Our Life in Gardens

Our Life in Gardens

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by Joe Eck, Wayne Winterrowd

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This is the third book we have written together, though separately we have written others . . . But to say ‘written separately' makes no sense, for when two lives have been bent for so many years on one central enterprise—in this case, gardening—there really is no such thing as separately."

With these words, the renowned garden designers Joe Eck


This is the third book we have written together, though separately we have written others . . . But to say ‘written separately' makes no sense, for when two lives have been bent for so many years on one central enterprise—in this case, gardening—there really is no such thing as separately."

With these words, the renowned garden designers Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd begin their entertaining, fascinating, and unexpectedly moving book about the life and garden they share. The book contains much sound information about the cultivation of plants and their value in the landscape, and invaluable advice about Eck and Winterrowd's area of expertise: garden design. There are chapters about the various parts of their garden, and sections about particular plants—roses and lilacs, snowdrops and cyclamen—and vegetables. The authors also discuss the development of their garden over time, and the dark issue that weighs more and more on their minds: its eventual decline and demise. Our Life in Gardens is a deeply satisfying perspective on gardening, and on life.

Editorial Reviews

author of Duck Hill Journal: A Year in a Count Page Dickey

What a treat it is to settle down with Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd's Our Life in Gardens. Part memoir, part stories of plants and design, this volume radiates charm and humor while offering precious tidbits of wisdom. A delicious read.
Dominique Browning
Once you wander into this book, you won't be able to sit still for long…what with having to scurry around looking for paper and pen to take notes on just a few more plants you must have, and leaping up to consult the pictures in your American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. This is a generous, thoughtful, inspiring book…Eck and Winterrowd are funny, affectionate, wise and snobbish exactly when you want them to be.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

"Plants, like words in poetry," observe Eck and Winterrowd (founders of the Vermont garden design firm North Hill), "are both beautiful in themselves and also for the associations they trail behind, the histories they have in the world and in one's own life." In nearly 50 erudite and entertaining essays stretching alphabetically from Agapanthus to Xanthorrhoea quadrangulate, Eck and Winterrowd share the history of their Vermont garden, writing about the plants they have lived with, nurtured and nourished, in a sort of inverse family memoir, where the parent remembers the children-the trouble-free, the troubling and the troubled. "Helleborus orientalis," for example, "is an entirely amiable plant," while the "wisteria flower most freely under abuse... violent root pruning and frequent hacking back of top growth to encourage abundant flower." Any gardener may find its specific (and sometime technical) advice helpful, but walkers among gardens and those who dream of gardening will find special pleasure in plant lore and history and in the lucid descriptions that render them visible. Eck and Winterrowd describe their book as "a mixed bag, a gypsy trunk of this and that," but treasure chest is more accurate; the essays are gems, not baubles. (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Garden designers Eck and Winterrowd (coauthors, The Year at North Hill: Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden and Living Seasonally: The Kitchen and the Table at North Hill) take us back to their garden, North Hill, in an essay collection to be especially savored on cold, snowy winter nights while eagerly awaiting spring. The short essays cover everything from boxwood to primroses to vegetable gardens and allow the authors to share their favorite plants, their successes and failures, the trials and rewards of gardening in a cold climate, and the evolution of their gardening, both indoors and out, over several decades. Packed with useful information and myriad plants, lovingly described, for gardeners to try in their own gardens, their book also eloquently conveys the importance of plants and gardening in their lives. Lyrically written, this true pleasure is recommended for public and horticultural libraries.
—Sue O'Brien

From the Publisher

“Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd have collaborated on another fine book. Our Life inGardens is a charming, helpful, and confident text, a guiding hand that turns into a reassuring hug.” —Ken Druse, author of The Passion for Gardening

“For more than thirty years, Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd have been gardening with extraordinary, indeed legendary, results. Part memoir, part omnium-gatherum of horticultural wisdom and practical advice, Our Life in Gardens is at once literate, learned, sensible, and, often, sheer luscious poetry. There are delights to be sampled on every page. From a cultivated life, they have brought forth, once again, a cultivated book.” —Philip Gambone, author of Beijing

“What a treat it is to settle down with Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd's Our Life in Gardens. Part memoir, part stories of plants and design, this volume radiates charm and humor while offering precious tidbits of wisdom. A delicious read.” —Page Dickey, author of Duck Hill Journal: A Year in a Country Garden

“This is a wonderful book. If you are already a gardener, this will spur you on to new heights. If you are thinking about being a gardener, it will offer you a new world.” —Roxana Robinson, author of Cost

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Our Life in Gardens

By Joe Eck, Wayne Winterrowd, Bobbi Angell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2009 Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-16031-9



