Liz Primeau Interviews
Greystone Books recently picked the brain of Liz Primeau, author of My Natural History, while she picked a few flowers.
You’ve been gardening for a long time—nearly 50 years—and you managed to incorporate your hobby into your editorial career. That was a lucky break!
Yes, it certainly was. For about 20 years I’d been an editor of many consumer magazines, like Toronto Life, Chatelaine and City Woman. I had been a closet gardener all the while when Canadian Gardening magazine started in 1990. They were looking for an editor who was also a gardener, and Vista, the magazine I was managing editor of at the time, was about to go under. The editorship of Canadian Gardening fell into my lap at just the right time. I felt really fortunate.
Later in the’90s, the magazine partnered with HGTV to produce Canadian Gardening Television, and I became the co-host. It was hard work, lots of fun, and an excellent opportunity to learn. I learned a lot that had nothing to do with gardening, including how to keep smiling while you’re talking and your knees are hurting.
In your book, you discuss the idea that there could be such a thing as a gardening gene that started with Neolithic man. Do you really think some people inherit a green thumb?
It’s really a tongue-in-cheek theory. But you never know—there could be something to the theory, though I’m not the first to write about it. Many authors, from Russell Page, who talks about “green fingers” in his book, The Education of a Gardener, to Michael Pollan, who spends nearly a whole chapter on green thumbs in his book, Second Nature, have considered the idea of inherited green thumbs.
It’s possible that the capacity to grow things successfully had its beginning in a fundamental survival mechanism. Who knows? It’s how the theory of evolution and natural selection works, isn’t it? During Neolithic times, humans discovered that new plants sprang forth from those little specks that plants produced after flowering. Humans then realized they could grow their own foods right outside the cave door, thus changing humans from hunters and gatherers, to farmers. I postulate that natural selection over the millennia favoured these new farmers who could see the connection between seeds and plants. This understanding was eventually passed on in our DNA as a love of nature and an ability to grow things.
This theory is not meant to be taken seriously or scientifically, but I ran the idea past a university zoologist—who’s also a serious gardener—and she agreed it wasn’t so fantastic. It’s just that no one can prove or disprove it. Science has more important things to contemplate.
Plenty of gardeners feel that gardening is in their genes, that they were born to garden. I count myself as one of them. For as far back in my childhood as I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by nature and how things grow. Gardening is in my blood.
You talk about the six stages gardeners go through when planning their gardens year after year, all the way from bright hits of colour with annuals through to appreciating winter’s subdued colours. Can gardeners really be so predictable?
You’d be surprised at the nods of recognition I get from long-time, experienced gardeners when I go on about those six stages. A lot of people think they’re the only ones who have moved through those stages in roughly that order, but when they compare notes they realize we’re all much the same. So, yes, I do think gardeners can be that predictable, but I don’t mean that in a bad way.
Like almost every gardener I know, I wanted masses of colour when I started. Then I learned that perennials have more subtle colour ranges and last from season to season, so they’re more economical in the end. It’s harder to plan a garden around perennials, but by then I was ready for the challenge.
Then I discovered foliage—plants like hostas and heucheras, ferns and flowering perennials with handsome foliage that still provides some interest after the blooms are gone.
It was about this time that I started to realize my garden was nothing but a collection of beds and borders with no overall plan, and I became dissatisfied with it. It needed a design—some bones, as gardeners like to say. Creating a plan for your garden is the fourth stage.
Next came the recognition that trees were good for more than providing shade—some had really nice bark and good architectural shapes that added to the look of the garden.
The last stage is the appreciation of winter—it’s always welcome to gardeners. Winter provides a rest from summer chores, but it has more value once you start to appreciate its dark and subtle colours: the brooding maroons and bronzes, and the patterns of light from bare vines and twisting trees. Even a blanket of snow is beautiful. At this stage, gardeners start to plant perennials that have interesting seed heads in winter, or shrubs with coloured bark, like red-twig dogwood.
To me, these stages echo the stages in our lives, from the desire for immediate gratification in our youth, to the deeper and mellower pleasures of maturity.
I’ve heard many gardeners say that gardening is therapeutic, but I always thought that was meant in a superficial sense. Gardening was a significant help for your severe anxiety disorder—how did that work?
When I started gardening seriously in my 20s, I was a stressed-out young mom with more responsibilities than I could handle. I felt very isolated and was living in a time when emotional problems or mental illness were kept under wraps. I developed a severe panic disorder not long after the birth of my first baby, which I suspect had something to do with post-partum depression and hormonal changes. However, I didn’t receive any real treatment for it—I just tried to avoid the places and activities that would trigger the attacks. Even so, they just kept getting worse.
