If Julia had been a gardener



Julia Child and Jeanne Villa from My Life in France; photo by Paul Child

Though I have often read fulsome accolades for women gardeners and designers, and I have contributed to some of those accolades myself, I confess now that there is no woman gardener whom I truly admire as much as I admire Julia Child. There. Is that shocking?

I have no idea how much of a gardener Child was. Though I think she may have had a decent kitchen garden in her vacation home in Provence, most of her interaction with fresh grown flowers and vegetables took place at local farmers’ markets, in France, Cambridge, and other temporary or longer-term homes. What she grew or did not grow has nothing to do with my admiration. I just finished reading My Life in France, which came out some years ago and was dictated by the ailing Child to a great-nephew. It is an incredible story of determination, ambition, and integrity.

To make a long story short—it’s one you all know—Child, a middle-aged diplomatic hostess, decided to write a serious and detailed treatise on classic French cooking for the use of American housewives. And—against the most implacable odds—she didn’t stop until that incredible book was published. And became popular. And changed the way we think about food and cooking so profoundly and completely that many of you will have absorbed it (through subsequent generations) to an extent that you do not even know what I’m talking about. Not to mention that Child had outspoken and well-researched opinions about the importance of fresh, locally raised and grown food.

Is there a twenty-first century gardener about whom I could say the same? Sure, many have mastered the elements of every possible tradition of garden design, but who is inspiring a generation of possible gardeners? I’m not sure. Sometimes it seems to me that the majority of home gardeners take their cue exclusively from what’s on sale at Home Depot and Lowes.

And yet, that was the case in the 50s as well. Everything was made out of jello or canned mushroom soup. Oh sure, maybe a lot still is, but the world of food and cooking is different now and I give a lot of that credit to Julia Child. I sometimes wonder if what we need is a different version of her, who could galvanize the masses into enthusiastic home gardening the same way.

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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 yahoo.com


  1. I think you only have to look no further than Martha Stewart. She is one of the most vocal/visual promoters of locally grown produce and has one of the most beautiful vegetable gardens I have ever seen. And, one of the most influential people in her life has been Julia Child. Have a great day – love this blog!! K

  2. I hate to sound like a sap, but I think love is the key ingredient in this kind of revolution. Julia loved food–and Paul loved Julia because she loved food. And America loved Julia because she loved food in a refreshingly human way.

    Garden gurus as a group ought to loosen up and express their own mad enthusiasm for their subject. Maybe then the masses would get the idea that gardening is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

  3. I remember reading a Garden Design story about Julia’s garden in a retirement home in Santa Barbara- she was in her 90’s, and had a citrus tree and herbs, and it was maintained and designed by someone els, but it seemed like a lovely place to just be in.

  4. “Life itself is the proper binge.” – Julia Child

    Her so obvious joy in what she was doing was inspiring. I’ll bet we’ve all met people like that when we meet those rare green thumb gardeners who are just so into it….not for profit or fame…just for the joy of it.

  5. I did not realize how wonderful Julia was until I read her biography. She was a amazing woman. I also love that she was very tall, and statuesque. No shrinking violet was our Julia.

    Determination, perseverance and intelligence made up that woman.


  6. I think to pooh-pooh the 50’s, one has to remember the historical social perspective. After a long and seemingly endless Great Depression and WWII, which meant not being able to afford things on a whim, it mean a lot of canning of veggies and fruits, because canned fruits and veggies at the market were expensive (not “expensive,” but certainly not cheap – or so my mother has told me). America, in the 50’s, was going through a period of prosperity, and prosperity means not having to do things from scratch. Affluence was reveled in by buying as much of your food in an easy to prepare method, getting women out of the kitchen so much faster to go shopping, play bridge and more social leisure pursuits (Remember, in the 50’s, breast feeding was viewed as something only poor women did because they could not afford the formula.) In the push to embrace “modernism,” and convenience of commercially packaged and prepared foods, they forgot about freshness and taste. And only after we have been away from freshly grown fruits and veggies for so long do we begin to see them as exciting and new and *Gasp* FLAVORFUL! It’s not that we never embraced what Julia taught us all, it’s just that she reminded us what growing and cooking like the French was all about. Freshness and flavor.

