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Oh, Those Wicked, Wicked Plants: A Conversation with Amy Stewart

Wicked Plants: A Book of Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart might be more accurately described as a brilliant "bestiary," so lively and alive are the rogues, assassins, and ne'er-do-wells of this expertly conceived tome. Just out today, Wicked Plants includes etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs and illustrations by Jonathon Rosen. The featured flora ranges from Khat, which "gun-toting Somalian men stuffed...into their cheeks," racing around Mogadishu "in a jittery high that lasted until late into the night," to Aconite, which "Nazi scientists found useful as an ingredient for poisoned bullets." Stewart includes such cheerily titled sections as "This Houseplant Could be Your Last" and "The Devil's Bartender." Everything about this brilliant, fascinating, and often quite funny hardcover screams buy me, down to the elegant book ribbon and the excellent design. I can't always say I find plants the most interesting of subjects, but Stewart's enthusiasm and her great writing made me an instant fan of hither-to-unknown-to-me plants like Ratbane, Voodoo Lily, and Horse Choke Mayhem Vine (okay, so I made that last one up, but if you read Wicked Plants, you'll soon find that the name wouldn't look at all out of place amongst the real ones..).

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Stewart via email about her book, and about such serious subjects as cage matches between bears and plants. She replied from home, between trips to Los Angeles and Minneapolis. "The book tour is like this--go somewhere for a few days or a week and then go home long enough to do laundry and wave to my husband, and then leave again. I'll be mostly gone through July."


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Best Books of April: How Kate Morton's Forgotten Garden Grew

My second pick for the Best of April, Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden, completely overran my imagination during the time it took me to consume its nearly 700 pages (which, in case you wondered, was one rare sunny weekend I devoted to sitting outside and submerging myself in the book for long stretches, my idea of exquisite decadence). Perhaps because we share a lot of the same obsessions--like the power of stories (real and imagined, particularly in the lives of children), and the freedom and vitality you can feel in a garden that's been let go a little wild--I ended up with a list of overly long questions for Morton. She sent these lovely responses, which I hope will inspire to you to let her book work its magic on you--preferably outside on a succession of warm spring days. --Mari Malcolm
The Forgotten Garden has some marvelous parallels with Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden, and Burnett even makes an appearance in your book as a guest at a garden party. Did her book inspire portions of your story?

Kate Morton: The Secret Garden was one of my favourite books when I was a little girl. Along with stories like The Faraway Tree and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it's one of many classic childhood tales in which children escape from the adult world to a place in which their imagination is allowed free rein. However, it wasn’t my intention to reference The Secret Garden when I first started writing.

In fact, The Forgotten Garden (which was called The Authoress until the final draft!) began with a family story: when she was 21, my grandmother's father told her that she wasn't his biological child. Nana was so deeply affected by this knowledge that she told no one until she was a very old lady and finally confided in her three daughters. When I learned Nana’s secret, I was struck by how fragile a person’s sense of self is and knew that one day I would write a story about someone who experienced a similar life-changing confession.

When I began to write about Nell, I knew that her mystery was going to lead her to an English cottage, but the other details were hazy. It was while I was auditioning English locations for my book that I came across mention of the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. My interest was piqued, and I began reading everything I could find about this place: a grand country estate with astounding gardens that had been locked and forgotten after its gardening staff were killed during the first world war and the owners moved away.

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Garden Library Profile #3: Gayla Trail

Gayla Trail The first book I always recommend to crafty gals who've been seized by gardening fever is You Grow Girl, Gayla Trail's hip yet completely unpretentious guide to organic gardening. It's the physical counterpart to her fantastically informative blog of the same name, which she started in 2000 and has grown into a community of like-minded gardeners. As a graphic designer and DIYer with an eye for the lovely and unusual, Gayla goes beyond the basics of soil prep, planting, and pest vanquishing to more creative projects, like making leafy stepping stones and carnivorous plant bogs. You Grow Girl A Torontonian, Gayla has especially clever advice for urbanites coaxing a garden on a roof, balcony, or just a sunny windowsill. In all her writing and her talks across North America, she radiates an infectious excitement about growing. If she has her way, we'll all fall madly, deeply in love with nature, in our gardens and far beyond.

