Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf

I’ve long been a fan of Andrea Wulf’s non-fiction. So when the follow-up to The Brother Gardener was announced in 2011, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation (it’s a mouthful!), I immediately pre-ordered a copy. Despite my initial enthusiasm, though, it sat on the shelf. In the end, it took me eight years to read, and even then I chose to listen to the audiobook.

Meticulously researched, well-written, thoughtful and rich in detail… in short, Founding Gardners is everything I’ve come to expect from Wulf. But this particular story, which she chose to put so much effort into telling, never engaged me in the same way as The Brother Gardeners. This isn’t Wulf’s fault so much as a weakness in the material. Where her first book introduced readers to the largely forgotten character of John Bartram and described his influence over gardens on both sides of the Atlantic, this new book (new being a relative term of course) goes over what is already well-covered territory. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison – these are quite famous men who have had thousands, if not millions, of pages written about them. The question becomes, is there anything new to say?

Divided into nine parts, with each part focussing on a different event in which gardening can be tied to the birth of the United States of America, Founding Gardeners makes the case that the answer to that question is a “yes!”. Wulf devotes an entire section to how Jefferson and Adam became close friends while touring gardens in England. And in another shows Jefferson betraying that friendship a few years later, rallying political support in the Northern states under the guise of touring the gardens of New England with Madison. She describes the creation of Washington, D.C., the capital city that almost wasn’t. And how George Washington wanted his gardens at Mt. Vernon to showcase plants “Made in America”. She even revisits the 1786 visit to Bartram’s garden which facilitated the founding of a nation.

All of which is very interesting, but to my mind, the true gardening gems in Founding Gardeners get much less space. For example, both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson actively procured seeds from around the world, through a variety of means, in order to make the United States agriculturally and (as a result) economically independent. Jefferson smuggled grains of rice out of Italy in 1787 at great risk. He was looking for a type of upland rice that could be grown in dry instead of flooded fields, which were often mosquito-infested and the breeding ground for malaria and yellow fever. Franklin, ever practical, “believed that the colonists’ reliance on agriculture for their main income, combined with seemingly endless resources of land, could be turned to their advantage. America could be self-reliant…” While overseas, he was constantly sending seeds back home to friends to plant and cultivate.

Every time someone told Franklin about a new edible plant, he was thrilled by the possibility of its economic potential. “I wish it may be found of Use with us”, he told one correspondent when he forwarded seeds for a new crop, and when he heard of tofu, it so excited his curiousity, he said, that he procured the recipe from China, dispatching it together with chickpeas to a friend in Philadelphia.

The pages Wulf spends on Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier are much less interesting (and more numerous) in comparison. In the United States, these three places are hallowed ground and the destination of many a school trip and/or family vacation. Maybe that’s why much of what Wulf relays about them felt “potted”, — the kinds of facts gleaned from a group tour. And not an altogether thorough one. The flaw in Founding Gardeners is that for the amount of time she spends on Monticello, Mt. Vernon and Montpelier, too little is given to exploring the role of enslaved people in the creation and maintenance of these plantations. Because, despite their pretty names, that is what they were: Southern plantations. I’ve taken the tour at Monticello, and one of the facts we learned was that Jefferson not only built his house on a hill using slave labor, but when he was short of funds he would sell the men, women, and children who lived there in order to continue the work. So, while Jefferson’s, Washington’s, and Madison’s homes are impressive in a grand way, it’s important to understand what the grandiosity cost.

I bring this up because there’s a definite unevenness in how the gardens of the Founding Fathers are discussed, with the obvious preference being given to the men from Virginia. I couldn’t help wishing for more time spent farther North in the more modest gardens of Adams and Franklin. Peacefield, Adam’s home, remains elusive even after reading the book. And Franklin’s modest Philadelphia garden is given only one paragraph in the Prologue — and for a man who we know to have been a botanist, and are told was “proud of his botanical books and enjoyed showing them to visitors” this seems like short shrift.

Overall, while it didn’t meet my expectations and I was frustrated by what I felt were significant ommissions, I did enjoy Founding Gardeners and will revisit parts of it again. The audiobook narrator, Antonia Bath, does an excellent job – but I recommend the print format in this instance. There’s a lot of information, loosely organized, that I think needs the kind of focus that comes from reading words on a page.

Title: Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation, Nature & the Shaping of the American Nation
Author: Andrea Wulf
Audiobook Narrator: Antonia Bath
Publisher: Knopf, New York (2011)

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

On her website, Mary Reynolds refers to herself as a “reformed landscape designer”. This Irish gardener, whose first Chelsea Show Garden won a gold medal in 2002 and introduced the general public to wilderness gardens, incorporates lots of dry-stacked stone, wildflower plantings, and spiral walls into designs that wouldn’t look out of place in The Shire. Her gardens have a distinctively Celtic flair. They involve a bit of whimsy and witchcraft — and are frequented by old gods and faerie folk.

