The Founding Gardeners: An Interview with Andrea Wulf




This is the latest in our series of bookish posts for Kirkus Book Reviews.   And yes, we have a copy to give away!  Comment to win–all comments considered, we'll choose at random.

Andrea Wulf is following up The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession with a new book about America’s founding fathers.   Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation, is out this week from Knopf.  Wulf has an absolutely insane tour schedule  here in the United States, starting April 5 and continuing through June 9 with stops all across the country—then she’ll be back in September for a few more dates. Do go see her if you have a chance.

I met Andrea at Petersham Nurseries in Surrey last fall. It’s an extraordinarily elegant garden center that seems like it’s been there for three hundred years—exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find in the English countryside.  You can even have your afternoon tea there. It occurred to me, as Andrea and I were talking that day, that it must be interesting for someone who lives in such a garden-obsessed country to write about the history of American gardening.  Here’s what she had to say:

AMY:  I'm sure you're going to get this question a lot on your book tour:  Since you are not American, what attracted you to the American founding fathers for this book?

ANDREA:  I was born in India, brought up in Germany and lived for the past fifteen years in Britain.  my last book, The Brother Gardeners, was about the British obsession with gardens. When I researched it, I not only discovered how important America had been in the creation of the English garden but also that plants, gardens and nature played an important role in the shaping of the American nation.

I would have never thought that this would lead me to write a book about the American founding fathers and gardens. I had never thought of America in terms of gardening — in particular compared to Britain, where I have lived for the past 15 years and where everybody seems crazy about their flowerbeds.

AMY:  Had you spent much time here in the States before you came over to research and write the book?

ANDREA: My first impressions of America were shaped when I went in 1987 on a seven-week road trip across the States. It confirmed every cliché: gigantic shopping malls, colossal billboards, endless drive-thrus, bulky fridges and huge cars. I thought of America as an industrial, larger-than-life country. I certainly never thought of it in terms of gardening  — in America, I believed, I was more likely to see someone driving a riding-mower than pruning roses. 

But how wrong I was!   At its roots America is a gardening nation  — just a bit different to the British.

AMY:  I'm willing to bet that many Americans don't know about our early gardening history. So who are the Founding Gardeners?

ANDREA:  One of the protagonists in  The Brother Gardeners  is John Bartram, an American farmer and plant collector who lived outside Philadelphia.   For four decades, from the 1730s, Bartram sent so many seed boxes of American trees and shrubs to Britain that he completely transformed the English garden.

It was in Bartram's letters that I first realized a remarkable connection to the founding fathers, for he was a good friend of Benjamin Franklin. As I read on through letters, diaries and other manuscripts, I came across a visit of the delegates of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to Bartram's garden and an invoice to George Washington, who had ordered hundreds of trees and shrubs for his garden at Mount Vernon, as well as accounts that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had visited. As I read on, I realized that America s first four presidents – Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison -  had used nature, though in different ways, in their fight for America.

AMY:  It's amazing to think that they had time for gardening or even farming.  I mean, there was a revolution going on!

ANDREA:   They not only created the United States in a political sense, they also understood the importance of nature for their country. Golden cornfields and endless rows of cotton plants became symbols for America's economic independence from Britain; towering trees became a reflection of a strong and vigorous nation; native species were imbued with patriotism and proudly planted in gardens, while metaphors drawn from the natural world brought plants and gardening into politics.

In fact, I believe it's impossible to understand the making of America without looking at the founding fathers as farmers and gardeners. But the greatest surprise for me was that James Madison is the forgotten father of American environmentalism. He regarded nature as fragile ecological system that could easily collapse. Man, he believed, had to find a place within the  balance of nature  without destroying it –  words that remain as important today as they did when he spoke them.


  1. George Washington fought a new kind of war & formed a new kind of country. Yet, he hired a garden designer.

    George had the Pleasure Garden, Martha had the food production.

    John Adams & Thomas Jefferson, in Europe for American foreign relations work, spent 2 weeks in England together.


