Digging Deep: Book Review and Giveaway

– Posted in: Book reviews

I planted my first garden by the book. Actually, I consulted several books, obsessing over plant heights, color palettes, bloom times and more over the winter as I designed and redesigned my garden on paper. I wanted to do it “right”: prepare the soil right, choose the plants right, arrange them right, plant them right, and maintain them right. Yes, I wanted to be right.

When we moved here in October 2011, I did not spend the winter obsessing over garden design. Nope. I was busy unpacking. And in the spring, I found I wasn’t at all worried about getting it right. I didn’t look at one book, or magazine, or website. I just walked around the yard in a kind of dreaming state, and listened to my inner voice. The design of my new garden was a puzzle that my subconscious solved, piece by piece, as I wandered around the yard, sometimes carrying the plant I wanted to place.

What made the difference? Oh . . . about twenty years. And a lot of mistakes.

If you would like to shorten the learning curve from gardening as intellectual exercise to gardening as creative endeavor, I suggest you read Fran Sorin’s new edition of Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening. Fran has spent decades helping clients tap into their deepest desires for their gardens, and helping countless more through workshops and presentations.

Most people don’t start out thinking of gardening as a creative act. It’s more like exterior decorating to them. In her book, Fran gives the example of one man who requested a garden of clipped boxwoods, a “tasteful” fountain, and a stone terrace where he would entertain guests. Then, almost as an aside, he said if it were up to him, he’d rather have a treehouse and a baseball field. He was requesting a garden designed to meet his perception of what a garden ought to be like, instead of viewing it as a chance to express his inner, child-like self.

Not all of us want a treehouse. Some just want a little privacy, but can’t see how to get it with their current yard. Fran herself was stumped by a steep slope in her backyard.

slope with retaining wall

This slope stumped Fran for years. (Photo courtesy Fran Sorin.)

It wasn’t until she saw this image that she realized what her land needed.
House & Garden cover

This magazine cover showing a terraced garden created by Gertrude Jekyll inspired a complete redesign of Fran’s yard. (Photo courtesy Fran Sorin)

As she told me in an email, “The photo from House and Garden magazine of an old Gertrude Jekyll garden was my inspiration. This was after spending a few years of meeting with landscape architects and designers trying to configure how to take this aberrant sloping piece of land and turn it into a magnificent garden. When I saw that photo, it was ‘bam!’…that’s it. I can correct 3 levels of separate gardens in my backyard.” She had to hold onto that vision during months of chaos and confusion.
big mound of dirt

It had to get worse before it got better.

“The construction and tons of dirt being moved was the metaphor for ‘digging deep’. For me, it took a tremendous amount of courage to be able to do this…to trust my instincts enough…to literally have what was there dug up and tons of dirt taken away….and start from scratch.”
final project years later

Eventually the new stonework looked like it had always been there.

To be clear, Digging Deep is not a how-to book. You won’t learn rules for designing your own garden. What you will learn is how to listen to your creative side–the left side of your brain, if you will–to come up with a garden that reflects who you are and what truly pleases you. Fran refers to the beginnings of her own garden throughout the book, so I asked her for some pictures to illustrate the changes that took place. The redesign of her own garden led to a new career designing gardens for others and eventually even as gardening correspondent for several media channels. She has found that the process of “digging deep” to design their own gardens has been many clients’ catalyst for change in other areas of their lives as well.

I’ve learned a lot of what Fran teaches in her book on my own. I had to overcome fear of failure before I could even begin to garden. As a mother of many young children, I was sure the garden would get away from me and turn into a weedy mess. I don’t know what gave me the courage to start, but I did. And you know what? The garden did get away from me, several times. Goldenrod took over the front garden. The Juneberry bed regularly got swamped. And I often had to resort to triage weeding. But even though my garden frequently looked like a failure, year after year, I was learning more about plants and gardening through it all. And it took a long time, but it’s what enabled me to just “know” where a plant should go in my current garden.