The Garden Awakening: Designs to Nurture Our Land and Ourselves, was not what I expected. Coming fresh off of Penelope Lively’s book of essays, Life In the Garden, I was looking for more of the same… but perhaps with a little more practical information thrown in. And I suppose, in a sense, that is exactly what I got. But Reynolds employs a holistic approach to gardening, often using spiritual language when writing about nature. I had a hard time connecting with statements like the following —

… we are losing what few wild places we have left; those patches where the spirits of the earth are flowing freely, where harmony and balance still exist, and we feel accepted for the truth of who we are. We have strayed off course and need to find our way again.

Reynolds goes on to explain we need to invite Nature (always with a capital N) back into the garden, and “allow her to express her true self in these spaces and then work to heal the land”. And though I’ve taken some of her quotes out of their original context to give a sense of the overall romantic flavor of the prose, let’s be clear — Reynolds isn’t writing this way for poetic effect. She insists her clients sit in their garden and connect with the “life force in nature” prior to planning. She is adamant a gardener’s first responsibility is to heal the land and, in order to do this, we need to form a bond with it.

Land creates a bond with people who work with it. If this bond is formed and then the land is ignored, damage is sure to follow — the same as it would for a child. Today, much of the land feels forgotten. It has retreated into itself because we don’t believe in it or don’t notice it anymore. We only seem to take notice of uncultivated places, which have no bond with us and no need for us. These are what I call lost opportunities. Your land is like a member of your family. It can form a bond with you but it won’t unless you develop the relationship together. The quality of the relationship will determine the strength and quality of the bond.

It all sounds a little hippie-dippy, I know. But as I delved deeper into the book I found myself agreeing more and more with what Reynolds had to say. I now count myself among the converted.

More than just philosophy, The Garden Awakening contains a wealth of practical information on topics like cultivating a forest garden, an idea/version of gardening which was entirely new to me. This is an old form of agriculture which incorporates tree canopies into the garden design. It’s a garden built in layers, — the tall-tree layer, low-tree layer, shrub layer, herb layer, etc. This type of system allows you to create and control the microclimate of your little ecosystem to a certain extent, as well as encouraging fertility in the soil. And if you have a small garden, like me, and are wondering if it will work for you — I can attest from my own small experiments that it’s surprisingly scalable.

From Mary Reynolds’ website.

Reynolds has other surprises. There are, of course, the obligatory charts of plants and where best to use them. But she also gives advice on reintroducing microorganisms into your soil, creating swales for drainage and water conservation, using seed balls to plant, and — my personal favorite — building Hugelkultur raised beds. Hugelkultur is another agricultural system that, like most of the ideas Reynold’s advocates, is centuries old. And surprisingly simple. It involves mounding woody branches, twigs, and logs, then covering the mound with soil. You plant directly into/onto the mound. The slow decomposition of the wood underneath keeps the soil layer fertile for years. It’s a reportedly excellent method for growing vegetables. I’m thinking of attempting one next year.

And that’s the beauty of this book. It is filled with ideas that are easy and interesting. And directs the reader to additional resources. Reynolds peppers her explanations with the titles of books which influenced her – like the Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Gardening. It’s a name I was already vaguely familiar with: Fukuoka’s seedballs have inspired a generation of Gorilla Gardeners.

In the end, and despite a rocky start, The Garden Awakening has genuinely transformed my relationship with my own front and back yards. Mary Reynolds knows her stuff. There’s also a film – Dare To Be Wild – about the Chelsea show garden I mentioned at the beginning of this review. It looks like a silly romance rather than a documentary… but based on my experience with The Garden Awakening, it too might just be filled with surprises.

Title: The Garden Awakening - Designs to Nurture Our Land & Ourselves
Author: Mary Reynolds
Publisher: Green Books/UIT Cambridge Ltd. (Cambridge, 2016)
ISBN: 978-0857843135

Return to GhostTown Farm

The San Francisco Chronical published this article on April 19, 2019 under the headline: Did Rising Rents Kill the Bay Area’s Urban Homesteading Movement? by Samantha Nobles-Black. The final two paragraphs give an update on Novella Carpenter, whose Farm City: The Education of An Urban Farmer had a huge impact on me when I reviewed it back in 2009. More than any other book, it was responsible for triggering my nascent desire to cultivate a garden.

