignment was to find and bring home seeds of the dove tree, Davidia involucrata. On his way to China he stopped at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston with a letter of introduction to Director Charles Sprague Sargent to learn the best ways to ship plants and seeds safely.

That meeting was the beginning of a long relationship with Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum. Sargent insisted that Wilson carry with him a large format field camera. The Arboretum now owns thousands of the photographs Wilson took in China.

On that first trip he did acquire seeds of the dove tree first, but continued on for two years collecting hundreds of species of plants, as well as hundreds of herbarium samples which he brought back to England in 1902.

He continued to work for Veitch and made a second trip to China under their auspices. In 1906 he made his third trip to China under the auspices of the Arnold Arboretum. It was on this trip that there was a landslide that crushed his leg. He made a splint out of his camera tripod and was carried for three days to a hospital. He recovered, but ever after had a limp that he called his lily limp because the Lilium regale, the Easter lily, was his great find on that trip.

By his own count Wilson brought back 25 rose species from China. This is particular interest to rose gardeners today because native Chinese roses have the ever blooming. gene.

He made a fourth trip for the Arboretum and later, in 1914 he began a study of Japanese plants including conifers, Kurume azaleas and Japanese cherries.

Wilson went on other travels, but in 1927, after Sargent’s death, he became Keeper of the Arnold Arboretum. His career was cut short when he and his wife were killed in an automobile accident in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Without plant hunters like these over the centuries, and continuing today, the flowers and plants available to us would be greatly limited. We are fortunate to be able to reap the benefits of their adventure and their passion.

Between the Rows  February 23, 2013

C is for Cacao, Cocoa and Cadbury

Illustration of Cacao bean from Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History

The Cacao bean is native to South America, but it became the cocoa we are familiar with when the Dutch van Houten found a new processing method, and it was  British George Cadbury in 1878 who created a model garden city of Bourneville for his chocolate workers.

On this cold and snowy day I have been reading a beautiful and fascinating book, Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws. Cocoa is popular drink around our house in the winter, especially when the grandchildren are visiting and if there are a few marshmallows in the cupboard. Cocoa did not immediately come to mind as a history changing plant when compared to rice, opium poppies, wheat, coca, or tobacco, but it is certainly one of the most important drinks and sweets comperable to coffee, tea, and beer. The beer requires barley and hops, two other history changing plants.

The chapter on Cocao has fascinating stories about cocao’s journey from  the Aztecs to the royal court of Spain and then to the court of Louis the XIV in France, as  well as the men who ultimately created the chocolate bar including Milton Snavely Hershey. But what particularly intrigued me was the story about the founding of Bournville near Birmingham. At a time when most industrial workers lived in terrible conditions, George Cadbury decreed that there should be no more than seven houses per acre. Generous garden space and fruit trees were provided each house. The houses themselves  each had  three bedrooms, a sitting room, a kitchen and a scullery. There was also a bath in the scullery (which was the site of running water) that folded away.  “Baths are provided in the back kitchens so tht it may be possible to have a warm bath at least once a week. And you have the advantage of drying by the fire.”  There is a man who was thinking of comfort as well as health.

Cadbury was a very successful businessman but he disinherited his children and turned Bournville into a trust so that “the speculator will not find a footing.”   As for his poor children he said that great wealth was more of a curse than a blessing.

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History is beautifully illustrated with old photographs, paintings, and botanical drawings. It was two years ago that I visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History and saw the famous Glass Flowers – and fruits of economically important plants like the cocao bean – created by the Blaschka family. For more about my visit click here.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson Celebrates 50th Anniversary

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson can possibly be credited with starting the popular environmental movement. When the book was published in 1962 it was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month and was on the New York Times best seller for weeks. The book remains relevant today.

The Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association is sponsoring a Reading Silent Spring Together program with three free talks by local experts with community discussion.  There is no charge, but readers are asked to pre-register because space is limited. Send your registration to You may attend one or all three sessions.

The Science Behind Silent Spring, a talk and discussion led by Andrew Whiteley,  evolutionary biologist.   Saturday, January 26, 2013  1-3  at Forbes Library, Northampton. 

The Relevance of  Silent Spring after 50 Years, a talk and discussion led by Emily Monosson, environmental toxicologist.    Saturday, February 2, 2013   11-1 at Greenfield Public Library.

Our Threatened Future,a talk and discussion led by Jan Dizard, environmental scientist.           Saturday,  February 16, 2013   1-3 at Jones Library, Amherst.  

For more information and to check cancellations/snow dates go to:




Happy Birthday Gertrude Jekyll

Gertrudy Jekyll (1843-1932) was one of the great British gardeners. It is her gardens and writings that

Gertrude Jekyll

essentially define the British perennial garden to this day.  This is the 169th anniversary of her birth in in London. Though she did travel throughout England, Europe and even the United States she spent most of her life in Surrey, England. There she built her final house and garden, Munstead Wood, with Edward Luytens, the well known architect.Most of the photographs show her as a plump old woman so it is hard  to imagine her as a young woman, but she was a lively member of a large family; her  nieces and nephews called her ‘Bump’.She was first a painter, but as her eyesight deteriorated she turned to gardening and garden design, which she thought of as painting with flowers.  Her ideas about using color in large drifts remains important today. Her work was a part of the great Arts and Crafts movement led by William Morris.

In all she designed over 400 gardens in England, wrote over 1000 articles and several books including the most famous Colour in the Flower Garden. Her book Roses is one of the first rose books I bought.

David Austin’s Gertrude Jekyll Rose

It is no surprise that David Austin, the famous Bristish rose hybridizer named one of his roses after this great British gardener.  These large, pink fragrant roses grow on a bush that can reach 10 feet. At least in England. One of Elsa Bakalar’s stories about how roses grow in Heath describe a visit her brother from England. He toured Elsa’s garden and stopped at the single rose bush and asked what variety it was. She bristled and replied, “Queen Elizabeth, of course!” He turned to her his eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Oh, I didn’t know there was a dwarf Queen Elizabeth.”