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  • Jennifer Jewell





The history of gardening is of course a parallel - a mirror of sorts to human history itself - it is full of adaptations and evolutions that determined what could and could not happen from there - dramatic and amazing twists and turns that turn us in one direction over another. For instance, in 1833, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward created the first sealed environment in which plants could grow. This ONE innovation completely changed the way that we humans could move our beloved plants around the globe - and upped the ante in terms of the kinds of plants that gardeners could get their hands on no matter where they lived. Abigail Willis is an Royal Horticultural Society qualified gardener and author of The London Garden Book A - Z. She regularly writes about both art and gardens. Her newest book, The Compendium of Amazing Gardening Innovations, (and which in the UK is known as The Remarkable Case of Dr. Ward & Other Amazing Gardening Innovations) is out now from Laurence King Press. In it, Abigail walks us down the path of gardening history - illuminating for us some 50 highlights twists and turns of fate that altered the course of gardening from that point forward. From secateurs to seed banks, from hybrid plants to herbaceous borders, these are the ideas that have changed the way we garden today.

Abigail joins us via Skype from her home, garden, and writing studio in Somerset.

"having a historical perspective is always useful for the present - it illuminates what you’re doing in the present and I think it’s nice to be aware of those sort of resonances and context….

I hope that’s what people will get out of this book and be intrigued by the stories…"

It was while writing about the amazing range and history of gardens both public and private for The London Garden Book A – Z, first published in 2012 and now in its second edition, that Abigail got the idea for her newest book The Compendium of Gardening Innovations, out now from Laurence King Press. which she he describes as a "potted history as it were, of everyday things we take for granted in our gardening lives – from secateurs to seed banks to paradise gardens", an entry in the book which ranks as one of my favorites. Of Paradise Gardens, Abigail writes: "From its foundation in the seventh century, where Islam led, gardens followed. From Persia to the Mughal Empire, from the Ottoman Empire to North Africa, and from there to Al Andalus in Spain and on, into Mexico and California, the Islamic garden became one of the most widespread and influential garden types in the world."

Of our (or at least my) favorite hand tools – our secateurs or clippers – Abigail notes that they were allegedly inspired by the French guillotine (used to behead people), when they were invented by French aristocrat Marquis Bertrand De Moleville around 1815. His device appropriately proved equally adept at "deadheading" (get it?) and precision pruning.

The book is beautifully illustrated with detailed and evocative pen and ink line drawings for each entry by Dave Hopkins. Make sure to check out some of my favorites of these illustrations below, including the Giant gnome and the Wardian Case….they’re fabulous.

Adaptation and Innovation, the theme of Abigail Willis’ book, are ideas I’ve been thinking a lot about these past few weeks – in light of and in the wake of the #campfire here in Northern California. Make sure to check out the December A View From Here newsletter out this weekend (subscribe here if you don't already get it:

Follow Abigail Willis' journey and work on Instagram: @abigail_willis or at her website:



Adaptation and Innovation are ideas I, as a gardener, nature lover, and caring human, have been thinking a lot about these past few weeks – in light of and in the wake of the #Campfire here in Northern California. This fire – the deadliest wildland fire in California history has left our region sort of stunned - blackened, scoured, laid bare. Most of us are still numb – and only time will tell when that might ease and lighten.

That life does in fact go on, in all its forms and transformations, is both horribly cruel, and incredibly reliable. Every cliché you can think of comes to mind and irritatingly fits: the smoke clears, the sun rises, tomorrow is another day, life goes on. Pick yourself up, Dust yourself off, get on with it.

It’s almost absurd how unrelenting life can be in its single-minded drive to – well, to live – through its very capacity for innovation and adaptation. 87 human lives lost, almost 14,000 human homes destroyed, and 154,000 acres burned before the fire was contained after two and a half weeks. Somewhere entangled in the crazy-overwhelming and messy complexity of these numbers used to scale and order the tragedy – life is already asserting itself – human and non-human alike. In fact, life was asserting itself in a dizzying array of innovation and adaptation quite dramatically in the very midst of the fire – from the nearly 5,000 brave and kind first responders and the many, many volunteers working to comfort, shelter, clothe, feed, and orient the displaced, to the communities and individuals who resolutely prepared and fled, prepared and stayed, prepared again and are slowly going back in to what was lost, and what remains.

