Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell

Emily Dickinson's Gardening Life

If you or someone you love is both an Emily Dickinson aficionado and an avid gardener, Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell is a book to treasure. This 2019 publication (Timber Press, Portland, OR) is a full color, lushly illustrated homage to an enigmatic woman who was not only a brilliant poet, but a keen observer of the natural world around her.

Organized by season, this gorgeous book is revised from an edition first published in 2004, by an author whose expertise in gardens dovetails with an avid interest in classic women authors who cultivated them. From the publisher:

Emily Dickinson is among the most important of American poets, a beloved literary figure whose short, complex life continues to fascinate readers. But she was also an avid gardener and plant lover.

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Emily Dickinson
Learn more about Emily Dickinson
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In Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet, Marta McDowell traces Dickinson’s life as a gardener and reveals many ways in which her passion for plants is evident in her extensive collection of poems and letters.

The book follows Dickinson’s love of nature and plants through an entire year — forced hyacinth bulbs in winter, saved seeds in summer, and pressed flowers to include in correspondence. Packed with contemporary and historical photography, botanical illustrations, excerpts from Dickinson’s letters, and some of her most cherished poetry, this revealing book is a must-have keepsake for Dickinson fans.

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Emily Dickinson museum - Irises
Irises at the Emily Dickinson Museum. Photo: Marta McDowell
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Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life: An introduction

Marta McDowell, author of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life and The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder introduces Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life:

Emily Dickinson was a gardener. When you hear the name “Emily Dickinson,” it may bring to mind a white dress of a well-known image of a sixteen-year-old girl staring boldly out of a daguerrotype. Poetry, of course. Probably not gardening.

Emily Dickinson as a gardener doesn’t fit with the Dickinson mythology. The myths were based real phobias of her later years and were also stoked by her first editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, to promote book sales. Since her death in 1886, she has been psychoanalyzed, compared to medieval cloistered mystics, and called “the madwoman in the attic.” All she lacked was a cloister.

Beyond the stuff of literary legend, she was a person devoted to her family, with pleasures and pastimes and deep friendships. She shared a love of plants with her parents and siblings. To friends, she sent bouquets, and to some her numerous correspondents — over one thousand of her letters have been found — pressed flowers.

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Emily Dickinson's Herbarium
Preserving Nature: Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium
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She collected wildflowers, walking with her dog, Carlo. She studied botany at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke. She tended both a small glass conservatory attached to the front of the house and a long flower garden sloping down the spacious east side of the grounds.

In winter, she forced hyacinth bulbs and in summer she knelt on a red blanket in her flower borders, performing horticulture’s familiar rituals. This book proceeds in calendar fashion, following the seasons. Welcome to Emily Dickinson’s gardening year.

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Emily Dickinson's Gardening Life by Marta McDowell Cover

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Answer July —
Where is the Bee —
Where is the Blush —
Where is the Hay?

Ah, said July —
Where is the Seed —
Where is the Bud —
Where is the May —
Answer Thee — Me —

Nay — said the May —
Show me the Snow —
Show me the Bells —
Show me the Jay!

Quibbled the Jay —
Where be the Maize —
Where be the Haze —
Where be the Bur?
Here — said the Year —

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The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Marta McDowell

See also: Laura Ingalls Wilder:
Late-Blooming Author with a Passion for Nature

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About Marta McDowell

Marta McDowell lives, gardens, and writes in Chatham, New Jersey. She consults for public gardens and private clients, writes and lectures on gardening topics, and teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where she studied landscape design.

Marta’s particular interest is in authors and their gardens, the connection between the pen and the trowel. In 2018, she was the Emily Dickinson Museum’s Gardener-in-Residence, and she is the 2019 winner of the Garden Club of American’s award for outstanding literary achievement. Her books include Unearthing the Secret Garden, Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life, and All the President’s Gardens. Visit her at Marta McDowell.

Unearthing the Secret Garden
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life
Beatrix Potter’s Letters to Children: The Path to Her Books

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Emily Dickinson Museum Spring Tulips

The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, MA. Photo: Marta McDowell
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2 Responses to “Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell”

  1. Thanks for recommending this. I actually own a copy, which was gifted to me by a friend several years ago. (Great gift for ED lovers!!) However, I hav yet to dig into it. This article is a great reminder that it’s on my shelf and that I’m going to LOVE reading it. 🙂

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