Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life
The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales
by Marta McDowell
As one who was familiar with Beatrix Potter’s tales of Benjamin Bunny and Jemima Puddleduck, both from my childhood and that of my children (our younger daughter’s nickname was Hunca Munca), I had an interest in reading about the author of the beloved children’s books. As a gardener, it sealed the deal that I would read Marta McDowell’s new book, as Beatrix Potter was also that.
In Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, we learn how Ms. Potter’s world became part of her masterpieces of children’s literature. Not only did she put pen to paper in word form, she was an accomplished artist and illustrated her books with watercolors, depicting her characters in surroundings that give us a glimpse into the natural world around her.
This is a biography and though the first part of the book sets the stage for Potter’s career as an author, it was “Part Two: The Year in Beatrix Potter’s Gardens” that I enjoyed the most. The prose is lyrical and delightful and before I knew it, I’d gleaned some gardening gems and had a real feel for who Beatrix Potter really was.
McDowell no doubt knew that by this time, she had whet the reader’s appetite enough that a natural curiosity would be to want to see Ms. Potter’s gardens for themselves. In “Part Three: Visiting Beatrix Potter’s Gardens,” she imparts helpful information to do so, gently revealing how the gardens have changed over the years, so as to help visitors not be disappointed if they aren’t exactly as the original. Gardens change, even when the same gardener is in charge, but to see the scenes where Peter Rabbit and Tom Kitten played their lives out alongside their creator would still be thrilling.
And just for fun, the plants that appear in each book are listed in a chart at the end by common and botanical names, showing just how much Beatrix Potter’s garden was a part of her life. This is not an historical novel with a plot, but neither is it a mere documentary of facts. It is the perfect blend of both.
Marta McDowell lives, gardens, and writes in Chatham, New Jersey. 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. Marta’s particular interest is in authors and their gardens, the connection between the pen and the trowel. Her first book, Emily Dickinson’s Gardens: A Celebrations of a Poet and Gardener, was published in 2005. She is an active member of The Beatrix Potter Society.