I realized later that I had no control over my life at that time, or at least I felt that I didn’t. For me, I think a lot of the therapeutic effects of gardening had to do with control. I’d escape to my garden, where I called the shots. I could decide what to plant, and where to plant them. It was my personal world. As the years passed and my garden grew, it gave me a real sense of accomplishment. It was something I’d created and made beautiful all by myself. That was important, too.
There were also the very real, instant benefits of feeling the sun on my back and getting my hands in the dirt—of losing myself in nature. Anyone can appreciate those benefits, and I think that’s what a lot of gardeners mean when they say that gardening is therapeutic. It makes you forget the troubles of the day.
Gardens have always served as protection and refuge—from the walled gardens of ancient Persia and Egypt, which provided order, calm and sanctuary from the dust and heat of the desert, to the monastery gardens of medieval times, such as the infirmary garden where monks were allowed to rest after being bled. The monks also believed that the act of gardening was healing. Gardening can “revive a dying spirit and soften the hardness of a mind,” the Cistercian Gilbert of Hoyle wrote in the 12th century. I second that thought, although I admit drug therapy and counseling helped me, too!
In today’s world, gardening has become officially accepted as therapeutic—it’s used often to help people with emotional illnesses or alcoholism. You can even take courses in horticultural therapy to learn how to use it to help others.
Your book has a lot of fascinating historical information. Did you know all this stuff before, or did it arise in your research?
I’d read a lot of it before, or learned it on trips I’d taken, such as Canadian Gardening magazine’s tour of the Renaissance gardens of Tuscany in ’99. But I read lots more, and kept Googling from one topic to another, or going to the library and borrowing garden books.
Gardening has a long history, and it fascinates me that gardens and gardeners haven’t changed very much over the centuries. Mother Nature and human nature just don’t change. For instance, I had to laugh on that trip to Italy when I learned that Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister, who bought Via Reale, a 17th century villa and garden in Lucca, started buying up her neighbours’ estates and summer palaces in her quest for a bigger garden that she could remodel in her own style. We’ve seen that kind of acquisitive nature at work in Canada. She was stopped when Napoleon’s empire fell, thank goodness, before she could destroy all the historical features of her neighbour’s properties.
On that trip I also realized that the popular “garden of rooms” that’s been talked about so much by garden designers for the past decade as if it was something new actually goes back to Roman times. When I visited Pompeii, I could see gardens divided into areas of use—for sitting, for dining, for growing fruits. The big Renaissance gardens were also designed in areas, with rose gardens, ponds, and aviaries. No place for barbecuing and hanging out the laundry, though. Those are modern introductions.
When it comes down to it, we may think we invented the idea of dividing the garden into “rooms”, but we’re really just reinventing the wheel.
What would you say was your biggest gardening mistake?
I guess it would have to be the meadow. I was in love with the idea of having a natural meadow in my backyard. The landscaper I consulted was as enthusiastic about it as I was, but he didn’t give me good advice. I can’t really blame him, though—he was really good with planning and design, but I suspected the first time we talked that I knew more about plants than he did. Still, I let him lead me.
He assured me we could just let the lawn grass grow and it would stand up like meadow grasses, but it didn’t. And he put in cultivated Shasta daisies, balloon flower and Iceland poppies throughout the grass—all the wrong plants. They should have been native prairie plants like liatris, bee balm and snakeroot, or black-eyed Susan. The grass grew long and flopped over, and soon our neighbour was offering his lawn mower. I dug all the flowers out—about 200 of them—and made a new bed to hold them so we could mow.
This taught me two things: meadows don’t belong in suburban backyards, and to go with my instincts.
What is your garden like now that you’ve spent so many years perfecting it? Is it finished? Are you happy with it?
Ask any gardener—no garden is ever finished. They change from year to year at the whim of the weather and the gardener. Right now, I’m looking at my front garden and thinking it’s overgrown with too-tall plants and I’m planning their replacements.
I’m generally happy with how the garden looks, and I haven’t changed its basic design for probably 14 years. The front has no lawn; it’s filled with perennials and a few shrubs, and has a Y-shaped gravel path dividing the big beds. A gravel and flagstone path leads from the driveway and the front door right around to the back and through the back garden to a pond at the right rear corner, where we have a round sitting area.
All the rest of the back and the side, except for about 20 square feet of grass where we put our umbrella clothesline, is perennial gardens. I change the plants often: as one variety gets overgrown and tired, I replace it, or sometimes I just want to try something new. Then I dig out the unwanted plants and pass them on to my garden club plant sale.
Once that dratted Norway maple dies, we’ll have to go to great expense to take it out and I plan to replace it with a smaller native tree and a screened-in garden house surrounded by low shrubs. It will be someplace to sit on a hot evening, or for a nice dinner party.
So, you see, gardens—and gardeners—are never finished.
D&M Marketing, Aug 1, 2008Read more about Liz Primeau >>