Great Moments in Garden Writing


Despite Amy’s newness to the subject, I was finally convinced by the chapter called “Manual Labor”  that I was reading the story of a real gardener.  Real gardeners do serious work and sometimes wrench their backs so badly they fall in pain onto the ground, immobile “like a plant, I thought, unable to roll over or turn my face away from the sun.”  And she was only 25 at the time – I love that part!  Then after
a period of healing we gardeners pick ourselves up, consult chiropractors, lift weights and do sit-ups, and it usually pays off. “Over time, I had become strong enough to take care of myself in the garden.  I had become good at something I had never imagined I’d ever wanted to be good at – manual labor.”

But it’s rare when even a seasoned gardener has the peak experience it must have been for her when she joined the landscaping crew at a house being rehabbed by her employers.  She’d already had the fun of deciding what plants to use and finding them, but there’s nothing like digging for a girl who loves dirt, so she picked up a shovel and got to work.  Later, before driving off in their truck, the workers shook her
hand and said, “Eres muy buena trabajadora,” which even my high school Spanish tells me is high praise.   I’m total a sucker for stories of people experiencing physical empowerment from working with nature to create beauty, especially if they’re bantamweight girls – I mean women, of course.


  1. I keep thinking that I must read Amy’s book… and I really must read Amy’s book. Even though I’m exactly the same age as Amy and never did get around to writing my own much-lauded garden memoir at the ripe old age of 25! Damn overachiever… 😉 (I hope you know I mean that in the best way, Amy… lol.)

    Oh and Susan, we’ve seen pictures as to what you were doing at that age. Being an international woman of mystery in Morocco… fueling the fire for later writings, right?!

  2. I have to admit that, while I really, really enjoyed the book and I can’t wait to find “The Earth Moved,” I couldn’t get past LeRoy and the mockingbirds.

    I have four cats, and my vet would have an apoplectic fit if I let them outdoors.

    Well, ok, they probably wouldn’t get quite that worked up, but they do hammer pretty hard on the “indoor cat” theme.

    There’s no way to say this without sounding all lecturific, especially if you are me, which I am, so please forgive me in advance for the finger-wagging. I know it’s a touchy subject, but I want to point out some facts.

    /soapbox on

    Domestic cats are the number one predators of songbirds. Songbird populations are already declining from loss of habitat (something every gardener can help reverse).

    There’s also the possibility that the owner will catch toxoplasmosis from outdoor cats (and if the cat has it, and poops in someone else’s yard, that person, who might be elderly or immune-compromised, might catch it, and for them, it could be a problem).

    Also, I just read on Nature news that more cats sick with avian flu have been identified. (Yes, cats can catch HN51 from birds.) They’re thinking about monitoring cats as “early detectors” of bird flu outbreaks.

    As a disclaimer, as far as I know HN51 hasn’t been identified in birds in the US yet, but like West Nile virus and mad cow disease, it’ll probably get here eventually.

    I don’t mean to be a “drive-by mom” but I feel very strongly about pets’ well-being.

    I hope all of you who let your cats outdoors pay especial attention to their (and your!) health.

    And if you decide to keep them indoors, so much the better.

    /soapbox off

  3. Oh, how I love reading Henry Mitchell. It was a terrible blow when he died–to think no more columns would come along broke my heart. I highly, highly recommend his books!

  4. I second the recommendation for both books. I give them as gifts to everyone in my life who is a gardener. In fact, I owe a copy of the first book to a friend of mine who has started gardening in earnest this year.

  5. I too, wore the black armband when Henry Mitchell left us. His writing is so intimate that thousands of his fans feel quite sure that they knew him! I have three of his books and read them again every year.

  6. Thanks, everybody. You’d probably be surprised to know how much of a difference it makes to a writer if you buy one or two copies as gifts every year. If enough people do that, it can make the difference between a book going out of print or staying in print. I give books as gifts more and more, because it lets me support a writer and a bookstore, and besides, the recipient will either love the book or pass it on to someone who does.

    And I don’t think I was 25 when I wrote that book, was I? Uh, let’s see…I was 31 when it came out…maybe I was 28 when I wrote it.

  7. As Amy Stewart’s husband, I well remember the beginnings of her garden writing career in a monthly column in a free alternative feminist weekly in Santa Cruz. When her first “From the Ground Up” column (it was called from the beginning) appeared in August 1996, she was on a page with an article titled, “Birth of a Colon Hydrotherapist.” That’s when we realized she was starting from the very bottom. Today marks Amy’s tenth year as a garden writer. It’s been very hard work, but I’m glad she did it and I’m always happy when people respond so positively to her writing.

  8. Fred McCourty’s “The Perennial Gardener” is the finest gardening book I ever read. “Sand County Almanac”, while not specific to gardening, is as fine a treatise on environmental ethics that can be found.

    Both passionately written by legendary writers. McGourty passed away this year. His book can be found on Amazon.


  9. From the Ground Up is one of my favorite books and is one that I not only keep on my limited shelf space, but that I loan out often to gardeners and non-gardeners alike.

    Henry Mitchell, from what I’ve read so far, is at the top of the heap, sitting right next to Amy.


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