We lived our first year together on Beacon Street, in Boston. The apartment was impossibly grand, high and white and classically pillared, previously the ground-floor ballroom and formal dining room of a great private house. Its floor-to-ceiling bay windows faced the Public Garden, and that was our garden in a way, as was the magnificent Magnolia × soulangeana that filled our tiny front yard. Sunlight flooded those windows, and in them we grew a collection of tender plants, some of which were permanent, and some of which were added as the seasons progressed. There was a ficus tree, a wide-spreading Kentia palm, and a staghorn fern mounted on a wooden slab. To them we added cattleya orchids, pots of forced crocus and paperwhite narcissus, sweet-smelling hyacinths and bushy azaleas, all bought from Mrs. Fishelson's very costly flower shop on Charles Street just around the corner. We were prepared to make almost any sacrifice for beauty, though often enough we had only enough money left at the end of the month for pancakes. Still, there was always enough for flowers from Mrs. Fishelson.

We lived at 89 Beacon Street for three months short of a year. The plant collections grew larger, and at one point included a ten-foot-tall weeping willow tree forced in the high windows of the bedroom. But in the end, it was not plants that sent us to the country. It was chickens.

We can no longer remember how we came to visit a chicken show, but it must have been the venerable Boston Poultry Show, now in its 158th year. In any case, we came home with a trio of Mille Fleur bantams, a sturdy little red rooster all spangled over with white and black dots, and two meek little hens. The hens were of an age to lay, and so, shortly thereafter, on Beacon Street, we began to produce our own eggs, generally two every other day.

Even then it was probably quite illegal to keep poultry in a Boston apartment. At first we wondered how our landlord would react, and so we quickly fashioned a pen for our chickens in keeping — we felt — with the grand circumstances to which they had been elevated. It was a large cage, roughly six feet long and four feet wide, made of dark-stained wood and expanded brass wire, with a deep tray in the bottom for sweet-smelling cedar shavings. Tucked behind the Kentia palm at the sunny end of the great ballroom, it also had Chinese export-ware feed and water bowls, and was of course kept immaculately clean. Our landlord seemed, if anything, amused. We gave him some fresh-laid eggs.

But as all chicken fanciers know, chickens are addictive, and one can never stop at three. So many of our Saturday mornings were spent driving to the breeders of fancy chickens around Boston, our favorite of whom was Marjorie George, just over the Massachusetts line in Nashua, New Hampshire. Around Easter, she sold us a tiny cochin hen we named Emma. She was hardly the size of a cantaloupe, though her body was a cloud of soft, almost furry snow-white feathers. (We kept them that way, by weekly shampoos and fluffing out with the hair dryer.) She was the only chicken who had full run of the apartment, though she mostly favored the kitchen, where she had a nest box tucked privately in one corner. Soon she became broody, a skill for which cochins are famous, being generally considered the best of chicken mothers. Or foster mothers. For as Emma had no mate, her eggs were sterile. So we bought a dozen assorted fertile ones from Mrs. George, and twenty-one days later every one hatched.

Shortly thereafter, we had a morning visit from the chairman of the English department at Tufts, who lived in a beautiful house around the corner on Chestnut Street. Just at the moment he was lifting his cup of tea, Emma decided to show her brood the world. Perhaps seventy feet of dark, waxed oak parquet floor lay between the kitchen door and the couch where he sat. Emma proceeded that length, leading a stately procession of tiny, chirping chicks. She observed our guest skeptically, found nothing special in him, turned, and proceeded with her train the long way back. Good breeding kept him, we presume, from saying a single word about the extraordinary sight that had passed before him. But we wondered what Emma's perspective had been. Perhaps good breeding of her own caused her so politely to withdraw.

Figuring by May that we had perhaps reached the tipping point in our acquisition of chickens, we moved to a wonderful old rented farmhouse outside Boston in Pepperell, Massachusetts. Built in 1759, it preserved many of its original features, including a huge brick oven. Better, it came with a small barn that was more than ample for the thirty-five birds we brought with us, and then for the two hundred or so we soon acquired. We even kept a pig, named Morose, which was given to us a week before we left Beacon Street and which we had to keep in the bathtub there. Land came with this wonderful house as well, with pastures and woods and a stream and lots of space to make a garden. So we made the transition from being indoor to outdoor gardeners, starting first with an oval space fifty feet by thirty feet that lay in the center of the circular gravel drive.

Naïve, we were. On a trip to Lexington Gardens, where we had already begun to buy indoor plants, we filled the car with flats of annuals, a bit of this, a bit of that, in every imaginable color. We stripped the grass from the oval, tilled the soil, and filled it with our new plants. It was certainly the most colorful garden in town. Though thirty-six years have passed, we still remember what we grew. Salpiglosis was a particular thrill, with its felted petals, fantastically veined in contrasting colors over grounds of yellow and blue, chestnut brown and a purple almost black. There was also Phlox drummondii, which we still consider indispensable for the edges of beds, blooming softly all summer long in shades of cream and coral, mauve and pink and white. There were certainly snapdragons, in yellow and pink, mauve gomphrena, and red zinnias. We thought we were very sophisticated in knowing to plant drifts of one plant in one color. Now we feel the greater sophistication might have been to plant wildly, all mixed up like a flowering meadow, but that style, now so fashionable, lay far in our future.