    That’s the book I want. Those 2 men, those 2 weeks.

    And, a book about Abigail Adams. She ran the farm. Without her they would have bankrupted.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. I’m looking forward to this! What’s better than a book that combines two of my greatest interests: gardening AND history!

  3. Tradescant the Younger, as well, was fascinated by the potential of American species in England – he brought so many things commonly found in England back with him from Virginia. Such a fascinating topic!

  4. I enjoyed “The Brother Gardeners” a lot. Would love to win this one! It is always interesting to view historical persons through a particular lens, because you usually learn new things about them.

  5. This reminds me of when we took our niece to Monticello and saw the structure of Jefferson’s gardens. His scientific approach was unique, although I got hte sense he didn’t really get his hands dirty. Others carried out the work.

    What a wonderful perspective on our warrior philosophers — I’d love to read this!

  6. The grounds at Mount Vernon and Monticello are of course famous, but I didn’t know about Adams and Madison … this is going on my to-read list, whether I win it here or not.

  7. I live very close to Mt Vernon and have been inspired by its gardens. I’d love to read more about the history behind them.

  8. I will be putting the Brother Gardeners on my list to read as well. It sounds fascinating. I love those kinds of books.

  9. We recently installed a demonstration rain garden at a library building in upstate NY that was built in 1876. I wanted the garden to reflect the era of the building which had just had its exterior restored. We found that english gardens were very much the influence at that time and tha’ts the style we used. Rain gardens can be any style as long as the plants are native and have the qualities that make them suitable for the drench and drought conditions.

  10. Thank goodness someone finally decided to write this book and give it some attention. Others have written something similar before, but they’re all moldering in stacks at the library. They never get any decent press. I hope Wulf’s version is popular!

    When you’re watching the Masters, keep an eye out for vestiges of Fruitland Nursery, owned and operated by the Berckmans in the mid-1800s.

  11. Living in Charlottesville, VA with family in Philadelphia, I have had the pleasure of visiting Bartram, MT. Vernon, Ashland and Monticello. I look forward to reading more about there beginnings.

  12. I would love to read this book! Growing up near Charlottesville, I always knew that Jefferson had beautiful gardens, but I had no idea about the others. I graduated from James Madison University AND got a degree in ecology and environmental science, so I just love that Madison has been termed the “forgotten father of American environmentalism”. So cool!

  13. What a lovely concept…I do so love the blending of history and gardening….I would love to read this one!

  14. The first garden writing book I ever read, that began my now-lifelong obsession, was Bonnie Marranca’s American Garden Writing, published in 1988. (I found the paperback in a used bookstore.) Same topic, with letters from Bartram and essays from many others, covering two hundred years of American gardening. It completely HOOKED me. I can’t wait to read this one!

  15. I really enjoyed the brother gardeners, I can’t wait to read this one. Also the cover art on both books is wonderful.

  16. Oh for a glimpse of the gardens and nature that fed the souls of our founding fathers. I’m inspired to read this one soon.

  17. Sounds like a great book. I am currently reading “Darwin’s Aramda” and the botany chapters are fascinating.

  18. I want to know about the Founding MOTHERS – start with Abagail Adams and then enlighten on…

  19. Very interesting! I’m putting it on my to-read list. I love history, especially illuminating biographies. This review reminds me of another book called The Invention of Air, which was all about the scientist who discovered the oxygen molecule and what led up to it. You can imagine that he used tons of oxygen-making organisms in his research–aka, he was a major naturalist and gardener.

  20. This is a subject I would have eagerly researched myself. Luckily, I can sit back and let a pro do it. I’m really looking forward to reading this book!

  21. Oh please please please let me win this book! I loved the Brothers, and this sounds like a perfect followup. YES. I will read it and relish it! Thanks.

  22. My sister and I are visiting Monticello this month during gardening week. She’s the historian, I’m the gardening nut! This book sounds like the perfect theme for our visit!

  23. Not only am I looking forward to reading this book but also to Andrea Wulf’s visit to the Nashville Library on April 20th.

Comments are closed.