In remembrance of Allen Lacy


Sometimes a death can spark a renaissance and I am hoping that will be the case with Allen Lacy who died on December 27th at age 80.   I never knew him well – we spoke over the telephone on a number of occasions and I remember running into him once at some gardening event.  I cannot, alas, claim him as a friend or even a mentor — but his work was a huge inspiration to me.

His columns for the Wall Street Journal (which ran from 1979 to 1985) and his 1984 book of essays, Home Ground, charted a new direction in garden writing.  Previous to Lacy, American garden writing had limited itself largely to the how-to.  Lacy set out to examine the where, the why and, especially, the who.  Although he was a passionate plantsman, Lacy understood that gardens are largely about context, that an array of plants is interesting not just in itself but equally for what it says about the dreams and attitudes of the person who nurtures it, and for how it expresses the latent potential of the place.

Lacy 2

Lacy had a reporter’s eye for the telling detail and a novelist’s grasp of character and dialogue.  He could (and did) transform articles about a seemingly mundane subject such as privet hedges into a meditation on elitism (his own as a gardener) and the disregarded charms of a too-common plant;  a description of his ramshackle garden shed led neatly to a tongue-in-cheek essay about the use of ruins in 18th-century romantic gardens.  My favorite pages in Home Ground are the five devoted to watermelons in which Lacy revisits the Texas of his childhood and recalls an extempore sermon his grandfather delivered on the divine justification for the seasonal nature of fruits.

The author or editor of some dozen books, Lacy last published, as near as I can tell, In a Green Shade, which dates to 2000; if any reader knows of more recent work, I would love to hear about it.  In the meantime, I urge you all to seek out his books and indulge.  You won’t be disappointed.

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My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. Oh, what a shame! I hadn’t heard that he passed away, and I loved his writing. Allen Lacy had the tone in his writing that I aspire to in my own – the feeling that he was talking directly to you. The “over the fence” kind of conversation. His voice will certainly be missed in garden literature. Thank you for sharing, Thomas.

  2. I learned of his death from Allen Bush, whom I met for the first time at MANTS. (Highlight of the show.) Sad to hear about Mr. Lacy. My favorite book of his was Autumn in the Garden, which I still own. I just took it off the shelf and looking at the dedication page he was a gardener’s gardener; he only includes first names but they have to be Allen Bush, Edith Eddleman, J.C. Raulston and Nancy Goodwin . Maybe “Ann” is Ann Lovejoy — I don’t know who Joanne could be (At first I though he was referring to Joanna Reid, but wrong name.) The book had a big impact on me, not just the plants and gardens he mentions, but the people and nurseries he introduced me to –(Allen Bush’s former Holbrook Farm among them. It seems to be out of print, but if Elizabeth Lawrence’s works can be brought back into print (and AL was a fan), his should too. Still much there to offer gardeners.

  3. I was also greatly influenced by Mr. Lacy’s writing. I just happened to be subscribing to the WSJ in the late 70s-mid-80s when I was first getting into gardening. I was taking horticultural classes and later Master Gardener training. His writing was unlike other garden writing- it was interesting, humorous and inspiring. He also introduced me to other garden writers and gardens he had visited around the country and the world.

    In 1993, I got a part-time internship at Bellevue Botanical Garden. The garden was only in its second year. On a whim, I wrote Mr. Lacy inviting him to visit the garden. We couldn’t afford to pay him to speak, his airfare or lodging. Long shot right? I really didn’t expect any answer but one morning I got a call and it was him. He said he could visit our garden and could speak for us if we made all the arrangements. His publisher could cover his travel expenses because his new book The Garden in Autumn was coming out. He had friends in the area who would host him in their home.

    The director of the garden helped me make arrangements for his speaking engagement and a dinner party before the event. Cal and Harriet Shorts, who donated their home and garden to the City of Bellevue, also attended. We charged a nominal amount to cover the rental of the venue. The dinner party, his tour of the garden and his speaking engagement were well attended and a big success.

    He was very nice to do this for an up and coming botanical garden and perennial border. It was a thrill for me to meet him.

    I lost touch with him in the last several years because I hadn’t read anything new. I was intrigued that he had mobilized his neighborhood to create a small arboretum in a former sub-station. I hope they name it after him.

  4. I admit when I heard last weekend that he had passed away I ran to my bookshelves and realized I only owned two of his books. A quick trip to my favorite online book sources has resulted in several packages arriving through the week. I don’t have a complete collection of his books, but I now have several more and am settling in to spend time reading one of the great garden essayists of our time. Oh, and one is a signed first edition. Now a treasure. I’ll put it next to my signed Elizabeth Lawrence books and remember the connection between the two of them. He edited her book Gardening for Love: The Market Bulletins after her death.

  5. Thank you for this beautiful tribute. I became a gardener and simultaneously discovered garden writing in the early 1990s. (The first book I read was Bonnie Marranca’s American Garden Writing, found in a used bookstore–the heavens parted and the angels sang!) That led me to Allen Lacy, and all the other contemporary greats. I read all of Lacy’s books. I admired his erudition, loved the elegance of his writing, and, most of all, appreciated his honesty. He wasn’t afraid to admit that, as gardeners, we always have much to learn. I think what stuck with me most was his discovery of his plant snobbishness in relation to those new to gardening; it took a lot of the pressure off me personally (who was grappling with everything related to the art and science at the time), and it’s helped me to curb my own plant elitism through the decades. I also delighted in his reminiscences about his Texas childhood and reading about his obsession with daffodils. He was a “collector,” his garden was a bit of a mess–those things I could relate to as well! Oh, the curiosity and the LOVE he showed for the beautiful plant world! He and Michael Pollen, more than anyone, inspired me to become a garden writer. He was loved and will be missed.

  6. I never met Professor Lacy — a philosopher as well as a gardener, what a good fit. But I read and re-read his books. Like others here, I was and remain influenced by his Garden in Autumn. It is good that he was recognized and honored in his lifetime, by his many readers and by the small arboretum named for him and his wife Hella. (Also a character in the books.)

  7. Thank you Tom for your piece about Allen. It takes us back a number of years to remember when he was writing frequently, and the affect he had on American garden writing. I was fortunate to be quite well acquainted with him and Hella as well, probably the last time in person at “Montrose”, Nancy Goodwin’s wonderful garden.


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