Are you still trying to garden “by the book,” or do you find yourself worrying more about what other folks think about your garden than what inspires you? Read Digging Deep and start on your own creative journey!

The Giveaway Details

One commenter chosen at random will receive a copy of Digging Deep. Fran and I would love to hear how gardening has made you aware of your creativity, but any remarks on topic would be welcome, including “count me in” or “I’d love to win”. Make sure you include your email address in the comment form, as that is how you will be notified if you are chosen. The giveaway will run until Sunday, September 25, 2016 at 10:00pm. The giveaway is over and comments are closed. Kimberly Laird was chosen by the random number generator and has been notified.

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 end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Shirley Keith September 23, 2016, 6:35 pm

Last years garden did not do well. Next year I hope to do better. I love your posts and photos! You are an inspiration. 🙂

Kimberly J Laird September 22, 2016, 4:15 pm

Gardening and random comments like an instructor’s offhand remark that in nature, all colors go together has been enormously freeing to creative imagination.

Jerie Green September 22, 2016, 1:19 pm

I envision our 2.5 acre yard with gardens that one can walk to, through, beyond. Here I have the space to try things and learn. My husband loves to create paths with his rider mower, and he’s experimented with mowing a weedy area at different heights (asters, loosestrife, Joe Pye weed). He’s also growing water lilies in our pond; this year the cats seem to have taken care of the dastardly muskrats that cleared out all the waterlilies plus cattails and phragmites last year.
I dig out little areas here and there around the yard, which is on a steep hill. This year the rock garden got away from me, again. The previous owner planted surprises all over, so lilies and tulips are always turning up. I’ve been clearing out and planting sections of the foundation of an old barn. This year I learned that I could plant snapdragons, cherry tomatoes and peppers between the asparagus plants that had been planted in the foundation (“enough asparagus to get tired of,” she had said) but that the snapdragons get too covered up when the asparagus harvest is done. Tomatoes still going like gangbusters. Her kind of gardening was my kind of gardening – very casual, nothing EVER in rows. We moved here six years ago. I’m a lucky gal!

Barbarapc September 20, 2016, 8:46 pm

Great to hear about a new title. Looks like you’ve got lots of eager and worthy participants for your draw. Hope you got some of the rain that has come our way – it was a summer of great heat and fried gardens. Did you get to Atlanta?

Kathy Purdy September 21, 2016, 8:25 am

We haven’t been as dry as some areas of NY, but the rain storms that came through recently were not as generous as they were forecast to be. Everything is alive, but nothing is looking its best. And, no, I didn’t get to the Garden Writers Symposium in Atlanta. I hope to attend next year in Buffalo, however.

Heather O September 20, 2016, 1:04 pm

Because I majored in horticulture I fear I tend to garden by the book. I always enjoyed my plant id and “science” classes more than my design class, and I think it’s because I was too worried about making it “correct”. I’m starting to explore my more creative side though, and I think the garden is a perfect place to do it! Unfortunately as an apartment dweller my gardening space is currently very limited. The book sounds wonderful though!

Deb Saucke September 20, 2016, 12:48 pm

Since Dad is along on vacation with us, I read your opening paragraphs to him, knowing he would appreciate your approach of relying on your inner voice. He said it made perfect sense to him! Not being the gardener in the family, I never realized until more recently that gardens are not as permanent as they had seemed to me. So not having to get it “right” at the start could make it less stressful and intimidating.

Alexis Penzell September 20, 2016, 10:43 am

I’d love to win Fran’s book. I’ve been working on different garden areas, bit by bit, for the past 5 years. Fortunately, I’ve grown in that time, and so has my garden. What may have seemed like a great idea in year one changed. And, gardening has taught me greater patience!

Pat Evans September 20, 2016, 9:31 am

Having spent 28 years in my current location trying to create gardens, I confess to not having much success. Sure I get lots of positive comments from passersby, but I think it lacks cohesion and I’m tired of battling the wildlife (especially deer) and the weather. Even so I keep looking for inspiration and trying again in the spring. Most of my creativity is now going into my quilts, though.

