Out in the Garden: Growing a Beautiful Life


The very mood and atmosphere of the garden — its scents, colors, and textures — are often indelibly linked to scenes from the gardener's life. As he dispenses excellent hands-on gardening advice in Out in the Garden, Riddle draws on his past and present, reflecting on family, childhood, and growing up gay in South Carolina.

Back in 1980, when Dean Riddle was a young horticulture student, he "thought annual flowers, not to mention birdbaths, were the heights of frivolity — things...

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The very mood and atmosphere of the garden — its scents, colors, and textures — are often indelibly linked to scenes from the gardener's life. As he dispenses excellent hands-on gardening advice in Out in the Garden, Riddle draws on his past and present, reflecting on family, childhood, and growing up gay in South Carolina.

Back in 1980, when Dean Riddle was a young horticulture student, he "thought annual flowers, not to mention birdbaths, were the heights of frivolity — things to amuse and occupy little old ladies." Thinking himself a serious plants-man with "no interest whatsoever in design," he dreamed of collecting woodland wildflowers, rare trees, and flowering shrubs native to the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he was born and where he developed and nourished a deep love of plants and the natural world.

A decade later, after living in various parts of the country and making gardens for other people, Dean Riddle settled in the Catskill Mountains. There, he finally got the chance to make his own first garden-"a small garden of sticks and stones with a swept dirt floor." But instead of planting rare stewartias and speckled trout lilies, he grew old-fashioned flowers and everyday vegetables like the ones he remembered from his aunt and uncle's farm in South Carolina. In the process he learned the value of good design and the importance of relating house to garden. And he discovered that the good life "has far less to do with money than it does with style, awareness, and gratefulness."

Riddle's thoughts on gardening are astute and straightforward. His storytelling, while at times poignant, is punchy and hilarious. Honest, helpful, and always entertaining, Out in the Garden is both a "how-to" manual and a memoir — and succeeds masterfully at both.

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Editorial Reviews

Woodstock Times
“A touching, honest, hilarious tale of Riddle’s life as a gardener.”
Washington Post Book World
“Riddle’s endeavors are worthy and worth noting.”
Next Magazine
“The timing couldn’t be more perfect for a fun and sassy new tome all about the joys of gardening.”
Publishers Weekly
An accomplished horticulturist who has written prolifically for Elle D cor and gardening publications, the author communicates his passion for his profession in this appealing memoir. It is not necessary to have an extensive knowledge of gardening to appreciate the practical advice Riddle offers. He draws on his own practice to demonstrate all aspects of garden making, from initial design to choice of plants, deployment of water and fertilizer and the use of containers. Raised in South Carolina, Riddle studied horticulture in England before eventually settling in upstate New York. For the last 10 years, he has been renting a simple bungalow with spectacular mountain views. Here he's designed a fenced kitchen garden, enclosed by sticks and filled with vegetables and flowers, a creation that has given him "more pleasure and taught me more than I ever would have imagined." Riddle effectively conveys the joys of a relatively modest lifestyle lived in the midst of great natural beauty. Interspersed are reminiscences of his beloved parents and descriptions of the gardens that impressed him as a child. He also reflects on his life as a gay man and recalls the death of a friend from complications of AIDS. Although he never came out to his parents, now deceased, Riddle is certain his mother understood and accepted his identity. Stylishly written with gentle humor, Riddle's reminiscence is, in its quiet way, inspiring. B&w illus. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Riddle, who writes the monthly column "Dean's Dirt" for Elle D cor magazine, offers an engaging and humorous memoir about his lifelong love of gardening, his appreciation for the simple things in life, and growing up gay in the rural South. Born in Mauldin, SC, Riddle was enamored of plants and nature at an early age. After a brief job at a local nursery, he studied horticulture at a small community college in North Carolina and eventually won an internship at the prestigious Hillier Nursery in England. When Riddle got the chance to create his own garden in Woodstock, NY, he filled it with the vegetables and old-fashioned annuals that had so influenced him during childhood. Though filled with useful tips on plants and design, Riddle's book is about much more than gardening. It's about discovering pleasure and beauty in life's simple things and the value of family and friends. Whether describing the hijinks of a video shoot in his garden by the B52s or extolling the virtues of a cherished vase that belonged to his mother, Riddle's prose is compulsively readable, funny, and entertaining. Recommended for public libraries. Phillip Oliver, Univ. of North Alabama Lib., Florence Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Plantsman Riddle unfolds the leisurely story of his garden's evolution-both in his mind and on the ground-in a honeyed, but never cloying, voice. Elements of memoir creep into his tale as persistently as the local volunteers who creep into his garden to soften and warm what otherwise is a history of the small garden at Riddle's Catskill home. He provides enough background material to give readers a fair image of himself, but it is his garden that gets the lion's share of attention. Riddle has a horticultural background-he studied it in college and spent a year in England at Hillier's; he writes a magazine garden column for Elle Decor; and he admits to a phase of garden snobbery: "Had you been so bold as to suggest that my future garden would include beanpoles, a birdbath, and a rubber tire planter, I would have lost my sense of humor, called you feebleminded, and pitched a fit." Of course, he loosens his corset, and they all make it into his modest garden, not as campy gestures but as endearments, and end up working for him and the space. Riddle discusses his influences, from Rosemary Verey to Russell Page; his experimentation with annuals; his use of understatement to create intimacy and charm; and the garden features-beckoning rather than overwhelming-that form a group portrait of his family and the friends who have died from AIDS. Earthbound details slow the going at times, but the sheer amount of thinking and doing will forewarn prospective gardeners of the commitment they must make to realize even a fraction of their desires. Riddle pays gardeners a high compliment: He makes you eager to get out in the garden, fill your hands with dirt, and grab the weeder with relish.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060188054
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/1/2002
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

