Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life

In January, just before I left for Alaska, I stopped by my clever friend’s house to deliver cooked vegetables from stock making to her chickens. She pointed across a little lane from her garden to a single snowdrop blooming in the shelter of a hedge.

On the airplane I kept thinking of that snowdrop as I read nearly all of Marta McDowell’s “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales.” McDowell’s focus is on Beatrix as a gardener. (Although more proper in form, it’s hard to call her Potter, McDowell acknowledges the same problem in her introduction).

It’s a gardening book about a long life of creativity, a perfect companion to Linda Lear’s comprehensive “Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature,” and a book to buy as a real book. The beautifully designed volume combines text with Beatrix’s watercolors, drawings, and illustrated letters, along with photographs from those days and these, and maps.

McDowell describes Beatrix’s childhood in London, exploring city gardens, and summers spent in the countryside, where her passion for drawing and the natural world began. In the second section of the book, McDowell writes in the present tense using Beatrix as protagonist, giving immediacy to her description of the months of the gardening seasons.

She writes about the time, just two months after her beloved Norman Warne died, when Beatrix bought Hilltop Farm, near Sawrey in the Lake District, and began to build her own garden – a cottage garden “combining traditional materials, informal dense plantings, and a mixture of ornamental and edible plants.” (Beatrix once wrote: “There’s nothing like open air soothing present anxiety and memories of past sadness.”)

McDowell’s third section tells of the pleasure to be had now in a visit to the Lake District. You can visit Hilltop Farm, set in pastoral English countryside – much of it protected by the efforts of Beatrix Potter. (One might say, “saved by Peter Rabbit.”) Even after reading Lear’s book and watching the movie “Miss Potter,” it hadn’t registered how many painting backdrops – gardens, villages, and streets – were actual places, and some still exist.

The descriptions of the Lake District garden year sound much like the Pacific Northwest, “storage apples going out as rhubarb comes in,” then our same progression begins – “snowdrops, primula, pansies, aquilegia, foxglove, clematis.”

And it starts in January. The evening we returned home, our headlights lit up the courtyard garden, and I could see standing in short spikes – though not blooming yet – patches of snowdrops.