Our Life in Gardens: Plant Love | Civil Eats

Our Life in Gardens: Plant Love


Practical and prophetic, particular and poetic, and entirely personal, this is how I would describe Our Life in Gardens.  Composed of nearly 50 essays arranged in alphabetical order, the book is termed by its authors a “gypsy trunk of this and that.” I’d think of it more as an old-time curiosity cabinet, a curio full of treasures to be pulled out and carefully savored, one by one. Part memoir, and part garden how-to, it is a completely engaging book to enjoy, perhaps while sitting in a favorite chair in the garden on a sunny afternoon, or by the fire on a cool, wet day, when gardening might be more of an intellectual pursuit.

Our Life in Gardens is co-authored by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, founders of the Vermont garden design firm North Hill. They are also the authors of two other collaborative works, including A Year at North Hill: Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden and Living Seasonally: The Kitchen Garden and the Table at North Hill. (Each has also written books individually). North Hill, which is a primary topic – but not the exclusive subject – of this book, is the creation of nature fostered by Eck and Winterrowd. It is regarded by many people as one of the finest private gardens in the United States.


This book reads like an iterative conversation occurring during a friendly visit, incorporating a fine meal, and an informative (and informed) walk around the garden at North Hill. Through the course of reading, I often felt as if I were in the garden with Eck and Winterrowd. While the book is co-authored, it appears to be penned in a single, unified voice, the result perhaps, of the authors’ lifetime of shared personal and professional experiences, many of which have occurred within the context of the gardens they have cultivated together.

But the book is also a highly practical gardening guide, which provides incredible detail about different kinds of plants and Eck and Winterrowd’s experiences with cultivating them. The authors are incredibly observant and provide much valuable information about garden design, as well. Descriptions are complete, Latin names are given, and the illustration provided at the beginning of each essay is handsomely rendered.

As I read, I was with Eck and Winterrowd as they enjoyed their early gardening efforts in a “grand” apartment located at 89 Beacon Street, across from the Public Garden, sharing their joy in the chickens they raised there. (Chickens in a Beacon Street apartment…see, you must read the book). I learned about their Xanthrorrhoea Quadrangulata, an Australian native they acquired during a visit to the Los Angeles Arboretum, and which has grown into “a great potted ox of a plant” at their home in Vermont. They note and carefully (lovingly) describe the growth of individual plants, including a Japanese apricot, the way I note and describe the growth of my daughter.

The garden is a place where much life flourishes, but there is also death. Eck and Winterrowd write here about the ephemeral nature of gardens; a topic I, as a writer-gardener, have also been writing about of late. There is a certain poignancy to Eck and Winterrowd’s perspectives on the passage of time, an intimacy that is both heart warming and heart rending, the sharing of something as personal as a garden made together…a life made together.

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Eck and Winterrowd have produced an extraordinary book that provides valuable and practical information about any number of plants, and about gardens, their design, and their value in our lives. This book moved and humbled me, because of its incredible combination of all things practical and the personal experiences it shares. For the authors have written with an authentic voice about the sacred and ordinary act of gardening, about home, their favorite tools and things, domestic life, vocation and avocation, seasons, and journeys they have taken, together.

Eck and Winterrowd understand something key that draws so many of us into gardening: that fact that “gardens are infinitely imaginable.” But Eck and Winterrowd have also provided a window into the other kinds of journeys that we as gardeners take when we carefully, lovingly cultivate gardens, stepping into possibility, the journeys of the heart that all true gardeners – and those who aspire to garden – know.

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Rose Hayden-Smith serves as strategic initiative leader in Sustainable Food Systems for the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources division.  She also serves as a 4-H youth, family and community development advisor for UC’s Cooperative Extension office in Ventura County. Her work focuses on providing gardening and food-systems education to youth, educators and community audiences. Hayden-Smith uses historical examples to influence current public policies relating to food systems and nutrition. She holds Master’s degrees in education and U.S. history, and a Ph.D. in U.S. history and public historical studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. A practicing U.S. historian, she is a nationally recognized expert on Victory Gardens, wartime food policies, and school garden programs. A Kellogg Foundation/Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Food and Society Policy Fellow (FASP), she is the creator of UC’s Victory Grower website and blog. Read more >

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  1. I have loved all of their other books. Living Seasonally is my favorite. Can't wait to read this one.

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