  7. There are plenty of inspiring figures, if you look for them. Here on the West Coast, for example, Flora Grubb–a young, charismatic designer and nursery owner in San Francisco–has energized a new generation of urban gardeners. Her nursery, Flora Grubb Gardens, crackles with excitement. If no one has yet achieved a stature comparable to Julia Child’s, maybe it’s because the traditional media aren’t willing to devote serious attention to gardening.

    The 50s were an odd time: terrible food, terrible politics (aside from Adlai Stevenson), great design (Miller, Nelson, Eames), great jazz.

    Anyway, there’s no reason to be glum (at least about inspiring women gardeners).

  8. I so agree, Michele. It’s not sappy, and that love is what led me to write this after reading My Life in France, which I hope you have read as well.

    Yes, Elizabeth, the attitude of the 50s and early 60s was so different it is hard to imagine now. I’m glad that my mother had time for her bridge parties.

  9. That’s why we all need to be downloading episodes of Mad Men from iTunes and obsessing over them and freaking ourselves out by thinking our parents were the same age as Don and Betty Draper at the same moment.

  10. Maybe its harder to have someone be a national (or international) home garden inspiration because gardening is so regional. It is more challenging to give a ‘recipe’ for how to do something in a garden that will work anywhere, unlike cooking which, as long as you can find the ingredients, can be done anywhere in almost any season.

    Julia was an amazing and inspiring person (I loved reading her biography), and one of the cool things about what she did was get people excited about cooking with real ingredients again, and it didn’t matter where you lived or what the weather was like outside. With gardening, you can follow the ‘recipe’ exactly, but if the ‘recipe’ is given by someone like me, in the Pacific Northwest, someone following my advice in the South will likely have a very different result.

    There is a lot of general gardening wisdom though, and it is always good to inspire more people to take up a fork and spade and get gardening. So many people want gardening to be super easy and risk free, simple to control with guaranteed results. Getting past that attitude is a tough one. Still, Julia got people to step away from the Frozen TV Dinners and cook Coq au Vin from scratch, so maybe there is Someone Out There for the gardening world too. But I think we will always need good regional gardeners ( like Flora Grubb) to help each of us better understand what works where we live, regardless of whatever evil temptation Martha is featuring in this month’s magazine.

  11. Julia Childs, Elizabeth David, there’s a theme here. Head strong, driven women with high appreciation levels.

    The best cooks will instinctively value how and where their food came from. Inevitably this extends to the kitchen garden! Gardening, cooking. Both creative practices.

    I think there are many who champion.


  12. I agree with Kathryn Conant that Martha Stewart has been an amazing positive force. I have been consistently inspired by her energy and enthusiasm for vegetable gardening and cooking up the results. She’s also been an influential advocate for chickens in the garden. Odd, yes indeedy, but she gets the message out.

  13. Shortly after Copia in Napa Valley opened in 2004 they had a marvelous retrospective on the life of Julia Childs.
    It coincided with the opening of a restaurant called “Julia’s Kitchen” , which was absolutely wonderful.

    Unfortunately Copia a huge facility that was a multi-cultural venue that had art and food galleries on a museum scale, cooking classes both indoors and outdoors, a world class kitchen garden , theater and concert hall closed its doors 4 months ago due to financial problems.

    I hope they can find some financial backing so Julia’s Kitchen can reopen.
    I also miss their incredibly inspirational kitchen garden.

    In regards to inspiring women gardeners of the 21 century , there are many.
    The reason that you are not seeing them is because media and its coverage has changed. It’s a simple statistical relationship.
    We now have more than 7 or 10 tv stations to choose from , which has changed the statistics of how people get their information.