Dean Riddle studied horticulture in England and in North Carolina. He pens a regular column, "Dean's Dirt," in Elle Décor magazine and contributes to Country Gardens and Gardens Illustrated. His gardens have been widely published in books and magazines. He lives near Phoenicia, New York. Out in the Garden is his first book.

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Read an Excerpt

Work Detail

I can't draw. When I try to draw a cow it ends up looking usedlike a piece of fungus. When I was little, My Mother used to let me dig through her pocketbook in church to find a pencil and a piece of paper so that I could doodle while the preacher droned. I drew elaborate curlicues and interlocking circles that looked okay, but they seemed so pointless. I usually gave up and went back to spinning Mama's wedding rings around on her finger. I was totally amazed when somebody once showed me how to draw a simple box. I still draw boxes on occasion, just to remind myself that I can't draw.

I have a lot of respect for professional draftsmen and good landscape architects, and I highly recommend their services for large, complex projects. But almost anyone can learn to design a simple garden on paper, breathe life into it outside, and develop his or her own work methods for planting and tending it. My approach to the practical side of gardening is far from perfect, but I get results, so I thought I would share it with you.


I've learned most of what I know about garden design on the ground and in the dirt. I don't use a computer for designing gardens, so if you're that advanced, you might want to skip this section. I also visit other gardens as much as possible, and I read, read, read. When designing a new garden, the first thing I consider is the house: I want the new garden to relate to it, be in scale with it, and respect its architectural style. Next, using ropes, sticks, or rubber hoses, I create imaginary beds and paths on the ground, to get ideas about how to shape thegarden. Once I've settled on something, I use a simple architect's scale (it's one of those doodads that looks like a three-sided ruler-very inexpensive) and a blank sheet of paper (graph paper is probably better) to create a skeleton of the garden in miniature. I rarely draw in plants, because when I do, I make a mess of my nice clean design. I simply do the drawing so that I can hold the garden in my hand, so to speak, take it out to dinner with me, and think about how to plant it -- and so that when the time comes to lay out the garden, I'll know exactly how to shape the beds and paths and what their sizes should be. Finally, using a half-moon edger -- a long-handled tool with a thin half-circle of steel on one end -- I cut the design of the garden into the ground. Then I start digging it up.


I keep my tool collection simple and never buy silly gadgets. The more uses I can find for one thing, the better. I tote my hand tools in a Martha Stewart canvas tool bag I got at Kmart for around $20. It's deep, with several pouches on the outside, a couple of pockets inside, and two strong handles. In it I keep the following essential items: a serious hammer; two steel trowels -- one wide, one narrow; a claw cultivator for breaking up crusty soil; a curved, foldable pruning saw; a Gertrude Jekyll weeding fork from Hortus Ornamenti in England; a 25-foot Stanley PowerLock tape measure with belt clip; Swiss-made Felco secateurs, the best pruning shears in the world; bonsai scissors, for flower arranging and deadheading; a ball of twine; an old kitchen knife, for disentangling rootbound plants; and a notebook and ink pen. I keep other, less frequently used items in the bag, too, like grass clippers, wire cutters, and an old spoon. And there's plenty ofroom for a bottle of water, sun screen, herbal insect repellent, and the current issue of The New Yorker.

As for large tools, less is more in my garden shed: a heavy iron rake, essential for spreading gravel and soil; a spring rake (fan-shaped, with thin metal tines) for general cleanup and smoothing new seedbeds; a Spear & Jackson border spade from England; its partner, a spading fork, for heavy weeding and turning soil; a sturdy shovel with a pointy blade;an iron pike for dislodging rocks from the soil; and my trusty half-moon edger. Other items include loppers, hedge clippers, and a pick ax. Also in the shed are various galvanized buckets and barrels and a cute broom, for sweeping the paths of the Main Garden. I have no sleek potting bench like all the catalogs try to make you believe you're supposed to have. I use the tailgate of my old Chevy pickup: it's the perfect height, it's portable, and it's easy to hose off and put away.


