Know my Garden, Know Me

Elizabeth Von Arnim may have been looking at winter garden catalogs when she recorded this thought:

On learning to garden: As I have not a living soul with whom to hold communion on this, my only way of learning is by making mistakes.

That was in ­­­­­­­­­­­1898. My favorite garden friends think this way today, and Elizabeth’s journals put it into words perfectly. Her book about her first garden claimed “ignorance” throughout, while she enthusiastically broke rules from the experts.  Funny and irreverent, she just loved being out there.

At one point, Elizabeth’s hired gardener gave up on a weedy lawn. Elizabeth said, “I saved the dandelions and daisies on that occasion, and I like to believe they know it. They certainly look very jolly when I come out, and I rather fancy the dandelions dig each other in their little ribs when they see me, and whisper, ‘Here comes Elizabeth; she’s a good sort, ain’t she?’ for of course dandelions do not express themselves very elegantly.”

E von Arnim Rose 2016

The International Elizabeth von Arnim Society chose this rose in 2016 to celebrate the 160th anniversary of her birth.

People loved Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Her attitude is as endearing today as then, because most gardens offer an escape from restrictions of daily life.

Elizabeth’s was not your average garden.  She was a countess in Pomerania, on the Baltic Sea between Germany and Poland. Her gardeners were hired, and elite socialites in those days were not seen working in gardens, though they might walk stylishly through manicured paths.

Elizabeth (not her real name!) was not content as a countess. Financial Times blogger Robin Lane Fox ( says Elizabeth longed to handle a spade and she thought that, if Eve had done the digging in Eden, there might never have been a Fall.

Von Arnim learned to garden during the rise of the stylized “cottage garden” in Europe, replacing stricter formal gardens like Versailles and Buckingham Palace. This may help to explain her misunderstanding with the gardener who wanted to remove all daisies. Gardeners began to value more natural flowers, adding beds of herbs to enhance their food, and replacing straight rows with curving beds and paths. Her life continued to reflect social change as she matured through the 1920s, and she apparently continued to have fun.

A garden reveals a lot about the gardener, even if you don’t publish a garden journal. In the US, proper gardens have usually been compared to English gardens as the standard. However, as early as the American Revolution, Washington (Mount Vernon), Jefferson (Monticello) and Madison (Montpelier) were devoted gardeners who introduced native American plants into their landscapes, often in “competition” with traditional English plants. To these Founding Gardeners, their showy estates were patriotic extensions of the American Revolution. They encouraged all Americans to plant gardens that would outshine the European standard.

The early presidential gardeners were influenced by botanist John Bartram, a Quaker plowman of Darby, near Philadelphia. In the early 1700’s Bartram founded our first botanical garden, scouring early colonies for plants to fill it, corresponding widely with botanists in Europe, exchanging seeds and plants. Bartram  also hybridized the first American garden flowers. Nurseries and gardens sprang up, making Philadelphia a garden center.

John Bartram’s garden today is a National Historic Landmark in central Philadelphia ( However, the calendar of activities is focused on community gardens, with programs for all ages to encourage low-income urban residents to grow gardens for food as well as for green space in their neighborhoods.

Another community gardener was Alice Waters, the San Francisco chef who whose Chez Panisse restaurant started the local-food movement during the 1970s and continues today. Her Edible Schoolyard at an inner-city San Francisco middle school eventually dug up a concrete parking lot to build a garden and outdoor kitchen.  Alice said, “You begin with food because it’s the essence of life. If you’re seduced by something that’s beautiful   and nourishing, you want that experience again. You realize that it’s growing right over there, and you want to take care of that thing right over there.” Omaha community gardens such the HOPE Garden and the Big Garden are planning gardens while it snows, and will produce food for Omaha’s needy populations. Other local gardens encourage neighbors to garden.

Most gardens also connect us to earlier times. Flowers and vegetables in this winter’s nursery catalogs trumpet new varieties, but most plant species are the same as in early gardens. The Fort Atkinson historical garden here in Nebraska grows many of the forty-some vegetables and herbs that sustained the Fort before white settlement of our state. In that garden, as in other American gardens of the early 1800s, a large number of native American foods were already familiar: pumpkins, squash, beans, corn, cantaloupes and watermelons. Most of these became eagerly adopted also by European gardeners.

Whatever gardens we plant this year, all gardeners will think about insects more than before. Only one percent of insects are pests, according to entomologist Scott Evans. Gardeners are being encouraged to select plants for their value to local pollinating butterflies, bees and other insects, with the aim of creating an interrelated community. Exotic plants will probably not attract local insects for either larvae or nectar, and gardeners are nudged to take another look at plants that have long grown right where their garden now sprouts.  As larger farms and fields eliminate spots where native insects formerly thrived, backyard gardens are now important insect habitat.

Some garden reading:

Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Elizabeth von Arnim. First published 1898 but still available, even on Kindle.

Founding Gardeners. Andrea Wulf. 2011.

Chez Panisse and Alice Waters. Thomas McNamee. 2008.

Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>