We next turned our labors to a place to sit and enjoy the summer light. Flat fieldstone was abundant, and so we laid a stone terrace about ten feet by fifteen feet along the back of the house, and then made a screen around it of saplings cut from the woods. Into those we wove whips of privet hedge bought cheap in bundles from Lexington Gardens, and we planted bitter melon (Momordica balsamina) to scramble over the screen. Its bumpy, three-inch-long yellow fruits that split to reveal vivid scarlet seed and its dark lobed leaves all provided lovely contrast to the small fresh green of the privet. We still think the effect was surprisingly sophisticated, for the first garden we ever made together.

Success emboldened us. We bought a pair of handsome yews to flank either side of the front steps, and a dogwood to mark the corner of the ell. We dug laurels from the woods and planted them under the shaded living room windows. We also laid a fieldstone path from the driveway to the back door, on either side of which we made an herb garden, which even boasted a three-foot-high standard deadly nightshade tree. We fashioned a glorious espalier out of an old watermelon-red flowering quince we dug out of the front yard, and made another espalier out of pyracantha across the garage wall.

How quickly we grew in skill and knowledge. Everyone was nice to us. Allen Haskell, whom we met when we visited his magnificent nursery and garden in New Bedford, leveled the field between his lifetime of garden knowledge and our beginning ignorance by saying, "In this, we are all amateurs!" Plants he gave us then are still in our garden, having moved about with us for thirty-six years.

Our first autumn in Pepperell, we also planted bulbs, daffodils of course and crocus and tulips and hyacinths. The day in March when the hundred or so species of crocus we had planted near the doorstep bloomed was then, and remains, a curiously blessed moment in our life together. It was something we vowed would happen each year we were together, forever.

In all, we spent a little more than two years in Pepperell, gardening madly and also adding to our collection of animals, which eventually included two dogs, many more chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, pigeons and doves, miniature rabbits in several colors, and even a box tortoise. It was our peaceable kingdom. What is curious about that time is that it seemed to have been much longer than it actually was, in the way that children feel when they are very young and an eternity lies between birthday and birthday. When knowledge and experience expand at a rapid rate, time seems to stretch out. A year was as far into the future as we could possibly see, and yet we gardened as if we would be there forever, in an immediate pleasure in the moment that seemed to imply an inexhaustible future. Little of what we did there then remains, though the daffodils must, and that thought is very pleasant to us.



From a chance encounter, gardeners, like lovers, often form lifelong relationships of great intensity. You see a plant, your eyes widen, your pulse accelerates, and huskily you ask even complete strangers its name, importunately tugging at coat sleeves. More than once this has happened here, when visitors have seen an agapanthus for the first time. We smile on their quickening passion. For to someone newly in love, it is neither tactful nor appropriate to explain the difficulties that lie ahead.

It comes as no surprise that the genus Agapanthus takes its name from two Greek words, the first meaning "love" (agape), and the second, "a flower" (anthos). The genus — which contains about ten species and innumerable hybrids — passes in gardens under the popular name lily of the Nile. From a romantic perspective it suits them perfectly, for their flowers resemble the many renderings of papyrus in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It would not be hard to imagine Cleopatra on her golden barge, sailing languidly through tall stems of flowers of that shape, with colors ranging from clearest azure to lapis lazuli. Alas, the many species of agapanthus have nothing to do with the Nile. Though the genus occupies a wide geographic range, its origins are in South Africa, and the astral career of Cleopatra never took her that far.

Agapanthus africanus entered Europe as a cultivated plant in the late seventeenth century, but its huge popularity arose only after large glasshouses and conservatories became common in the nineteenth century. It then burst into popularity — for the effect of the flowers of agapanthus is always explosive — and large tubbed specimens shouldered against citrus, oleanders, and other tender glasshouse ornamentals used for summer display outdoors. Wealthy people continued to cultivate agapanthus — or to have them cultivated — well after World War II. Indeed, an elderly lady who visited here once explained to us in great detail how huge wooden boxes of them were stored over the winter in deep pits below the frost line on an uncle's estate in Brookline, Massachusetts. (He died, and it made her very sad that the agapanthus did not live long beyond him.) And anywhere they were hardy in the ground — Zones 9 and 10 in North America — they were planted with extravagance, in deep swirling beds and in large tubs and planters. Eventually, in sections of California and Florida, they soon became "groundcover," a term used to describe any weed-suppressing plant that can survive with little care and receives little admiration. In such places, agapanthus are as common as dirt, making it hard to explain to gardeners who live there why the rest of us covet them so much. But anywhere agapanthus may not easily be grown outdoors, "coveted" is a status they fully possess. Their great beauty when in flower makes it quite easy to see why; managing them over a long winter when they are not in flower does add a difficulty.

