Review of A Year at North Hill

– Posted in: Book reviews, From my files

Since I’m trying to not overdo it in the typing department, I thought I’d dig through my files and serve up some of my earlier writing. In 1995 I had the opportunity to review A Year at North Hill for Fine Gardening magazine. This is not that review, which was published in the November 1995 issue. This is my first draft, which I had to trim down to under 300 words for the magazine. You should note that while I reviewed the hardcover version, only the paperback (pictured) is still in print.

A Year at North Hill : Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden, by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd. Paperback: Owl Books, 1996, 224 pp. (ISBN: 0805046143). Hardcover: Little, Brown, and Company, 1995, 214 pp. (ISBN: 0316209163).

“I find that gardening books generally fall into two broad categories: the practical and the inspirational. A Year at North Hill, though filled with nuggets of advice, falls squarely in the latter category. The book is a tour of the authors’ garden through the four seasons, and what a garden it is! Located in the warmer part of USDA Hardiness Zone 4, five of their twenty-four acres are under cultivation, encompassing a diverse range of plants from bog to alpine scree. And lest you fear yawning through the snow-laden winter months, Eck and Winterrowd have invested in a winter garden, essentially a conservatory, whose frost-tender delights ease their–and the reader’s–endurance of the darkest and otherwise most inactive season of the gardening year.”

“Experienced gardeners will be immediately gratified by the description of so many unusual and little-known plants, but this is a book that novices can grow into as well. Learning to live with the land you’ve got, turning disadvantages (such as poorly draining soil) into advantages, coping with the predations of rodents and deer–these lessons and many others weave through the book, to the benefit of beginner and master alike. Those playing the “hardiness game” will find numerous strategies for siting plants, and southerners are not left completely “out in the cold”–many plants from warmer climates are discussed in the chapters about the winter garden and the greenhouse.”

“The most frustrating aspect of the book is that because the garden is so big it is hard to get a sense of it as a whole. Two things contribute to the problem. First, though there is a map of the garden on the endpapers [hardcover only], it isn’t labeled. By carefully studying the photographs and paying attention to the descriptions in the text of various locations, you eventually figure out where almost everything is. But it could have been a lot easier. Secondly, though the photographs are sharp and well composed, they are often close-ups of individual plants or plant compositions. More wide-angle and long range shots would have helped convey the sense of actually being in the garden.”

“These men are gardening fanatics, and if you are not, you will probably lose patience with them–with the time and money they have lavished on their five acres, and with the extraordinary measures they take to protect their garden from the ravages of winter. For me, reading this book was as if I had been living in a foreign country for many years, and had unexpectedly found someone who spoke my native tongue. The authors have accurately and poetically captured not only the changing seasons, but the way those seasons feel to a gardener: the delights and conflicts, the problems and pleasures that planning, tending, and living with a garden evoke. No other book I have read has done that as well.”

Addendum: It’s still my favorite garden book of all time. Since each chapter corresponds to a month, I often open the book up planning to read only the current month’s chapter, but inevitably wind up reading a good portion of the book, if not all of it.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

~Albert Camus in Albert Camus quotations

Comments on this entry are closed.

Ann K. Williams September 6, 2005, 12:31 pm

Thanks for the review. Actually, I read it the 1st time! One of my all-time favorites is Wayne Winterrowd’s ‘Annuals for Connoisseurs’. Now that we’ve moved from NC (Z. 7b) to ME (Z. 5, or so ‘they’ say—more like Z. 4 to me), I’ll have to go back to ‘A Year At North Hill’, as it is suddenly more pertinent! Ann

Don March 6, 2005, 7:09 pm

I haven’t read it, but I’ve got a Sister-in-law who has a world class garden in Marin County, and she was complaining that her meconopsis seedlings got damping off last year, so I maybe don’t need to read it; I’m living it!

Kathy March 5, 2005, 5:26 pm

Did you ever read his essay “Meconopsis” in Jamaica Kincaid’s _My Favorite Plant_? Basically, he said “poor me, I garden in such a cold climate,” when you know he was really saying “Ha ha ha I can grow meconopsis and you can’t.” It was extremely well done.

Don March 3, 2005, 4:03 pm

I’ve got Living Seasonally, but am not really a vegy sort of guy (don’t eat them that well, let alone read about them).Now if they had a home brewery or a pizza bakery as a sideline they wanted to write a book about, I might be interested.

Chan S. March 2, 2005, 1:07 pm

No rush, Kathy. ;D … As you know, I can well sympathize with the “time” thing. I am falling behind in even *reading* the gardening books that I have been meaning to get to for (mumble, mumble) let’s just say a long time now. Cheers!

Kathy March 1, 2005, 9:03 pm

Don, in case you weren’t joking: I have absolutely no influence at all with Messrs Winterrowd and Eck; they don’t even know I exist. However, are you aware that they did write a second book, Living Seasonally? It focuses more on the vegetable growing and animal raising parts of their operation. I’m with you–I could stand another book from them that would bring us up to date and maybe share some of their designs for other peoples’ gardens.

When the Bookish Gardener tells you to write more book reviews, it behooves you to listen. Chan, I’ll try to oblige, but lack of time does restrain me.

Chan S. March 1, 2005, 1:51 pm

What Don said. And: this is a wonderful book review, Kathy. More, please.

Don February 28, 2005, 9:26 pm

It’s my favorite book also, second only to Elizabeth Lawrence’s The Little Bulbs. I agree there are few books that put you in the garden as well as North Hill. I know the guys have been very busy with their writing as it is, but why don’t you talk them into publishing another book about their garden… as well as the first sold, there would certainly be a market, and the additional knowledge they must have gained over the years must be awesome. I agree I’d like to see a lot more mid-range photos of the garden, and I’d like to hear about their interaction with gardeners from all over the world that have visited them. Use your influence, Kathy.