Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life

beatrix-potter-gardening-lifeLike millions of others, as a child, I grew up with Beatrix Potter’s books. In turn I read them to my children and duly took them to Hill Top to see for themselves the garden, where many of her ideas were to originate.

Surprisingly, very little has been written about her love of gardening and plants and so ‘Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life’ by Marta McDowell is timely and welcome.

It is an engaging and delightfully illustrated book which takes you on a personal journey, tracing the developments and eventual blossoming of Potter’s life as a gardener, from her childhood interest in plants through to her development as an accomplished artist to her final years as a farmer and naturalist.

She was such an accomplished artist that she might well have become an illustrator of botanical books but fortunately for the millions of her devoted fans life took another path. One of the strengths of her books were her illustrations, which were inspired by the many gardens she was familiar with over her life.

When Beatrix signed on with Warne to publish the commercial edition of her book, she worried about the “uninteresting colour” of a good many of the subjects. The problem was solved by her adding flowers – so we find orange Nasturtiums blooming outside the potting shed and the potted red geraniums which Peter manages to knock from a windowsill.

For me those delightful illustrations are a special part of Beatrix Potter’s and Marta has carefully woven many of them into her book as well as pictures of Beatrix at various stages of her life and the holiday homes she would have known on her trips to the Lake District. There are also a number of drawings and sketches made by Beatrix at different stages of her life which are interesting.

When she started gardening at Hill Top, a garden which was to be just the start of her horticultural passion, she went to Mawson Brothers Nurseries in Windermere for her plants.

Her plant knowledge was clearly extensive but like many a compulsive gardener she garnered her plants from friends and family – pass-along plants, taken from other gardens. We can all identify with this mania for collecting and dividing plants which take our fancy and no doubt we can all be honest and say there have been occasions when we have “appropriated” the odd cutting from a garden on the quiet.

We are told that her cousin Edith gave her “some bits” of a tiny saxifrage and her gardening mentor, Mrs Satterthwaite, “white rock” (aubrieta). It appears Beatrix was as shy of Latin names as I am myself.

There is no doubt that her books brought her out of her shell and certainly with her publisher, F. Warne & Co., she could be assertive. There is no doubt too, that gardening helped her with her grief after the death of Norman Warne.

The book is divided into three parts – part one is a gardener’s biography of Beatrix; part two follows her through a year in her gardens and part three is a traveller’s guide to lure readers to rediscover Beatrix Potter’s Lake District and the landscapes she knew so well.

There is also an extensive list of plants Beatrix grew in her gardens and a list of the plants she used in her books, showing whether they appear in the text or as art, or both.

I really enjoyed reading this book as Marta brings Beatrix and her love of plants alive. As I live in the Lake District it is quite easy for me to be familiar with those landscapes and gardens, however, for the reader who is not familiar with them, the book will provide the inspiration and jumping off point to go out and discover more.

Marta McDowell lives, gardens and writes in Chatham, New Jersey. She teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where she studied landscape design. Her particular interest is in authors and their gardens – ‘the connection between the pen and the trowel’.

By revealing this neglected aspect of Beatrix Potter’s life, the author paints a more complete portrait that will deepen the reader’s appreciation of Beatrix both as a writer, artist and gardener.

‘Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life’ by Marta McDowell is published by Timber Press, in hardback at £16.99.

Reckless Gardener Magazine