  14. I agree with pretty much all the comments. But I look around and don’t see any movement or person in gardening that is/could be doing what she set in motion and have a similar effect, however it is disseminated. Regardless of how different regions are or how fragmented media is, the truly compelling and powerful voices can get heard.

  15. I agree that passion is the key to any successful venture. What would be the catch phrase for gardening that would match Julia’s ‘Bon Appetit’? Maybe ‘Dig It’ or ‘Trowel Down’? This would make a good contest.

  16. Martha Stewart? You gotta be kidding me! Okay, granted, I’m not a Martha fan and have never ‘gotten’ the craze about her. A smart businesswoman, to be sure, but inspirer of gardeners? Can’t see it myself.
    I think that what Teresa above said is a good point; gardening IS very regional due to climate and soil, and it’s hard for any one voice to be an inspiration to all. I tend to lean towards the British writers like Christopher Lloyd and Sarah Raven who manage to be excited about gardening and encouraging and outrageous without being patronizing; to writers like Cole Burrell and Sally Roth here in North America for their enthusiasms; and of course, to a whole crop of garden bloggers around the world who inspire us by their writing. The Ranters included, naturally!

  17. Off the top of my head,
    Women of Influence in garden making :
    Kate Frey – sustainable gardening movement
    Topher Delaney – reinvented the way we view and use healing gardens
    Rosalind Creasy – long time proponent of front yard / any yard vegetable and potager gardens
    Andrea Cochran – innovative modern landscape architecture and social interactive public garden use
    Alice Waters – fresh food movement , esp. in the pubic schools
    Flora Grubb – forward thinking garden nursery owner
    Penelope Hobhouse – mixed use garden, how we use color in the garden
    Wendy Johnson- holistic sustainable gardening practices

  18. oh, crap – that should read : Alice Waters : in the PUBLIC schools…

    That’s the second time in my life that I have made that same embarrassing mistake.
    The first time was saying it out loud in sex education class in 7th grade.

    humiliating ! aaaghhhhhhhh

  19. I miss Julia too. Perhaps her rise to prominence was due to the fact that all of us have to eat. Even non-foodies know who she was.

    The fact that there is no one person of equal renown in the gardening world, could be because not everyone must garden, only the fortunate.

  20. Long-time Julia Child admirer here — in 1968, my husband was posted to a very underdeveloped country; somehow on the way, my trusty copy of “Joy of Cooking” vanished and I was left clueless as to how to cook anything, joyful or not. I wrote back to Brentano’s Books and ordered a new copy of “Joy”. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess) they misread my letter and shipped me a copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. Since it had taken four months for my letter to reach Brentano’s and for Julia’s book to arrive, I decided to forget “Joy” and devote myself to trying to Master French Cooking. There was a cook in the kitchen, and she had handmaids also, so I would enter the kitchen, cook up something wonderful from Julia, then swan out leaving the handmaids to do the considerable dishes. From that day, I have never looked back and although I still use Joy of Cooking, I have indeed mastered French cooking, thanks to a five year spell in France.

    But — I think that she was helped a great deal by the easy availability of excellent fruits and vegetables in France, by such things as Poulet de Bresse being standard in grocery stores, Beurre d’Isigny the default butter, Cavaillon melons and cos lettuce and tiny new potatoes being routine in French markets. She may have been aware of vegetable gardens, but I suspect that they were not important on her horizon in France — maybe when she returned to this country they became more so.

  21. It may make you feel better to know that in written testimony to congressional committees, a sizable percentage of the cover pages say “Pubic Testimony” about blah-blah-blah Important Topic, submitted by blah-blah Important Person.

  22. I agree with the view point that our country is simply to diverse for there to ever be a Julia Child of gardening.

    I used to read Christopher Lloyd, but it was simply too frustrating that so much of what he wrote did not apply to my garden..plants will never behave here in the northeast the way they do in the mild climate where his garden grew.

