Monday, March 3, 2014
"Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life" by Marta McDowell
"I am sorry to say that Peter was not very well during the evening. His mother put him to bed, and made some camomile tea; and she gave a dose of it to Peter! 'One table-spoonful to be taken at bed-time.'"
— From "Peter Rabbit" by Beatrix Potter
It's probably a safe bet that I'm not the only tea lover who is a fan of Beatrix Potter. Whether you fell in love with her children's books or, more recently, admired the Beatrix Potter portrayed by Renee Zellweger in the movie "Miss Potter" (2006), there is much to admire about the English author, artist, and naturalist. As our thoughts turn to spring and gardening, I'd like to recommend a particularly enjoyable new book, "Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life: The plants and places that inspired the classic children's tales" by Marta McDowell.
Beatrix used the royalties from her books and an inheritance from an aunt to purchase the thirty-four acre Hill Top Farm in the Lake District of England. Beatrix would go on to purchase other farms in an effort to preserve her beloved Lake District, and in her will she left more than four thousand acres to the National Trust. Beatrix also became a breeder of Herdwick sheep, and McDowell notes that in 1930, she was elected president of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders' Association.
While Beatrix wrote and illustrated many beloved children's stories, and I'm glad she did, I think that even more than those contributions, I appreciate her attitude. When she couldn't sell that first book, she published it herself before ultimately selling it to a publisher. She could easily have avoided romance after the death of her fiancé, but no, she went on to find love at age forty-seven and married William Heelis. I also appreciate her motivation for continuing to write and illustrate once she was already a successful author. McDowell says, "Beatrix continued writing books and designing spin-off merchandise — toys, china, wallpaper, and the like — in part to fund her garden efforts." And it was also fun to read that Beatrix was, according to McDowell, "a great preserver of fruit, making quantities of jams, jellies, and marmalade. To visitors, she served bread and preserves with tea, a simple country fare." The book includes chapters on each season of the year in Beatrix Potter's gardens, and it is lovely to read about the gardens and see some of her own plant illustrations as well as period photos of the gardens. The book concludes with useful lists of plants that Beatrix grew herself as well as those appearing in her books. If, like me, you're dreaming of gardening while you sip your tea these days, I think you'll enjoy this book!