Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the self-actualization blockbuster Eat, Pray, Love — and now, the new, steamy Victorian botanist saga The Signature of All Things — told the New York Times Real Estate section that she was selling her Italianate Victorian manse in Frenchtown, New Jersey, and moving to a smaller Victorian nearby. Also being downsized? Her garden. On the old, almost-one-acre property, she had a front lawn-turned-meadow, an asparagus patch that was years in the making, and century-old anemones. Now, she’ll have a smaller canvas on which to curate her perfect garden. We asked her for tips on how she makes every inch (and seedling) count.
How did the garden at your old house evolve? I started off doing an imitation of my mother’s garden from my childhood. I started with lots of vegetables. She had a pragmatic Depression-era mentality complete with root cellars and canning and preserves. We ate from that garden all winter.
Did you learn a lot from your mother about gardening? Despite my efforts as a child not to, I actually did learn a lot. But I’m a different person — I want to look out my window and see billows of beauty that doesn’t serve any purpose. So I took out a lot of vegetables and planted flowers. I modeled my garden after an English cottage garden — lots of wildflowers, foxgloves, catmint, and daisies … all big, tall, wavy, messy colors.
In the New York Times article, you said you had a meadow in your front yard. It used to all be lawn, which I’m against. My desire was to try to eradicate much of the lawn and turn it into something interesting. So I made it into a wildflower meadow that was only mowed once a year. I liked to think it’s an oasis for birds and butterflies, a rest stop on the highway. I’m against lawns — they look like parking lots to me. There’s all this light happening in the meadow; it’s literally buzzing with light, color and activity.
Why do you dislike lawns? As a kid, it’s wonderful to have a lawn and it’s easy to maintain it, in a way. It’s just not particularly interesting. Lawn grass is the biggest monoculture in America. It’s better than pavement, I guess. It absorbs water and provides oxygen. But all the chemicals people use on lawns — it’s a bummer. I’d rather look out my window and see dragonflies buzzing around.
Were your neighbors okay with the meadow-as-front-lawn? In some places, people might get mad and worry about their property values. The town we live in is pretty pro-country. People are aware we’re surrounded by country. Out West, if you get rid of the standard American front lawn and do native plants, it just looks so different. In the Northeast, it’s more familiar-looking. I like dandelions, too. Those are pretty and you can eat them. Killing them — it’s like putting poison on arugula. I’m not as big of a Nazi about invasive plants as some people are. I do feel like it’s a losing battle. Where do you draw the line?
How do you decide what to plant? My sister gave me the best advice ever: Find a nursery you like and go there every week from May through September. Whatever’s in bloom that you like, take home three pots (mostly perennials) and stick it in the yard. Next year you’ll have a garden that has something in bloom every week from May to October.
I always hear people saying you have to create a “focal point” in the garden like with urns or benches. Do you do agree? I have a much more loosey-goosey ethic about gardens. I don’t like a formal Italian or French garden — I admire it, but it’s not something that makes my heart go pitter-patter. I like a big, messy, loose English cottage garden. It doesn’t have rules like that — except that you need a fence for things to climb on. The English country garden is achievable, forgiving, abundant.
What did you learn by doing? I try not to overthink it. But it’s taken me a while to learn — there’s a six-month growing season. The thing is, the plant you absolutely love, like lilac — it might be gone in a few weeks. Then what do you do for rest of summer? I had a breakthrough: You plant strawberries on top of tulips. Strawberries are not deep-rooted and are a great ground cover. So I ask: What can you layer on top of each other so that when one show is over, there’s another show coming? Like daffodils and hostas.
What’s the easiest thing to grow, for those who lack a green thumb? I’m a big fan of catmint or those little fairy roses (they’re white or pink) — they don’t need a thing. They’re like latchkey kids. You can have a career and fairy roses. When you have giant huge spaces and don’t know how to fill them, I throw in a lot of purple catmint. If you cut it back flat at the end of June when it’s at peak, it will bloom again (you could even do it three times). You get a whole second bloom out of it, but still have your fairy roses doing their thing. It’s a useful low-maintenance thing.
Do you put a lot of thought into planning your garden? I have this general theory: it’s ultimate cage wrestling. You put it all together and whatever comes out alive. So that means: a lot of bee balm, tiger lilies, and catmint.
What have you never been able to grow? You have your delusions. I went on the net and put my zip code in to see if I could grow passionflowers here, and the Internet laughed. Solved: I’m not gardener enough for that. Also, dahlias — I can’t seem to manage those. You have to dig them up and put them in the basement in the winter. That’s not happening. I won’t do anything that’s that labor intensive. So I’m putting in more peonies, instead. The general thinking is you can replace the high-maintenance thing with the low-maintenance thing. Like you learn not to date the poets and drummers are you get older…you just don’t.
Do you have a mentor when it comes to all this? I have a gardening godmother friend, Bonnie. She’s great about helping me and guiding me. Here’s a good tip — find someone who’s lived where you live for a long time, someone who knows your soil and your reality. Somebody who says ‘I know you are really excited about starting a garden, but you don’t need 50 yards of vegetables. You don’t need 65,000 zucchinis. You can go to the farmer’s market and get heirloom tomatoes.’ That’s another reason I stopped growing vegetables. I’m surrounded by people who do it really well. I can’t raise cauliflower, but I can take that space and put in Russian sage. This person can walk your property and say what will or won’t work here. Instead of forcing the landscape to bend to your will, I’d rather ask the landscape what it wants.
Your novel’s heroine was a moss expert. I’d love to have a “moss room.” Have you ever grown it? I’m not so good at moss. I tried to do a moss garden. The thing is, moss doesn’t like to grow where it wasn’t born. You have to be really good at it. The best place to have moss is where there’s already moss. If it isn’t there, it’s because it doesn’t want to be there. I tried to move it on my property but it was like ‘No.’ My new property has a stone wall that’s moss-alicious. I’m not going to do a thing to it — if I wanted to be really nice, I’d pour some beer on it (like pouring out a 40 for my homies) or some yogurt. Speaking of moss, Amy Stuart, who blogs as The Drunken Botanist and wrote Wicked Plants, invented a cocktail to celebrate The Signature of All Things. It looks really mossy and is delicious…a lot of readers doing book clubs drink that.
Was there a “Sophie’s Choice” decision for what to take and what not to, when you moved? It’s hard to leave some of the stuff behind that’s established because it won’t survive the move. I have a lot of shade in new garden, so I’m doing lots of ferns and hostas. I certainly won’t be able to have a meadow at the new house. I’ve done this for years, and I’m pretty efficient about doing triage, knowing what I really like — what’s important — and what can be left behind. There are things that I can walk away from. I planted an asparagus patch at the old place. You leave it alone for a few years before you can eat the spears, and it makes this nice ferny hedge. I’m not doing that in the new place because you need big chunk of space.
Did you leave behind any great trees? I think there’s something so incredibly satisfying about finding the right plant for the right place. One of things I was so sad to leave — I bought a curly willow in a little pot. It’s a weeping willow but crooked; it’s genetic. It makes it grow whackadoodle. They only want sun and water. All the water from the gutters came down to one corner of the house, and no grass could grow because the water dumps there. When it rained, the hard channels of water created a gulley. Instead of fixing it, I planted that curly willow right in the middle of it. ‘You like water, dude? Have I got water for you.’ This willow has exploded — it’s the happiest plant that I owned. It is so beautiful and lush and delish…even 20 feet away it wouldn’t be. It needs to be right where it is. It makes me really happy and makes the house look really cool. Every once in while you accidentally put something in the right place, which is a pretty good metaphor for life as well.
— Maria Ricapito