Agapanthus are clump-forming plants that grow from thick daylily-like rhizomes, producing strap-shaped leaves as much as eighteen inches long. Beneath is a mass of thick, spaghetti-like roots that will cling tenaciously to the porous sides of clay pots, making a plant that needs repotting impossible to turn out neatly. Further, agapanthus bloom best when slightly potbound. But if a specimen becomes too potbound, it will not bloom either, and that is a sign that it must be divided and repotted. We used to think there was no other way to do this than to smash the clay pot. Now we know that if the plant is allowed to dry out thoroughly, usually it will slip out easily. Still, division is a brutal process, often best done with an ax, chopping the plant straight through its heart, and then into pieces, each containing two or three rhizomes and as much fleshy root as possible.

Agapanthus are generally big plants, and so a pot big enough that one winces when lifting it is required. They are also very greedy feeders, though they demand perfect drainage, so compost for repotting should be humus-rich and gritty. For a year or two after repotting, new divisions will bloom poorly or not at all. Then they will proceed to become potbound all over again. For three or four years, however, you should reach the pinnacle of success with repotted agapanthus, with pots that produce at least one bloom scape for each fan of growth. In a large pot, that may be as many as fifty, blooming over a very long period from late June into early September. A splendid display like that makes being a sort of horticultural Lizzie Borden worthwhile.

Still, the great problem is how to store your agapanthus over the winter. If you have a sunporch or greenhouse or a well-lit guest bedroom, where temperatures can be kept hovering around 40 degrees, then the only effort required is lifting the heavy pots into such a place. Lacking these luxuries, however, a cool basement — again, hovering around 40 degrees and never freezing, even for a night — can be rigged with lights and the plants stored there. Plants must also be kept fairly dry, not so much that they shrivel up, but dry enough to force them into the rest period needed for good bloom.

If things are well managed, then your plants will look simply awful, with yellowed leaves and a sickly appearance. But as the days lengthen in March, water-soluble fertilizer such as Peters 20-20-20 should be applied weekly, at half the strength recommended on the package. As growth quickens, watering should also steadily increase, and the plants should be moved to the brightest indoor conditions one can manage. After all danger of frost is past, they may be moved into their permanent places outdoors. During active growth, it is almost impossible to overwater an agapanthus. Large pots should probably be watered daily.

From time to time, northern gardeners hear rumors of "hardy" agapanthus, special strains that might survive the winter even in Zone 5, "with protection." The famous Head-bourne hybrids, developed by the Honourable Lewis Palmer at Headbourne Worthy, near Winchester, throughout the 1950s and '60s, are frequently mentioned. Palmer crossed species madly, ending up with a diverse swarm, rather like a barnyard of mixed bantam chickens. Some are very beautiful, such as the very dark blue 'Cherry Holley', the mid-blue 'African Moon' (the umbels of which spray out into tinier umbels, making it look like a lit sparkler), and 'Rosemary', colored the pale lilac-gray the late Rosemary Verey often wore. Incongruously, within the Headbourne hybrids is also 'Lilliput', the tiniest agapanthus of all, with six-inch-long, narrow leaves and flower scapes that scarcely reach a foot, topped by umbels of dark blue.

The Headbourne hybrids have achieved notoriety not for their considerable beauty, but because they are said to be the hardiest agapanthus of all. Hardiness is never a matter of mere winter lows, however, but is always something like a complex tossed salad. So it may happen — in a most privileged courtyard garden in Washington or even New York City, with perfect winter drainage, some evergreen boughs placed over the crowns in December, a good covering of snow, and perhaps an exposed basement wall that leaks heat and is just opposite the furnace — it may happen that some selection might live to see the spring and flower in summer.


Excerpted from Our Life in Gardens by Joe Eck, Wayne Winterrowd, Bobbi Angell. Copyright © 2009 Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd are the co-authors of The Year at North Hill: Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden and Living Seasonally: The Kitchen and the Table at North Hill. They are co-founders of the garden design firm North Hill, and live in Vermont.

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Our Life in Gardens 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
ExiledNewYorker More than 1 year ago
Eck and Winterrowd provide a memorable voice for gardeners and garden fans. Winterrowd's recent death makes the passages about gardens surviving their gardeners particularly touching. This series of short essays on a vast array of topics makes for an easy and enjoyable read. Eck and Winterrowd join Henry Mitchell and Allen Lacy in my little pantheon of modern writers for those interested in or active in gardening as an avocation.