Thanks, Gayla, for sharing the best of your shelves. --Mari Malcolm
: How would you describe your garden library?

Gayla Trail: Colourful. As a designer and photographer, I have to admit that while I know better I can't help choosing a book by its cover. I expect a lot from the interior pages too. I am not drawn to 1- or 2-colour gardening books.

While my library is packed with full-colour, image-heavy books, these days I am most drawn to gardening memoirs and how-to books that include personal stories or a distinctly personable bent. What was your first gardening book?

Gayla Trail: I did not have gardening books growing up, although I did frequent the young scientist section at the public library. So while my memory leans more towards book about keeping praying mantises as pets and brewing up batches of paramecium, I must have come across one or two gardening books along the way.

The first gardening book I bought as an adult was horrible. I was overwhelmed in the bookstore and ended up with a book that had lots of pictures but was incredibly dull and uninspiring. I promptly gave it away and have absolutely no recollection of what it was called or who authored it.
Second Nature Which book do you wish you'd had in your early years as a gardener?

Gayla Trail: Second Nature by Michael Pollan and The Gardener's Manifesto by Lorraine Johnson.

They are not how-to's. What attracts me to both are their progressive ideas about nature and how that relates to gardening, especially in the city. As an urban gardener, I originally felt very left out and on the margins of any real gardening discourse--as if I’d never be considered a “real” gardener because I don’t own land or a backyard for that matter. Both of these books helped me to fully and finally let go of those prejudices. Who's your favorite garden writer?

Gayla Trail: I don’t have a favorite but there are several that inspire, including many of the writers I have already mentioned. Jamaica Kincaid is one of my favorite authors in general--I've read all of her books. She also happens to be a gardener with a couple of books on the subject to her credit: My Garden (Book) and the collection My Favorite Plant. I like the way her honest, direct, and unapologetic style translates to garden writing.

Monty Don is a British writer with a great sense of humor. I have only read one book written by him, a collection of essays entitled gardening= Gardening Mad. I really appreciate his relaxed wit. What book has most influenced your gardening style or philosophy?

Gayla Trail: My style is experimental and off the cuff. I’m not much of a planner and tend to move things around constantly, especially the containers. I grow in groupings rather than rows. My gardens are messy. Garden books can’t get away from photos of orderly gardens regardless of what they preach in the text (even I tidy up slightly when I photograph!) so in that sense no book has influenced me. I  suppose I am more influenced by those childhood science-experiments-for-kids books!

I will say however, that I really appreciated The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka because it validated an impulse I've always had to drop prunings and weeded plants in place on the soil surface rather than transferring to the compost bin. It was reassuring to find that this made sense to a farmer of such distinction.
: Which book has the most inspiring, luscious, or provocative pictures?

Gayla Trail: The photography in Planted by British garden writer Andy Sturgeon drew me to the book Gardening Madand later his writing and approach sealed the deal. It's a full-colour book, yet they dared to insert black and white photographs. It absolutely works! The pictures are eye candy.

I suppose it is obvious that I connect more closely with British garden writers than North American. It’s the dry humor and wit. What's your most essential reference book?

Gayla Trail: The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control, edited by Barbara Ellis and Fern Marshall Bradley. If I had to reduce my library down to one book, this would be it. Which volume in your collection has the most sentimental value?

Gayla Trail: There are two both signed by women that I respect and admire as gardeners and people of integrity. I won’t tell you what they say, but both inscriptions make me a little teary-eyed:

The New Ontario Naturalized Garden by Lorraine Johnson. She came to a presentation I gave about guerrilla gardening in which I mentioned her. To see her out in the audience as I quoted from her totally blew my mind. She’s been a real inspiration to me. A Way to Garden

A Way to Garden by Margaret Roach. We met online just recently and she sent me a copy of her book, which is absolutely brilliant and brimming with honesty, insight, and passion for her garden. What's your favorite recent addition? Heirloom Tomato

Gayla Trail: The Heirloom Tomato by Amy Goldman. I’ve been strapped for time recently and haven’t had a chance to read a single word since I bought the book. However, I have thumbed through the photos. I could eat those photos. Never mind that it’s also the middle of winter and I could eat my own hand in exchange for a decent tomato. A book filled with full-color, lush photographs of tomatoes at this time of year is like cruel (but wonderful) pornography for the space-deprived.

