Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The plants and places that inspired the classic children’s tales by Marta McDowell Reviewed!

  • Hardcover: 340 pages
  • Publisher: Timber Press (November 5, 2013)

This book serves as a traveler’s guide to help you discover or rediscover Beatrix Potter’s Lake District, her garden at Hill Top Farm, and the many other gardens and landscapes that nourished her imagination.

You’re invited to follow Beatrix Potter through a year in her gardens, learning what she was growing in each season—pansies and peas, foxgloves and pinks, roses and currants, and all the other old-fashioned cottage plants that fill her drawings.

In this engagingly written and delightfully illustrated book, Marta McDowell takes you on a personal journey, tracing the development and eventual blossoming of Beatrix Potter’s life as a gardener, from her childhood interest in plants, through her development as an artist to her final years as an estate farmer and naturalist.

 Photograph of Beatrix Potter drawing at Derwentwater, 1903, Cotsen Children's Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University, Library

 ‘Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life’ is divided into three parts:

Part one reads as Beatrix Potter’s gardener’s biography if she had kept one! Childhood homes and gardens at such places  as: Dalguise House in Scotland and Wray Castle. The influence of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, served as a major life influence as a naturalist and author. 

Part Two covers a year in Beatrix Potter’s gardens from Castle Cottage, where she lived with her husband to Hill Top Farm her home which is now a museum in Cumbria, Lake District, England. 

Part Three reads like a road map of sorts providing detailed information about the favorite gardens throughout London she and her brother, Bertram enjoyed and what you will find there today. For instance, Bolton Gardens, the gardens at Camfield Place in Hertfordshire as well as Hatfield House and of course all roads lead back to the Lake District. 

 What I enjoyed about ‘Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life,’ is how the author included real locations and settings of Potter’s beloved books and how her love of nature and gardening influenced them. For instance, in part one the reader will discover how for Peter Rabbit Potter drew garden settings from various holiday homes, “If (Mr. McGregor’s) vegetable garden and wicket gate were anywhere it was at Lingholm near Keswick, but it would be vain to look for it there, as affirm of landscape gardeners did away with it, and laid it out anew with paved walks.” (Beatrix Potter) Beatrix spent ten summers there with her family so she knew Lingholm well. Lingholm’s walled kitchen garden segregated the members of the plant family from the ornamental flowerbeds.
In 1905, Beatrix was briefly engaged to her publisher Norman Warne. He died unexpectedly that year and she fled to Gwaynynog in North Wales to the home of widowed Uncle Burton. While there, she worked on the proofs of ‘Tiggy-Winkle’ and wrote to Norman’s siblings. She structured a book about a frog named Jeremy Fisher, with drawing s of forget-me-nots and water lilies. She loved sketching in the garden because it was good therapy. In a letter to one of Norman’s relatives she says, “I know some people don’t like frogs! But I think I had convinced Norman that I could make it a really pretty book with a good many flowers & water plants.” 

Indeed Gwaynynog had a large garden that she had described years earlier, “two-thirds surrounded by a red-brick wall with many apricots, and an inner circle of old grey apple trees on wooden espaliers. It is very productive but not tidy, the prettiest kind of garden, where bright, old fashioned flowers grow amongst the currant bushes.”  The gardens at Gwaynynog later became the setting for The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, published in 1909. 

Much of Part Two revolves around the gardens, flowers, plants, etc., on the grounds of both Castle Cottage and Hill Top on the slope between the two properties called Post Office Meadow. Potter’s watercolors are found herein as well as photographs of Potter with her animals at Hill Top. For instance, these gardens played the setting in such books as “Peter Rabbit’s Almanac for 1929,” “The Tale of Johnny Town Mouse,” and “The Tale of Tom Kitten.”
 Beatrix Potter, 'Garden in Sawrey', 1905, pen-and-ink and watercolour. Linder Bequest: , © Frederick Warne & Co. 2012 

Part Three takes you back to Potter’s childhood influences again and back to her later years living at Hill Top after the death of her husband and into old age. An elder Potter looks back on her accomplishments, how her life changed and how her love for the Lake District carried so heavily into her works.  
 Beatrix Potter at a garden gate at age 5 in 1871. The Beatrix Potter Society.

 I highly recommend, ‘Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life’ by Marta McDowell to anyone wanting to learn more about Beatrix Potter the naturalist and how nature influenced her entire life and her various careers. It is beautifully written and illustrated with family photographs and Potter’s watercolors. Everything ties into her beloved books and what a debt we owe to Beatrix Potter. 

NOTE:  At the end of this book you will find some wonderful references that Marta McDowell provides including Notes and Further Reading list and a photography and illustration sources and credits list.


Maggie Peters said…
Great review. I've always loved her books.
Erika said…
Thank you for sharing this wonderful book and pictures. I love the movie, Beatrix Potter, and I am always glad to see her work and her wonderful paintings.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Maggie and Erika,
I'm so glad you both enjoyed my review and we all love Beatrix Potter so much. I appreciate you stopping by and taking time to leave comments.
Kevin Marsh said…
Hello Kimberly,

Great review. I was at a house in Suffolk a few weeks ago where Beatrix uncle once lived, (can't remember the name of the estate)! In the bedroom that she used were original drawings and letters that she sent to her family.
Always nice to see her work.
Kevin Marsh said…
Hello Kimberly,

Just looked up thje house in Suffolk. Its called Melford Hall in Long Melford.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Kevin,
Oh, Melford Hall sounds fantastic! You are lucky indeed to have that experience of staying in a grand estate or you know the right people ;) and to think there was a Beatrix Potter connection, as well! I have some wonderful cherished childhood memories of her books. Thanks so much for commenting and stopping by. I just wanted to add the National Trust link to Melford Hall. How beautiful it is,