Lita Sollisch September 20, 2016, 8:15 am

I’m at the stage of my life when I feel the need for change. Everything is overgrown and messy. Thinking about it and doing something about it are two very different things. Taking the first step is the hardest. Fran’s book will certainly help! Thanks.

Layanee September 20, 2016, 7:09 am

Gardening is a process. Every season is different and provides new gardening challenges. I hope to live long enough to find perfect balance in the garden.

Judy Goodell September 19, 2016, 7:45 pm

I forgot to add that I used to do theorem paintings for creativity and later made many quilts for the same reason, but tending my gardens has given me the most creative satisfaction. Always a work in process,being outside 3 seasons tending to wrap around gardens has been more absorbing and fun the the former. Would love the digging Deep book!

Pam September 19, 2016, 1:49 pm

I no longer garden by the book. I garden with whatever I don’t kill and with things that no matter how beautiful, aren’t invasive. Why, oh, why did I think that bird’s eye speedwell was so pretty?

Kathy Sturr September 19, 2016, 10:03 am

Well, we can say my garden has run away from me at this current moment. I love books and have read many, especially about gardening but I cannot honestly say I have gardened by the book – I’m not very good about following how to’s – but I certainly have been influenced. The book that changed my gardening was Douglas Tallamy’s “Bringing Nature Home.” I planned on planting only those “key native plants” that supported lots of wildlife and insects like an Oak tree. Granted I did not plant a Swamp or White Oak indigenous to the area, but a Pin Oak on the far reaches of its range because they transplant better – although I did not know that at the time – it was simply available at the nursery. I love that tree! I say my garden is creative because I did have a vision but that vision did not account for the “wild growth.” However, coping with that wild growth has led to more creativity! And, the thing I enjoy most about my garden, is the life it attracts and well, that was my intention. I now not only view my garden as a canvas but as a living entity that is continually evolving. Creating with a living amoebic entity is a different sort of art. I would thoroughly enjoy hearing of someone else’s trials in a garden. I loved Margaret Roach’s “The Backyard Parables.”

Fran Sorin September 19, 2016, 8:39 am


Actually, the dogs did come with the garden. I had 3 of them after the garden was totally re-designed and they loved it!!! Fran

Kelly Malone September 19, 2016, 8:36 am

I’m one who wanders around with a plant in my hand until I see (or feel) the best spot for it. Good to know that I’m not the only one.
I used to be so afraid to make a ‘mistake’ in my garden, but over the years I’ve learned that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there is no wrong or right when planting. I’d love to win the book, looks like a great read.

Deborah Banks September 19, 2016, 8:34 am

I love the picture of the woman mowing with a pack of dogs. I thought maybe adding more dogs was going to be Fran’s epiphany. (Not!) My creative garden moments have often been spurred by needing to find a place for a new tree or plants, after several minutes of ‘what was I thinking’. I started my first berm down by the lower fence because I wanted to get the bright yellow plants gifted by a neighbor out of my front garden of blues and pinks. Now years later my yellow berm and the companion red berm seem like genius, especially this time of year when they are at peak bloom. And they are big and impactful, just what we needed as part of the long view down the hill from the deck. A deck built several years after the berms.

Judy Goodell September 19, 2016, 7:44 am

I would love a copy of this book; it sounds as though it is in the same league of useful information as The Art Of Gardening from Chanticleer, one of the best gardening books I have ever read.
E-mail notification Perfect!

Carol September 19, 2016, 7:42 am

Liked this non-traditional ‘how-to’ book too – The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden by Roy Diblik.

Kathy Purdy September 19, 2016, 7:51 am

I liked Diblik’s book, too. Reviewed it here.

Jenny September 19, 2016, 7:06 am

How interesting. Yes, I am sure that everyone contemplating their new garden space needs to read this book. Your garden should really be a reflection of your desires for the outdoor space around your house and help is out there on how to do it.