Confessions of a recovering double-digger


Barbara, me, and some Canada Blooms hippeastrums.

Last week, I caught up with garden writer Barbara Damrosch at Canada Blooms, the Toronto garden show, where she was a featured speaker. Damrosch was also signing copies of her newly revised Garden Primer, about which Michele has already written. Many of you know and love the first version of this book, and are regular readers of Damrosch’s weekly column in the Washington Post. So you won’t be surprised to learn that she is just as warm and direct in person as she is on the page. Here’s what we talked about:


What’s been added and/or changed in the new Garden Primer?

I’ve expanded all the chapters. I’ve added a lot of plants in every category and many of them are native. That’s because the plants that are most important to me as a gardener are native.

We talk a lot about native plants on Garden Rant—there’s some controversy on the topic. What’s your take?

I think it might have been when Michael Pollan stepped into the fray—the discourse got too extreme. Phrases like “native plant nazi” were being used, unnecessarily. I’m not at all an extremist. I plant exotics like Japanese katsura [cercidiphyllum japonicum], a beautiful tree that’s a lot like a redbud. Redbuds are not hardy where I garden in Maine. I also use nepeta and geranium macrorrhizum. They’re not native but the geranium is one of the few plants that will grow under a maple tree. You have to take it on a case-by-case basis and also try to use local sources.

What about the “100% organic” label on the new book?

It was almost all-organic before, but now organic has become so mainstream, I’m able to advise people to garden the way I’ve always gardened. If you give your plants what they need—the right site, soil, and moisture—they will resist pests and diseases. I do list some of the “safe” remedies, but in fact I don’t use them myself.

I do see that you still discuss double-digging in the new book. Some of us feel that this can be arduous and off-putting to beginning gardeners.

I’m a recovering double-digger! You’ll notice that the diagram is much smaller than in the first book, where I actually recommended “deluxe double-digging” which is much more elaborate.

Now I add layers, rather than dig. You learn from how nature does things. Leaves fall, insects die, and this organic matter enriches the soil from the top down. We spend too much time looking up at the sky; the real action is below, in the soil. That’s where the life of this planet is!

You may also be interested to know, if you don’t already, that Damrosch’s husband Eliot Coleman has written books on vegetable gardening and that the two operate Four Seasons Farm, an experimental market garden, in Harborside, Maine. Damrosch says she will be checking out this post—and I’m reminding her—so please leave any questions you might have in comments and I bet she’ll respond.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I was surprised by some of the comments on the recent native plant commentary a week or so ago. The situation varies according to location, but in many areas virtually the entire native fabric has been destroyed. In most of Illinois, only a single species each of Goldenrod and Milkweed, themselves almost overrun by aliens, stand along the roadsides.

    Under such circumstances, it behooves us (how often does one get to use that word?) to keep as much of the fabric of native landscape going as possible.

    This doesn’t necessarily mean every garden plant must be native, but certainly SOME should be. My own yard has areas restored to typical prairie and oak grove species, but also sports a nice collection of wildflower tulips, and other European bulbs…also a fair-size vegetable garden.

    But one MUST be careful with aliens…like putting a Chevy part in a Mercedes engine, things may not work well with substitutes. Think of all the critters that eat the critters, that eat the bugs, that eat the plants…there are some complex chains out there…how fragile ARE they?

    One problem is people that live next to the few remaining wild lands. Ornamentals they have planted have spread to forest preserves, causing endless problems. It’s NOT a “prejudice” to worry about alien plants! It’s a reality! I’ve worked TOO many years fighting them not to know that! How many folks are prepared to spend THEIR time and money to maintain lands that they have contaminated? (Like the neighbor that plants that English Ivy or Wintercreeper!!! They just “given” those plants to the entire neighborhood!)

    The ultimate irony is a neighbor complaining that YOUR “weeds” (Violets, Mayapples, Penstemon, etc.) have “violated” THEIR yard of alien weed grass.


  2. My backyard was almost pure clay with a thin layer of soil and sod when my husband moved into the house. By the time we were married, the thin layer of soil was a good deal deeper, but still…just under there was an inpenetrable layer of clay. Deep digging in these situations is not an option.

    We continue to improve the soil from the top down by adding compost.. and sometimes by composting on the spot we want to improve. The worms are drawn there and incorporate the new humus into the clay. It’s a slow process, but it’s worked for Momma Nature well enough, and I can sit back and enjoy the show.

  3. We made soil from the top down inside a barn foundation after the barn burned down. Lightning strike. On the Fourth of July! If we could only have shifted the water table it would be a great garden spot. I just wanted to make the point that you can absolutley make soil from the top down.

  4. People still swear by double-digging, but many come around when their backs start aging and they start searching for saner methods. The pile on method is my fav!

  5. We prefer native plants because of the biodiversity they support. However, ecology where we live (Maryland) is so far out of balance that all-native plant landscaping is both frustrating — and expensive. The problem we have is deer, deer, and more deer. They are native too. And they love to eat native plants. Quite frankly, an arrowwood viburnam can have its leaves eaten by the deer only so many times before it just plain gives up and dies. The alternative is to cage each plant — shrubs forever, trees until their lower limbs get above the “browse line” and their trunks a diameter that bucks no longer use them for “rubbing.” Caging costs about $10 a tree/shrub. Fencing such an area would be astronomical. Last year we planted 48 native trees and shrubs. In the first night — before we could get all the cages up — deer literally destroyed 2 trees. We’ve caged about half of the planting — all the white oaks, red maples, dogwoods, black gums, and sumacs — but the rest will have to survive the best they can in a neighborhood where the local herd numbers about 22, each eating 5 to 10 pounds of roughage a day. We call our newly-caged plants our “Tree Zoo.” It’s so sad that we have to look at a tree that grows in a cage. So forgive us, please, if in desperation we plant a alien doublefile viburnum so we can go watch an uncaged leaf freely blowing in the breeze. Ah, that this were a perfect world!

  6. Barbara–I love your work, but what a tepid defense of double-digging! Can’t we just admit that it was always absurd and now increasingly appears unwise as well?

    Sheet composting is the answer to all of life’s problems.

  7. What Bob Vaiden said up there, doubled for California. I don’t worry myself much about mid-city gardens or aliens per se, but invasives make me reach for my hori-hori. Or my rhetoric at least.

    I’m still waiting for Pollan, who in most matters seems to have a clue, to publicly apologize for and rebut that lunacy about “native-nazis.” I get just a tad impatient with the faux-politicizing of that stuff, as if it had anything to do with racism. Yo, fuulz; the original people here are the same species we all are!

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