My spouse bought me a book called The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans that I’ve only been able to briefly skim but have been itching to dive into for months. What’s on your wish list?

The Compleat Squash Gayla Trail: I keep meaning to pick up The Compleat Squash by Amy Goldman. With so little space I never get the chance to grow all the gorgeous squashes I find in the seed trading catalogues. Instead, I’m forced to make do with one or two per year, slowly and painfully inching my way through the hundreds I covet. My eyes eat up books like this, but it also makes me crazy.

See all our garden library profiles at --Mari

Garden Library Profile #2: Amy Stewart

Amystewartredsm It gives me giddy pleasure to present the next installment in my garden library series: highlights from the shelves of one of my favorite garden writers, Amy Stewart. Back when I was taking my first stabs at planting, Amy's witty and informative memoir of making her first garden, From the Ground Up, gave me the courage to launch a full-frontyard assault on my own lawn. I've since devoured her inquiries into the secret lives of earthworms and the ills of the cut-flower industry, and I’m already making room next to my bed for this spring’s Wicked Plants: A Book of Botanical Atrocities, which promises an abundance of evilly fascinating plantfacts (see creepy trailer here). Along with her blog, Dirt, she’s a driving force behind GardenRant, an award-winning blog whose manifesto never fails to make me want to pump my muddy fist in solidarity.

Amy and her husband also own an antiquarian bookstore in Eureka, California, so I knew her garden library would be well worth perusing. Enjoy. -- Mari Malcolm How would you describe your garden library?

Amy Stewart: Overgrown—like my garden. I have six shelves of garden books right next to my desk, and a long and completely overstuffed shelf of coffee table-sized books as well. Oh wait—that doesn’t include the books that I buy as reference materials for each of the books I’ve written, so there’s also a shelf of poisonous plant books, a shelf of earthworm books, and a shelf of books on the cut flower industry. Oh, and then there are the garden books that, for some reason, get shelved with general fiction and nonfiction, which is a whole other section of the house. It is really, really out of hand. And my husband and I own a used bookstore, so there’s no excuse for me not to get rid of some of them. Except that I can’t. What was your first garden book?

Sunset-cover Amy Stewart: I didn’t start gardening until I was an adult, so there’s no childhood book about gardening in my past, unless you count The Secret Garden, which I read many times as a kid. The Sunset Western Garden Book was the first actual garden book I bought for information. Someone who worked at a garden center actually made fun of me for not owning it, so I was shamed into buying it. But it really is the first reference book anybody on the West Coast should buy, and each edition gets better. Who’s your favorite garden writer?

Amy Stewart: I was very inspired by Carl Klaus's lovely book My Vegetable Love and his subsequent Weathering Winter, both written in a highly literary diary style. He’s a wonderfully thoughtful writer, and we’ve gotten to be friends over the years.

 Also, anything by Sue Hubbell. Book-beesI especially love A Country Year and A Book of Bees. I read her book on bees and thought, Oh. If she can make bees that interesting, maybe I can make worms interesting.

 And of course, Katharine White’s Onward and Upward in the Garden and anything by her husband, E.B. White. I especially recommend One Man’s Meat, an amazing collection of essays about country life written in the years leading up to WWII. We know what’s going to happen and he doesn’t, which makes the essays unexpectedly dramatic.

I also really love good fiction that revolves around a garden, but not in a way that feels formulaic. Carrie Brown’s Rose's Garden is a great example, as is Bailey White’s Quite a Year for Plums and Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries. They each have a character or two who garden, but it comes so naturally that it never feels forced. Design-plants What book has most influenced your gardening style?

Amy Stewart: Anything by Piet Oudolf. I love the Lurie Garden in Chicago, which he designed. He favors plants that are very vigorous, almost aggressive, and plants that look good when they’re dead. What a concept—a garden that is interesting to look at year-round! Which book in your collection has the most inspiring images?

