Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, a book by Marta McDowel, explores the plants and places that inspired her children’s tales.
Beatrix Potter was born into a wealthy Victorian family on July 28, 1866. She lived a restricted and often lonely life at home in South Kensington, London, being educated by a governess and having little contact with other people.
Beatrix developed an appreciation for gardens early on. She had access to Bolton Gardens Square, a private garden opposite the family home in Kensington. ‘She enjoyed its shaded walks, winding through shrubberies, around lawns, and alongside flowerbeds.’ The Royal Horticultural Society’s Horticultural Gardens and Kensington Gardens were also nearby.
Beatrix was a shy child. She had many animals which she kept as pets. These included, at various times, mice, frogs, snails, lizards, birds, a dog, a hedgehog, a bat, and of course, rabbits. At the age of eight Beatrix was already studying and recording the characteristics of a wide variety of animals, birds, and insects in a home-made sketchbook.
Beatrix was 39 when she purchased her first property Hill Top Farm near Sawrey in 1905 with the royalties from her first few books. These had been written at her parents’ home in London but inspired by her annual holiday visits to the Lake District.
For the next 8 years Beatrix busied herself writing and visiting her farm as often as she could. She had the cottage extended and employed locals to assist with the development of her garden. She never stayed for more than a few days at a time, sketching the house, garden, countryside, and animals for her new books.
Throughout her life Beatrix experienced the benefits of gardening and the positive effect it has on your mental health. Here are seven ways gardening sustained her wellbeing. They have relevance for us as well, particularly during these difficult times.
(1) Gardening helps us relax
Gardening is a great way to relax, providing opportunities to still the mind and get away from the busyness of everyday life. By focusing your attention on a familiar task, whether weeding, mulching, or sowing, you can forget about everything else. There is something about mingling with the plants, getting your hands dirty, and feeling the warmth of the sun on your back.
Beatrix purchased Hill Top two months after the death of her editor and fiancée, Norman Warne. She soon realised that grieving the loss of someone you care about is all consuming and incredibly stressful.
Her parents did not approve of the engagement. In their eyes, Norman was her social inferior. The son of a publisher was an unsuitable match for the daughter of a barrister. Instead of a country residence for the newlyweds, the cottage became a rural retreat, a place to grieve and to start again.
In a letter to Millie, Norman’s sister, Beatrix explains how working in the garden eases her grief. She says,
“There is nothing like open air for soothing present anxiety and memories of past sadness.”
The purchase of Hill Top was important to Beatrix, affirming her independence and affording an opportunity to refocus.
(2) Gardening encourages a respect for the environment
Gardening reminds us of the importance of sustainability. Gardening organically, without the use of chemicals or pesticides, is one way we can nurture and protect the natural environment. The way we garden has consequences for the soil and our future.
Beatrix Potter was inspired by the countryside around her. She had a naturalist’s eye and from an early age was appreciating and recording varieties of flora and fauna.
Beatrix took an active role in looking after her land. She used traditional practices like avoiding artificial fertilizer and cutting the grass later in summer to allow the plants to flower and set seed. The hay meadows were a huge food and nectar source for hundreds of species of wildlife.
In autumn, Beatrix collected seeds from her flower annuals, putting them away for next spring.
(3) Gardening awakens and informs our creativity
Research shows that engaging in a creative pastime can be an effective stress control strategy. Gardening is one way we can express ourselves creatively. There is nothing more satisfying than planting out a tray of seedlings with the promise of a colour explosion.
Gardening stimulates our curiosity, inspires new ideas, and helps us to be more flexible in our ways of thinking.
Beatrix was a skilled observer and illustrator of the natural world. Plants, animals, and rural scenes are prominent in her books. Her knowledge of horticultural subjects is captured in her colorful illustrations.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit features settings that were familiar to Beatrix – the woodland setting with a mother rabbit sending her children out foraging for blackberries; Mr. McGregor’s vegetable garden with its lettuces, French beans, radishes, and parsley; and the well-stocked garden shed where a rake, spade, straw broom, watering can, and plant pots are appropriately stored.
Beatrix Potter remains one of the world’s best-selling and best-loved children’s authors. She wrote and illustrated 28 books, including her 23 Tales which have sold more than 100 million copies.
(4) Gardening encourages our connectedness
We live in an era where everything is technologically driven. This is sometimes very unhealthy, especially to our minds. Gardening helps us reconnect with nature. By creating an outdoor space, softened by greenery and the sound of running water, we achieve a tranquil environment in which to relax.
Gardening also provides an opportunity to be social. Few things boost our well-being like good relationships, and gardening offers ample opportunities to connect with others. When you meet other gardeners there is always something to talk about.
Beatrix received support from her local community, its hardworking, honest people. When her gardening ambitions were made known she was gifted plants from many of her friends and acquaintances. A quarryman with a garden near the ferry offered some glorious flocks, the indomitable Mrs. Satterthwaite, her gardening mentor, offered cuttings of crimson- and purple-flowered aubrieta, and neighbour, Mrs. Taylor, had a large newspaper full of saxifrage.
(5) Gardening is restorative, refreshing our minds and invigorating our bodies
Research has shown that spending time outside is good for our bodies and our minds. A garden serves as a place where we can appreciate the beauty, form and colours of nature. It is a place for observation, where we can watch nature and learn from it.
Beatrix was a hands-on gardener. She did not shy away from physical labour, and when it got too hot, she would sometimes place a rhubarb leaf over her head as protection from the sun.
Beatrix’s Hill Top garden was unpretentious. Fruit bushes and vegetables grew next to herbaceous perennials and shrubs in a pleasing blend of the practical and the beautiful. Informality and the happy accidents of nature are what appealed to her most.
(6) Gardening helps us achieve a sense of purpose
Gardening is both rewarding and fulfilling. The tasks we undertake in the garden provide purpose and a sense of worth. It is gratifying to watch the plants you have cared for mature and prosper, to see the first blooms of spring emerge, to pick your first ripe tomato, or to crunch on a baby carrot.
A gardener willingly accepts responsibility for whatever happens. You decide how to arrange your garden, what to plant, when to water, and how to manage pests and diseases. Your actions determine whether the plants flourish, or wither and die.
Beatrix’s garden provided the perfect outlet for her love of nature. But she had bigger objectives in mind. Funded by revenue from her book sales, she expanded her estate, purchasing extensive tracts of land in the Lake District. She was committed to protecting areas of natural beauty from future development and encouraging traditional farming methods.
When Beatrix died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, to the public in 1946.
(7) Gardening informs us about the seasons of life
In many ways seasons in nature reflect the seasons of our lives. Gardening reconnects us with the cycle of the seasons. When we spend time in the garden, we discover that there is a time to be still (dormant) and a time to grow.
During winter, structure dominated Beatrix’s Hill Top garden. The garden’s skeleton is laid bare. Its wordy plants – the trees and shrubs – are unveiled. Beatrix writes,
“We can tell every tree in winter without reference to foliage by its mode of growth. They have a nobility of growth which is usually entirely overlooked.”
The pendulum swings. The calendar turns. During summer, the flowers seem in a hurry to open. The garden at Hill Top is crowded with blooms – irises, peonies, carnations, azaleas, lilies, zinnias, hollyhocks. Beatrix likes to surround herself with colour and perfume, a luxury for the senses.
Towards the end of her life recurring illness confined Beatrix to her bed. She wrote,