Novella now teaches at the University of San Francisco and leases what was once GhostTown Farm to “a group growing herbs from the African diaspora”. She tells Nobles-Black “The urban farming movement isn’t about ‘Hey, look what I’m doing by myself in my own backyard’ anymore…”. A statement which both is and isn’t true.

2019 marks a decade from when Urban Homesteading was at the height of its popularity, and by popularity, I mean “peak media attention”. But it’s still very much alive today as a movement, albeit with a more environmental slant. Scroll through Instagram or check out Pinterest and you’ll see thousands of people who still grow and preserve their own food, do handicrafts, and raise livestock (bees and chickens remain very popular). There’s a drive towards self-sufficiency and a repudiation of the consumer lifestyle. The #zerowaste movement/hashtag is a good (if hyper-photogenic) example of how the movement has evolved and branched out.

You can read my 2010 review of Farm City here. Below is an excerpt.


Farm City is divided into three parts  – TurkeyRabbit and Pig.  By the time I finished Turkey I realized that not only was I comfortable with what Carpenter was doing, I’d come to better understand my earlier aversion to it.  In my mind the butchering of animals was associated with crowded livestock trucks passed on the highway.  Novella Carpenter provides a better example, a more humane and a more responsible one.  She defines animal sacrifice in the form of honey stolen from bees or meat butchered from a pig.  These animals have been given a fair trade – food, care and comfortable lives.  The farmer has earned her meal through caring for them… and worked hard doing it.

Caring for livestock is no easy feat.  Caring for livestock on the small plot of land in Oakland, California that she has named Ghost Town Farm should be listed among the labors of Hercules.  Escapee pigs and turkeys headed for the highway, packs of stray dogs, vegetarian neighbors and the constant threat of having her farm replaced by condos – Novella Carpenter encounters obstacles Laura Ingalls Wilder never dreamed of.

Revisiting May Sarton – Plant Dreaming Deep: A Journal

Now I’m no longer a judge and my reading life has gone back to normal, I’ve been catching up on a backlog of reading. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with gardening. This isn’t entirely new. I posted a month-long series back in 2009 (the year this blog started) on gardening books, though my focus back then was on vegetable gardening. These days, while I have reintroduced the veg patch to our backyard, my interest is more environmental. There’s this whole movement towards nature and wildlife gardening, I love the idea of creating green, wildlife corridors in urban and suburban settings. But I’m also interested in ornamental garden designs – like the gardens Monty Don and his co-hosts explore weekly on Gardeners World.

So, over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about nature and gardens. Of course, there will be some translations in there, and I’ll also be including some novels (and an essay on a certain television show) that, as a gardener, I find inspirational. In celebration of ten years of blogging, I’ll also be linking back to those early reviews, with some judicious editing.


I first read May Sarton in high school. Journal of a Solitude was given to me by my friend Martha, whose children I met first and friendship I matured into. Sarton is a novelist, poet, and memoirist. I imagine she won’t be to everyone’s taste… her poetry is (in my opinion) unreadable. I’ve never been interested in her novels. But in her writings about her day-to-day life and the connections she felt to the places she lived, I’ve found valuable lessons on aging and nurturing one’s sense of self as a creative person.

Plant Dreaming Deep: A Journal was written from c. 1958 to 1973. It immediately precedes Journal of a Solitude in the string of journals Sarton kept and published until her death. (The last, released posthumously in 1995, was called Coming Into Eighty). She was in her mid-forties at the time she wrote Plant Dreaming Deep and purchased the house in Nelson, New Hampshire with the inheritance left to her by her parents. This book is a tribute to that time and place in her life.

Is there anything better than reading about the creation of a home and/or garden? As a child and young woman I spent hours pouring over Laura Ingalls Wilder’s descriptions of the many homes her mother made for their itinerant family; and the room Rose’s uncle and guardian furnished for her, designed to help her heal after losing both parents, in Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins (a novel ripe for adaptation); and I still return to those brilliant descriptions of the Glass family’s Manhattan apartment in Franny and Zooey. I would overlay visions of these mostly fictional places onto my own living circumstances, whatever they were at the time. But it was Sarton’s story which made me realize that there are joys in living alone, not least being the opportunity to shape your home and garden to your own specifications.

From the beginning, Sarton knew that the house in Nelson was a place where she could write. And though she frequently entertained, it remained her sanctuary for over a decade. Having to only please herself, she carefully and thoughtfully planned her new home around the furniture her parents had brought with them from Belgium: cupboards, tables, and chairs she’d kept in storage for years in anticipation. In prose which wraps around the reader like a cozy cocoon, she describes how the New England light plays over her treasures, writing so vividly you can imagine the dust motes gently settling over them. While the house in Nelson isn’t necessarily the home of my dreams or one that would be featured on some shelter website like The Remodelista, the deliberateness of Sarton’s process — her complete disinterest in trends and fashion — is inspirational. Roses Uniake and Tarlow would love her, I think.