Grasses-cover Amy Stewart: I love Grasses by Nancy Ondra, with photos by Saxon Holt. I was completely not into ornamental grasses until I saw that book, and it changed my mind. I have replanted my front yard garden because of that book. Really, any book that Saxon photographed is worth checking out. What’s your most essential reference book?

Amy Stewart: That would still be Sunset’s Western Garden Book. California has so many odd little microclimates that you really need very region-specific advice on what grows here. But now that I live in Eureka, I also really like a new book called The Timber Press Guide to Gardening in the Pacific Northwest. What’s so great about it is that it doesn’t try to cover every single plant one might theoretically grow out here—it focuses on what works. Which volume in your collection has the most sentimental value?

Amy Stewart: My husband has given me a few rare old botanical books over the years. I’m afraid to own anything too valuable—I’m sure I’ll spill coffee on it or ruin it somehow—but he gave me an early edition of Rousseau’s Letters on the Elements of Botany with color plates that’s really wonderful. The hand coloring is as bright as if it was done yesterday. What’s your favorite recent addition?

Stylish-sheds Amy Stewart: I really like Jeff Gillman’s books The Truth About Organic Gardening and The Truth About Garden Remedies. He’s not afraid to question long-cherished beliefs about what works in the garden, and he’s a very funny person. Go see him speak if you ever get the chance.

Oh, and Debra Prinzing wrote a book called Stylish Sheds that is so fun and inspiring. She visited the novelist Amy Bloom, whose work I love. She has an amazing writer’s cottage—I want one! What’s on your wish list?

Poisonous-plants Amy Stewart: Timber Press always has something I want. They have a new book coming out called Tall Perennials that looks great—I am really into tall plants that make you feel completely surrounded. And I think they have a couple of new poisonous plant books. Even though my new book, Wicked Plants, is done, I still want these to complete my collection. They are: The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms and Mind-Altering and Poisonous Plants of the World.

The Best of Willi Galloway's Garden Library

Willi Last week, I introduced a new Omnivoracious series, aiming to arm readers with the best books to make the gardens we envision. I'm asking my favorite writers, renegade nursery people, horticulturalists, plant explorers, bloggers, and obsessive gardeners from across the gardening world to profile the best of their personal libraries, and share them with you.

I'm delighted to kick things off with a library profile from Willi Galloway. The West Coast Editor of Organic Gardening magazine and Garden Expert on, Willi's also a weekly guest on our local NPR affiliate's gardening show, as well as a Master Gardener and a member of the Board of Directors for Seattle Tilth, a nonprfit offering new gardeners classes on everything from composting to raising chickens in the city.

Willi launched her blog, DigginFood, last spring, and it has quickly lived up to her vision of a "community table that serves up gardening and cooking inspiration for people who like real food." Especially if you're just getting into growing your own food, you'll find it to be an invaluable resource, and you'll appreciate Willi's willing, wise advice.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also mention that Willi is my neighbor and friend. She's the kind of person who will show up on your doorstep on a balmy August evening bearing a magazine-cover-worthy tart made with berries from her backyard, claiming it's too much for her and her husband, Jon, to eat alone. So she was excited to share her favorite books with you. How would you broadly describe your garden library?

Willi Galloway: Heavy on practical how-to gardening guides with a smattering of inspirational picture books and garden-themed literature. What was your first gardening book (or the first you remember)?

Willi Galloway: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My dad read this to my when I was a little girl and it inspired a fascination in walled gardens that I have to this day. I re-read it a few years ago and it was just as good as I remembered! How about the book you most wish you'd had in your earliest years as a gardener?

Willi Galloway: The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch. This book is indispensable, an accessible guide with common sense advise on how to grow everything from vegetables to ornamental trees and shrubs. The newest edition is particularly good. Who's the garden writer you love most?

Willi Galloway: Nancy Ondra. First and foremost, Nancy is an amazing gardener with a great aesthetic. Her most recent books, including Foliage, Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design, and Fallscaping: Extending Your Garden Season into Autumn are rare in that they pair gorgeous photos with actionable, informative commentary and tons of useful tidbits, including sidebars of great varieties, lists of attractive plant combinations, and planting and maintenance tips. Who would you like to see more gardeners read?

