Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children's Tales

Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children's Tales

by Marta McDowell
Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children's Tales

Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children's Tales

by Marta McDowell


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A New York Times Bestseller

There aren’t many books more beloved than The Tale of Peter Rabbit and even fewer authors as iconic as Beatrix Potter. Her characters—Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle Duck, and all the rest—exist in a charmed world filled with flowers and gardens. In Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, bestselling author Marta McDowell explores the origins of Beatrix Potter’s love of gardening and plants and shows how this passion came to be reflected in her work.

The book begins with a gardener’s biography, highlighting the key moments and places throughout her life that helped define her. Next, follow Beatrix Potter through a year in her garden, with a season-by-season overview of what is blooming that truly brings her gardens alive. The book culminates in a traveler’s guide, with information on how and where to visit Potter’s gardens today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604693638
Publisher: Timber Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/05/2013
Pages: 340
Sales rank: 130,965
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Marta McDowell’s writing has appeared in The New York TimesWoman’s Day, Country Gardening, and elsewhere. Her previous books include Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, All the Presidents’ Gardens, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life, and Unearthing The Secret Garden. She consults for public gardens and private clients, writes and lectures on gardening topics, and teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where she studied landscape design. She lives, writes, and gardens in Chatham, New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

First, a confession. I did not read Beatrix Potter as a child. In fact, I learned about Peter Rabbit from a knockoff of sorts. The spoiled youngest of four, I would steadily pester my mother for books on outings to Woolworths, and one day she bought me a shiny-covered Golden Book called Little Peter Cottontail by Thornton W. Burgess. Its naughty rabbit cavorted in wildflowers and visited a farm, but never found Mr. McGregor’s garden. My introduction to Beatrix Potter came much later in life.

In 1981, at a shower celebrating my upcoming nuptials, someone gave me a large cookie jar in the shape of a bonneted, apron-bedecked “porcupine” holding an iron. Wedding showers are awkward at best, particularly for learning about famous characters from childhood literature that one has somehow, in two-plus decades of life, managed to miss. What did I say when opening this gift in front of a sizeable, entirely female audience of friends, family, and future relations? That memory is lost. I have also repressed the identity of the gift-giver. Neither the Mrs. Tiggy-winkle cookie jar (a hedgehog, if you please) nor the marriage lasted long.

Fast-forward to 1997, when I set off with my second (and last) husband and two aged parents for a tour of Scotland and the Lake District. William Wordsworth was on our agenda. His homes, Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, are both near Grasmere and not far from Windermere, where we were staying. And what of Beatrix Potter, that children’s author and artist?

Our visit to Hill Top Farm, Miss Potter’s beloved home on the other side of Windermere, turned out to be a highlight. For one thing, the sun came out that afternoon after a week of Scotland in the rain. (My mother, who had brought only one pair of shoes—my father would blow dry them for her every night in our B&B—was especially grateful.) The Hill Top garden was at its August peak; the tour was engaging.

I learned that day that Beatrix Potter was a gardener. I garden, though some days I feel that I do most of my gardening at the keyboard. I am intrigued by writers who garden and by gardeners who write. The pen and the trowel are not interchangeable, but seem often linked. Emily Dickinson, poet and gardener, has long been an obsession of mine. Edith Wharton interests me, and Jane Austen, both novelists with a gardening bent. I once read all of Nathaniel Hawthorne, winnowing his words for horticultural references. Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West also oblige. And now there was Beatrix Potter.

So Beatrix Potter and the idea of her garden simmered quietly at the back of my mind. Over the years I saw some of Potter’s marvelous botanical watercolors at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. Miss Potter, a Hollywood film, came and went. An adroit article by Peter Parker appeared in the gardening journal Hortus. But one day at the New York Botanical Garden shop, two books lay side by side on a display table: a new edition of Potter’s The Complete Tales and Linda Lear’s biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. The simmer turned to a boil.

A few explanatory notes. You may be relieved or perturbed, depending on your druthers, that I have avoided botanical names in most of the book. Beatrix was not impressed with gardener’s Latin, so I have bowed to her feelings on the matter. For those of you who are looking for these particulars, you will find lists of the plants she grew, wrote about, and illustrated, including their proper nomenclature, at the end of the book. Her grammar, punctuation, and spelling were loose, particularly in her letters, but they are reproduced as she wrote them. I would encourage you to have copies of her Tales at hand. The stories with their illustrations are a joy to read. They will increase your understanding of both Beatrix Potter and her gardens.

Part One is a gardener’s biography of Beatrix Potter. In terms of her own name, I must beg her pardon on two counts. First, for taking the liberty of referring to her by her Christian name, I plead twenty-first-century customs. Second, during her married years I have generally stuck to her maiden name rather than switching to her preferred “Mrs. Heelis.” As she continued to use Potter professionally throughout her life, she would, I think, understand that it is by that name that we continue to know her best.

Part Two follows Beatrix Potter through a year in her gardens. When she lived with her husband at Castle Cottage, it is not always clear whether she and her correspondents are discussing the garden there or across the road at Hill Top Farm. So in describing the progress of her gardens through the seasons I hope I will be forgiven for smudging the lines a bit, as her efforts and enjoyment encompassed both.

Part Three is a traveler’s guide, intended as a lure to discover or rediscover Beatrix Potter’s Lake District and the other parts of Great Britain that influenced her. The gardens at Hill Top Farm alone would merit a visit, and there are many other gardens and landscapes that still have echoes of her.

Table of Contents

Preface 9

Part 1 Beatrix Potter, Her Life as a Gardener 14

Germination 18

Offshoots 37

Flowering 55

Roots 80

Ripening 105

Setting Seed 122

Part 2 The Year in Beatrix Potter's Gardens 144

Winter 148

Spring 168

Summer 198

Autumn 230

Part 3 Visiting Beatrix Potter's Gardens 254

Beatrix Potter's Plants 288

Notes & Further Reading 308

Photography & Illustration Sources & Credits 322

Acknowledgments 325

Index 328

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