My love affair with Piet Oudolf notwithstanding, the most treasured book in my library of gardening books is Earth On Her Hands: The American Woman in Her Garden (Starr Ockenga, Clarkson Potter, 1998).
Oudolf’s books (one written with Michael King, two with Henk Gerritsen, and four with Noel Kingsbury) are wonderful. I especially appreciate Planting: A New Perspective (Timber Press, 2013) because it comes with planting plans. As Thomas Rainer of Grounded Design says, for gardeners and garden designers, the sketches in this book are “a Rosetta stone for understanding Oudolf’s process.”
But Starr Ockenga’s book tells stories—18 stories of women who loved and nurtured a garden over time.
Marion Hosmer, married to husband Calvin in 1928, purchased an overgrown property near Brave Boat Harbor, Maine, in 1948 and tended it for 50 years. Under sumac, wild cherries, and brambles, they discovered the 400-year-old burying ground of previous owners. “Someday we will join them,” Marion told Ockenga, “but gardeners live a long time. We have to wake up in the morning to see what grew in the night.”
Joanna McQuail and George Reed bought their Pennsylvania property in 1939 and married the following year. In their second summer, a man with car trouble knocked on the door and asked to use the phone. After looking askance at the property, he invited Joanna to attend his wife’s tuition-free school of horticulture at the Barnes Foundation Arboretum. For the next three years, she “took everything offered” and used the knowledge she gained to develop Longview Farm. After their three children were born, Joanna tied sheep’s bells onto their pant straps so she could keep track of them while she worked on the farm.
“Everything wandered around, animals and children. There were no fences, no doors on the buildings. I guess we were all early hippies.” ~ Joanna Reed
In 1948, surveyors for the Pennsylvania Turnpike “arrived like storm troopers” and plotted the new expressway’s route straight through Longview Farm. The Reeds gave up farming then, but Joanna developed ornamental gardens on the property over several decades.
Each of the 18 stories in Earth On Her Hands is accompanied by a black and white portrait of the gardener, colour photos of her garden, a sketch of the property’s overall design, and some practical information: instructions for making Marion Hosmer’s Japanese tomato ring, advice from Hattie Purcell on growing vegetables, Ellie Springarn’s technique for building stone walls.
I think what I love most about this book is that I see myself, my mother, my grandmothers reflected in the faces and hands of these 18 old women. In their gardens, I see possibilities of what I could do with my own plot of land—given 30 years of hard work.
I’m older than these women were when they started their gardens. I have less money, less time, less access to resources. It doesn’t matter. What matters is commitment, love, and earth on my hands.