Willi Galloway: Richard Goodman. His book French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France is pure escapism. I've read it three times, and each time I finish I vow to move to a foreign place and start a vegetable garden before I die. What book that has most influenced your gardening style or philosophy?

Willi Galloway: Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. This book taught me how to be an organic kitchen gardener. Each entry gives the basics on how to plant, grow, and harvest every vegetable, all without using a drop of chemicals. Lots of information on soil, composting, building raised beds, and season extension. Which volume in your library has the most inspiring pictures?

Willi Galloway: The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World's Most Beautiful Fruit by Amy Goldman. You'll want to eat the pages out of this book! Gorgeous, inspiring portraits of my very favorite vegetable. What are your most essential references?

Willi Galloway: Here's my shortlist: Which volume in your collection has the most sentimental value?

Willi Galloway: Tasha Tudor's Garden by Tovah Martin and Richard W. Brown. My grandmother always had it on her coffee table when I was a child, and I loved to thumb through it. Even though I have a more restrained style, I admire Ms. Tudor's unrestrained affection for flowers, especially peonies! What's your favorite recent addition?

Willi Galloway: The Hungry Planet: What the World Eats by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Alusio. I'm first and foremost a vegetable gardener, and while this isn't explicitly a garden book, it reminds me of the amazing of diversity of food that I can grow and that gardening is an important life skill to many people around the world. What's on your wish list?

Willi Galloway:

Best Way to Make a Garden? Make a Garden Library.

This morning when I left the house, I looped through my garden, spending a few minutes feeding the fish and admiring a ruby-throated hummingbird that sipped the salvias (miraculously still in bloom). It was sunrise, and everything glowed. Silvery grasses stirred. A block away, a bus rumbled by, and folks lined up at Starbucks. But within the garden's walls, a wild world woke up. My to-do list momentarily dropped away. I felt wholly at home. And as always, it jolted me with hope that we can remake our world into something more vital, sustaining to us and to wildlife, infinitely more beautiful, and resilient in unpredictable climates--if more of us make gardens.

Sixthextinction More than 10 years ago, I picked up a book that transformed how I saw the world. Paleontologist Richard Leakey's Sixth Extinction got me thinking in eons, with five waves of life forms erupting and vanishing--and a new, faster wave, that would to leave our descendants in a world of weed species. I was already nervously contemplating life after school. Now this book had me equally awestruck by life's ingenious variety and freaked out that we were extinguishing it.

Growing up on Washington State's Olympic peninsula, my siblings and I spent our time outside school examining tide pools, gorging on wild berries, and tramping around the swamp beyond my grandmother's field. When we went outside to play, one of us had to wear a cowbell to scare away bears. Otters and ducks came up our stream. We called to pheasants and caught tadpoles. we watched the foxes chase the field mice in the evening after they mowed the hay, while bats whirled after mosquitoes. This was the same forest where my grandpa built a farm in 1929, soon after arriving from Norway. But by the time I was in high school, the tadpole pond was buried under Kopachuck Estates, and when I came back from college, I could count on at least three dead animals in the road from the freeway to our house. It's the same scenario that plays out on the edges of so many cities, as forests and fields give way to shops and houses, and wild places become shrinking islands.

When I left school in spring of '99, I started a new life in a cubicle, proofing copy at and living in a city. I felt seriously nature-deprived. That summer, my husband Andrew and I married in my aunt's garden, a place so vibrant it seemed enchanted. Clearly cultivated and not strictly natural, it still hosted an amazing array of plants, insects, and bird life. Helping my aunt plant in the lead-up to the big day, my obsession with making gardens was born.

Lucky for me, I worked across the hall from an editor who had a hook-up with gardening publishers, and I started taking home the copies she'd finished reviewing. For the next four years, I devoured books on all kinds of gardens, from French potagers to collector's gardens to acres of cultivated wildlife habitat. My gardener aunt (also a librarian) gave me many of her favorites books, and I hunted down others based on comments by my favorite writers. I developed a habit of ending each day with a gardening book, to give me leafy dreams.

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