Garden Books: Our Life In Gardens

By Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, illustrated by Bobbi Angell (with the accuracy, sensitivity and elegance she always brought – full disclosure – to our collaboration at the New York Times Garden Q&A.)


This is the first page of the first chapter; you’ll be seeing the cover all over the place if you haven’t seen it already.

When Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd decided to call their third book Our Life in Gardens, they probably didn’t mean “our” to include everyone who ever fell for a plant. But that’s the way they made me feel.

No matter that my gardens will never be a patch on theirs, that they have taken zone defiance beyond art into legerdemain and amassed a collection of rare plants that puts most public gardens to shame, they share discoveries, admit obsessions and air plenty of strong opinions as though their readers were their equals on a level playing field of horticultural passion.

The chapters arrive alphabetically, so you know going in this will not be a straightforward march through  North Hill, the seven acre Vermont garden that the two have made (over more than 30 years) into one of the country’s most famous marriages of plantsmanship and design.

Instead the tour is elliptical and so is the history. You don’t learn how they found the property until you get to The Daffodil Meadow, 88 pages in. There’s an enchanting introduction, Setting Out, that really is an introduction. But right after that we’re honing in on  Agapanthus, one of the many (many many) tender beauties they simply can’t do without –  and neither can you when they get through with you.

Next up are Annuals, Arborvitae, Artichokes, Bananas, The Bay Tree … In other words, it’s a pointillist picture, an aggregation of bright bits that makes a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. Telling details are tucked in as though by chance, like choice plants in a rock wall.  The step by step  description of their pea-staking technique, for instance, includes the “twine from hay bales fed to the cows all winter long.” Cows? By the time the bovines make their brief appearance you’re not surprised; a large assortment of other animals has already flashed by.


The love letters to leafier pets, from tiny species cyclamen and rare Himalayan blue poppies to the collection of (38!) magnolias are at the same time thank you celebrations of those who provided the plants. As the chapters roll by in flowers and vegetables, trees, shrubs and bulbs, a whole sub-plot’s worth of  eminent gardeners and nurserymen enter the story – most of them as friends. Wouldn’t hurt to make a list; it’s bound to come in handy.

There are also plenty of  plenty of useful tips on the choice, care and feeding of a good sized assortment of plants, but Our Life In Gardens doesn’t pretend to be a how-to book. I beg to differ. The authors aren’t didactic about it but if you read carefully there are instructions on almost every page about how to be a generous, patient and loving gardener.


all drawings by Bobbi Angell

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  • Jared Said,

    I’m reading it with pen in hand to write down the names of the nurseries they mention. I just read the chapter on their daffodil meadow and am now inspired to dig and separate my crowded daffodils this spring right after they bloom. The best gardening books (like the best cookbooks) combine personal narrative with nuts-and-bolts technique. Such a good book.

  • leslie Said,

    hi Jared,

    Couldn’t agree with you more – on all points.

    Good luck with the daffodils. I’ve never had trouble doing mine in the green but have learned – the hard way – that dividing doesn’t always help. Unless they’ve gotten badly shaded the sturdy, common varieties recommended in the book will just keep moving outward and flowering away for years with no help from the gardener. (Dividing does increase them more quickly)

    It’s the fancy ones that ensnare us each fall that are often shy with the ensuing flowers and some of them are as cranky about multiplying as the most recalcitrant tulips. Leaves, no problem. Flowers, be sure you’ve got very well drained soil that’s dedicated to the daffodils, so they have nothing to compete with and do not get watered while sleeping. Then take your vitamins.

    I hope you’ll stick with us, and report back in the spring of 2010!

  • Hi Leslie,
    This book has caught my eye lately as it seems to have won much praise from many of my most trusted sources-including you! I’m curious about their musings and observations on how experiencing so many gardens in their professional life impacted the design and enjoyment of their own.
    As a garden designer, I’ve occupied much of my time in other people’s gardens only to find my own garden neglected some seasons.
    Thanks for the review.

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Shirley

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book – but I should warn you you won’t find any revelations about their client’s gardens in it. For that, try the North Hill website, which has a section describing their projects.

    I sympathize with the “my own garden is neglected” syndrome. Happens to me more or less constantly and is no doubt about to happen yet again. One of our “costs” as designers that there’s no place to put on the bill, so I guess it’s a good thing that there are also many benefits that are equally difficult to quantify.

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