I don't do much mail-order shopping for plants, so I've had to find places in my area that specialize in different things. I'm extremely picky about the condition of my plants when I buy them. I've gone into greenhouses rife with aphids and white flies and walked right out the door. I never buy annuals that are terribly pot-bound; they can be stunted for life. Pot-bound perennials are a slightly different matter; most can stand up to serious root surgery, and besides, they can get on with life in the following year. When considering a b&b (balled and burlapped) tree or shrub, I grasp the root ball -- not the stem -- with both hands and gingerly rock it from side to side. If it's loose and crumbly, I don't even think about buying it. When a containerized plant appears to be pot-bound, I carefully tip it out of its pot when no one is looking to assess the situation. I reject any woody plant that has split bark or very blemished and deformed leaves. When plants, especially annuals, happen to be dry, I request that they be watered before I buy them. I actually had someone challenge me on this once: "They're fine," he said, as he stood with a watering hose in his hand. "They most certainly are not -- not in my book," I countered. He watered them. I wanted to ask to speak to his boss, but you never know when someone is having a bad day for a good reason -- like maybe his dog had run away, or his child had had her whole face pierced. It pays to be considerate. We're all in this together.


My basic planting method applies to tiny seedlings, towering trees, and everything in between. (I'm referring here only to terrestrial plants -- ones that anchor themselves in the soil and nourishment from it -- rather than epiphytes, which dwell in trees, and aquatic plants.) I do most of my planting in spring. When possible, I do it in the early morning, late afternoon, or on cool days so that plants can acclimate before the sun shows up. I never plant in muddy soil; it destroys its texture. I always water plants in their containers before planting diem. I remove unhealthy leaves, deadwood, and any weeds, taking extra care when extracting the roots of perennial weeds so that they don't regenerate. If it's a tree or shrub in leaf, I prune only lightly. Removing too much foliage before planting is a mistake; it stresses the plant by reducing its photosynthetic capacity. I dig a five-dollar hole for a half-dollar plant, mix in plenty of manure or compost, and remove the soil from the hole. If the plant is root-bound, I disentangle the roots as much as possible without cutting too many of them. I place the plant in the ground so that the top of the root ball is flush with the top of the, hole, then I firm the soil in very well to eliminate air pockets. Then I water twice. I don't tamp or press the wet soil anymore; it creates compaction.


I once heard a famous gardener say that after something is planted it should never have to be watered again, except by rain. Sorry, that doesn't work for me, Ideally, yes, a new transplant should be so well suited to its situation that it doesn't require babying to get established. I don't coddle a transplant needlessly, but if a spring drought ensues, the last thing I'm going to do is watch it wilt every day. We are usually blessed in this part of the country with ample spring rains, so I do little supplemental watering. And once spring is passed, drought or no drought, plants in the ground are pretty much on their own in my garden. But I'm lucky -- I dry at the surface, there is actually moisture down deep that the plants can absorb through osmosis. As for plants in containers. I water them only when needed, and then thoroughly, saturating the soil completely....

Out in the Garden. Copyright © by Dean Riddle. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2003

    Pictures of Dean Riddle's Garden

    Can be found in the book, Catskills Country Style by Steve Gross and Sue Daley, starting on page 119 and going through 120. The gardens are stunning and one pic shows the tire planter that he put in the middle of the garden. Also shown is the front patio he put in and the fence he built. After reading and enjoying this book so much, it really meant a lot to see these photos.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2002

    America Needs to Read This Book

    Dean Riddle's book is an antidote to the hollowness of our materialistic culture. In this book, he shows us how he found satisfaction, fulfillment and meaning in life. Living in a little house in upstate NY, Riddle sets out to create a garden and landscape his property. In each chapter, he focuses on one part of the process. He discusses his front patio area in one chapter, for example, while in another he focuses on pots--his philosophy (they should be simple, only a few of them, etc.). What this book is really about is fulfillment. Reading about the feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment that he gets from his creative gardening, one realizes he has truly discovered the secret of a meaningful life. He eschews materialism. The story of the little boy who remarked on his house gets right to the heart of the book. Despite the fact that he's discovered the meaning of life, Riddle never appears above the fray. His reaction to some stolen plants shows us he is all too human. I loved this book because it shows how true satisfaction and meaning in life come not from the "things" our culture glorifies, but from the simple act of working with nature to grow something beautiful. Cher

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2002

    Gardening with love

    This is one of the most comforting books I have ever read! Mr. Riddle gives the non-gardener a chance to experience gardening with such a passion you will honestly feel like a gardening expert! The book filled me with such a child-like wonder, that I could actually smell the flowers through the pages!

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