    The same applies for too many of our great American garden writers: those that truly inspire me, those I turn to again and again are those who write of their experiences that can teach me about my own plot of earth. The folks from Colorado or Seattle cannot tell me how the plants that thrive for them will do in my garden; they can only report what they have been told or what they have seen or how things used to be for them if they did garden here.

    Cooking and eating also relies on many local factors (what is available) however, there are far more universal truths when it comes to successful cooking than there are when it comes to successfully growing plants. As long as I can get my hands on a chicken that has been raised well, I know how a simple roast chicken will taste no matter where in the US I cook it…that same cannot be said for too many of my favorite plants. For example, A friend of mine–considered a plant expert– gardens only 5 miles from my house yet we have radically different conditions. There are plants thriving in my garden that he would have sworn could not survive in our zone! He and I keep shaking our heads at what thrives in his place and what will or won’t just down the road in my garden.

    The best garden teacher, now that I’ve mastered a few basics, is my own garden.

  23. Oh…and Eleanor Perenyi (Green Thoughts) comes closest to being my Gardening Julia. And yes, again, she gardened in a climate very close to mine.

  24. But the really great garden writers–Eleanor Perenyi and Henry Mitchell–were not really about the advice, which has to be regional. They were wonderful on the experience of gardening–and that is universal.

    Rosella, you’re right. I don’t think Julia Child was terribly interested in fresh food–it was all about technique. Didn’t she once say of Alice Waters, “That’s not cooking, it’s shopping”?

  25. I respectfully disagree, Michele. Julia didn’t simply wax lyrical about the joys of being in the kitchen, shopping for food, eating and so forth.

    She taught us how to cook, and inspired us along the way–to learn how to cook the things she was cooking. That’s why I doubt there will ever be a US garden writer who inspires and becomes as universally popular as Julia did.

    Who could possibly address “The Joy of Gardening in the US” with the same type of experience and authority? No one lives long enough to live and garden for enough time to become expert enough in all of the many regions of this vast land. Just how many pages of “mad enthusiasm” for gardening does one person want or need…before we begin craving the nitty gritty about growing plants…growing plants in and around our own homes? Eleanor’s book is a slim volume. Would be slimmer still if you took out the regional specific text.

  26. Eleanor Perenyi–that cantankerous, happy, aristocratic Bohemian (I love the cover shot on her masterpiece, where she sits in her gardens, highball in one hand, cigarette in another, staring straight into the camera as DARING any retort) inspired me to start gardening–to hell with fear!–and keep at it.

    Lauren Springer teaches me to think outside the box.

    Sally Roth encouraged me to stop thinking that “natural” meant messy or uncreative.

    Rosalind Creasy helped me understand that beauty and utility can co-exist.

    Katherine White just had a boatload of passion!

  27. oh bother…I signed that last comment with the wrong id. Sorry. zephyr slipped in when it should have been vicki. Please disregard that z id. thanks

  28. I agree about the difficulty presented by regional gardening. I also think (and I am indulging in gross generalizations here) that cooks, especially the type likely to be found on TV, tend to be people who like to entertain, like to share what they have created, like to bring people together to celebrate food. Gardeners, on the other hand, tend to like to be alone in their gardens. Sure, we love to share our love of plants with people, but usually the only ones who are interested are fellow gardeners. Cooks have a more or less captive audience-everyone has to eat. Like I said, I know that’s a huge generalization, and I know there are exceptions, but I think that might also be a reason that we don’t have anyone doing for gardening what Julia Child did for cooking.

    You have all named a lot of influential or pioneering people in the gardening world, but most people wouldn’t know who they are. Honestly, I don’t know who most of them are. Almost everybody could tell you who Julia Child was, whether they cook or not.

    Maybe if we get that White House kitchen garden, somebody could start a gardening/cooking show that would broadcast from the White House. We could see what the first family is growing and how they are using it in their kitchen. That might start a new trendy interest in kitchen gardening. “From the White House to Our House”-what do you think? BTW, I totally have dibs on that title. You all saw it here first!

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