But Sarton’s real passion lay in the land and garden which surround the house. She writes about gardening as a collaborative endeavor. Hers incorporated the suggestions of friends, memories of her mother’s garden, the labors of Perley Cole who worked for… really collaborated with… Sarton for over a decade. Every plant, rock, and tree has a memory and meditation attached to it. She zooms in on some small detail and imbues it with significance.

Celine’s intoxicating energy pours out in a hundred directions, noticing everything that needed to be done, making suggestions, and more often than not carrying them out herself before I knew what was happening. She had seen a long piece of granite lying at the edge of the rough grass which I called “the lawn.” Why not bring it up and set it in below the granite step at the front door? “It would make a little more of an entrance, don’t you think?” That she could not do herself, but it was her idea, and it looks exactly as she thought it would.

I don’t know a lot about Sarton’s writing process. I’ve avoided her biography because, from the little I’ve read, she was not an easy person to be around. (To quote Martha, who has read Sarton’s bio, “She was a bitch!”) But it’s obvious these journal entries have been heavily edited and revised, lovingly crafted into personal essays, for publication. The language is too precise and perfect. Her thoughts too well organized.  There are themes that expand beyond the confines of the individual chapters and overflow into the other volumes. Sarton, better than any writer I’ve encountered, conveys the sense that a garden is a place outside of time. This is something that took me a long time to learn. For a new gardener, and I speak primarily of myself, every plant is precious. We worry too much about doing irreparable harm. Sarton, an old hand, understood the rhythms and cycles of the garden. She embraced the eternal question of whether to tend or to let nature take over. “That is what the gardener often forgets. To the flowers, we never have to say good-bye forever. We grow older every year, but not the garden; it is reborn every spring.”

What would she think of 2019, almost three-quarters of a century on, and how social media and IG hashtags have come to define the way we interact with the world.

Plant Dreaming Deep isn’t a book for the gardener in search of practical tips and applications. Rather it’s a reminder of why we garden. And that gardening is essentially land stewardship (a phrase that is currently very on trend). Perley Cole, who I mentioned earlier and who Sarton valued so much she felt he merited an entire chapter all his own, is “an apparition from another age, an age when a workman still had the time and patience and the wish to do a patient, perfect job”.  He proudly scythes her field by hand and refuses to use lawn mowers. Sarton explains that Perley’s “domain is the woods and field; mine is the garden proper.” Thanks to Perley she, who loved flowers so much she planted a cutting garden to keep the house in arrangements throughout the year, learned to appreciate the beauty of the views Cole created through his “tidying up” of her property.

In these last years Perley has been getting rid of bracken and brush to clear out the whole hillside below the garden, and so set off the stone wall and the big trees at its foot. He has pruned out around a single birch, the only one I can see from the house, so that the elegant white figure stands out at the end of one meadow.

Routine and rituals. Completing the task at hand. Embracing Imperfection. I’m roughly the same age as Sarton was when she kept her journal. And reading from the present, something I become more conscious of as I grow older, I remember that these essays are coming to us from a different era… almost a different eon. Plastics, as we know them, went mainstream in the mid-’50s, roughly about when Sarton began writing Plant Dreaming Deep. Household televisions were still a novelty, she never mentions whether she owns one. Cellphones, email, and wi-fi were the stuff of science fiction. What would she think of 2019, almost three-quarters of a century on, and how social media and IG hashtags have come to define the way we interact with the world. Perley Cole would be horrified, I’m sure.

Sarton reminds us, (completely incidentally, for how would she have even imagined the world we live in today?) to value the process – the LABOR – over some fleeting moment of perfection captured and put on display for the world. Sarton, being the poet she was, recognized that life in the garden was and remains an excellent metaphor for life lived outside of it.

Title:  Plant Dreaming Deep: A Journal
Author: May Sarton
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393315516

Happy Independence Day America!

It’s that time of year again – when we in the United States celebrate those men who committed (in the immortal words of Nicholas Cage) high treason against the King of England.  In their honor, in honor of the fourth and in lieu of the ubiquitous fireworks image –  here are 4 non-fiction books about the Great Republic that have lingered on my TBR pile despite the fact that I’ve been dying to read them.  (International Lit, you are a harsh mistress!).  Click on the covers to find out more.

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