Master Gardeners’ Bookshelf: Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life

Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life—The Plants and Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet, by Marta McDowell

By Susan Wilhelm, Extension Master Gardener

While you may know Emily Dickinson as a poet, you may not know that she was also a gardener. In Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life—The Plants and Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet, author Marta McDowell provides a fascinating look at Dickinson’s life and how gardening and the natural world informed her poetry.

Emily Dickinson once described herself as being “reared in the garden.” Her father, Edward Dickinson, “planted trees and was especially interested in the kitchen garden.” Her mother and sister gardened, and her brother shared their father’s interest in trees. Interestingly, Dickinson’s first published poem references one of the apple trees in her father’s orchard.

Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life
follows Dickinson’s gardening seasonally. It starts with her childhood and the plants of early spring; moves through summer and fall; and ends with winter, the final years of Dickinson’s life, and the subsequent publication of her poetry. Each “season” combines biographical information, garden and plant descriptions, and selected poems. For example, Late Spring describes how, as a young person, Dickinson studied botany and started an herbarium, a cloth-bound book in which she ultimately included the dried flowers (and often stems and leaves) of over 400 plants.

Pages from Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium at Harvard

One of the featured poems uses the botanical terms “calyx” and “corolla,” while another describes counting stamens to classify a plant according to the Linnaean system used at that time (1859). McDowell also highlights one or more seasonal plants that Dickinson grew in her garden or conservatory, such as Fuchsia hybrida (Fuchsia), often with historical information and growing tips.

Next come considerations for how one might plant a garden like Dickinson’s with selected poems about soil, seed germination, and garden insects. The book concludes by discussing changes that occurred in the Dickinson property and Amherst over time and the restoration work of the Emily Dickinson Museum.

For those interested in growing plants Dickinson grew or knew, there is an annotated list of the ornamental plants and the fruits and vegetables (separately) grown in Dickinson’s garden and the wild plants that appear only in the herbarium. Although Dickinson gardened in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5b, local gardeners will recognize several plants that grow here as well. The list also indicates plants native to the northeast, some of which are native to the mid-Atlantic too, such as Aquilegia canadensis (Eastern Columbine) and Osmundastrum cinnamomeum (Cinnamon Fern).

McDowell has an extensive gardening background, and she brings a gardener’s eye to her descriptions of Dickinson’s life, gardening, and poetry—for example, in describing Dickinson’s seed starting and propagation efforts, her love of bulbs, and her poems about, or using, dandelion images. With its extensive excerpts from Dickinson’s writings, abundant historical photographs, and beautiful botanical illustrations, this volume is probably as close as one can get to being in the garden with Emily Dickinson herself.

Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life—The Plants and Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet (Timber Press, 2019) is available at the Arlington Public Library and from national booksellers.

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