Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: Book Review

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Count me among the legion of Beatrix Potter’s fans. I love the illustrations in her children’s books, and just as much–perhaps more–I love the language of those stories. It pleased my childish ear–and still does today–that the “friendly sparrows,” overhearing Peter’s sobs, “implored him to exert himself.” And that Mr. McGregor “came up with a sieve, which he intended to pop upon the top of Peter”–all those p sounds are so much fun to read aloud! As an adult reading to my own children, I noted with a gardener’s satisfaction that those illustrations were botanically and horticulturally accurate. The plants had dimension and detail, and no plants are ever seen blooming together that would not be seen doing so in England.

Garden path at Beatrix Potter's garden, Hill Top Farm

This recent photo of the garden path at Hill Top looks remarkably like the scene where Alexander follows the policeman in The Tale of Pigling Bland. ©Photography by Ward. Taken from p. 165 of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life© Copyright 2013 by Marta McDowell. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

After reading Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales by Marta McDowell, it’s easy to see why that would be so. McDowell traces Potter’s life through the gardens she visited as a child through early adulthood. Beatrix was developing her observational skills as a naturalist and an artist, and the plentiful illustrations enable you to see her talents developing.

The success of her first several children’s books enabled Potter to buy her first farm, Hill Top. Here her horticultural interests were finally permitted full sway. Beatrix Potter was fully involved in the operation of her farms and tended the gardens herself. Using Potter’s letters and other research, McDowell relates the creation of the gardens at Hill Top Farm, and Potter’s subsequent purchase of other land in the area, in order to preserve it as farmland. Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is illustrated on every page with scenes from Potter’s life and her botanical illustrations. My favorites are those which show a photograph of a building and Beatrix’s sketch of it, or an original sketch of hers and the same sketch worked into an illustration for one of her stories.

Tower Bank Arms from Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life

The Tower Bank Arms is next door to Hill Top, and looks the same as it did in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, except there is no longer a horse and cart parked out front. ©Marta McDowell Taken from p. 266 of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life© Copyright 2013 by Marta McDowell. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

After the first section sketching the highlights of Potter’s life, there is a second section tracing the seasons her garden, and a third section with information on visiting many of the gardens mentioned. What makes this book so satisfying is that it is well-integrated into the social and political history of Potter’s time. You understand when Beatrix was following convention and when and how she was defying it. You come to understand that hers was not a fairy tale life, that she faced plenty of sorrow before achieving a measure of personal happiness and the accomplishment of some strongly-prized goals. The focus is on gardening, but it is not in isolation from the rest of her life or the times in which she lived.

If you love gardening, you will love this book, even if–somehow–you’ve managed to grow up without ever reading one of Beatrix Potter’s books. But if that’s the case, I suggest you read at least one of her books first. You’ve been missing a real treat. And if you are already a fan, check out Matt Mattus’ list of Gardening Gifts, Beatrix Potter Style.

I received a review copy of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life from Timber Press. The book was free, but the opinions are my own. I am an Amazon affiliate and if you visit Amazon by clicking a link on my site and then buy something (anything), I receive a small commission.

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.

In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.

~Margaret Atwood in

5 Comments… add one

Nikki December 14, 2013, 2:25 am

This sounds great! I’ll have to try to track down a copy – thanks for the review!

Jenny December 11, 2013, 2:10 pm

This book sounds amazing, I will have to have it for Christmas! Amazon, here I go!

Dee Nash (@reddirtramblin) December 11, 2013, 10:31 am

Count me in as one of the legion of Potter’s fans. I bought this book sometime ago, and I’m excited to read more of it. Even more so now that I saw your review. Thanks Kathy.

Gail December 11, 2013, 9:05 am

Kathy, What a charming review, I want to rush out and buy the book right now!

Carol - May Dreams Gardens December 10, 2013, 10:30 pm

I’m reading the book now and loving it. It is well-written and full of interesting tidbits.

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