And now in the aftermath – it’s the many forms of innovation and adaptation of what remains that intrigues me: in people, in plants, in animals, in soil. How do you clean a burned homesite? How do you rebuild a bridge? A garden? A gravity and spring-fed home water system? A town? A forest or riparian ecosystem? A watershed?

From the fungi already busy at work in the wood debris after more than 6 inches of rain on my garden this past week to the ants and gophers rapacious (almost zealous) in the charred soft ground of the nearby oak woodland – life itself is answering these questions. It doesn’t make me feel better per se, nor should it for right now, but still it is – beyond, above, and outside of human intervention.

We’ve been walking the burnt oak woodlands near my house for the past few weeks since the fire moved further eastward. Everywhere the path of the fire is visible and we try to read it, as humans, as plantspeople and gardeners – to sift through what we read for understanding – from the white ash impressions of wood that burned long and hot, to the faster jet black searing across the dry, dry grass meadows and open understories – you can see where the fire went up, went over, lingered here, missed there altogether. (The week prior to the fire we'd been over 210 days without significant precipitation and our humidity measured in the single digits daily and John was tracking this closely even then.)

You can also follow path of the people working to direct the fire away from my neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of my town. The rough choppy path of bulldozer crews working the perimeter of this woodland meadow tells a human narrative of urgent and rough strategy – where to place a break in the fuel, where to light a backfire to burn fuel in front of the fire and stop its progress in a specific direction. Of people working all night to think like a fire and one-step ahead.

Of innovation and adaptation on the ground, in the moment.

Beneath the blackened grass residue - the soil is a deep nutmeg color for now. And just like human homes, there are those trees – home to myriad life - valley oaks and blue oaks and live oaks – that are downed completely in place slumped or fallen, while others are partially intact, others still – standing tall. This is the natural selection thinning management that is the rightful role of healthy fire. The landscape’s fire color palette ranges across an eerie ashen grey, shades of black, to a deeper than normal brown – indicating a more superficial singe from which the trees and shrubs will likely recover.

The understory shrubs tell similar stories of the fire’s whims: those red buds and coffee berries that defoliated, but the shrubby stems of which are still green and lively in the pith. There are expanses of silvery buckeye forming elegant thickets, these had little foliage in their summer dormancy before the fire and with the heat of the fire, they dropped all of their hefty nut-brown seeds, but seemed to withstand the flames and heat that clearly went right beneath them. Why, you find yourself wondering? Why did that grey pine NOT burst into flames as one of the most flammable of our trees? Why did this oak go and that one not? And how did the acorn woodpeckers, the bush-tits and the towhees fare? The night of the fire as we humans drive, paced, watered, ACTED – the seasonal birds – Snow Geese, Canada Geese, Sandhill Cranes - migrating along the Pacific Flyway above us in the night moved too – unsettled, disoriented and calling, calling, calling through the night. An eerie and plaintive sound. And how are the pacific chorus frogs, the lizards, the snakes, the bumblebee queens already in hibernation after the heat of summer? John worries about these as we walk, hoping for the survival of the queens and for their return in just a few months to lay their broods – when the not-burned manzanitas will open their sweet bell-like blooms across the lower foothills.

As we walked the post-fire meadow the other evening, we intermittently examined ash, stood beneath tree canopies, followed a deer trail here, a bulldozer path there. We bent down a few times to salvage small succulent native bulbs (Dichelostemma? Triteleia perhaps? They didn't have the scent of Allium) thrown above ground by the deep cuts of the bulldozer, also healthy plump acorns lying in abundance beneath trees the shape and resilience of which speak to genetics we’d like to encourage, help propagate, disperse.

We saw a bat sweep silently over us - we heard a diurnal pygmy owl calling out goodnight from a stand of trees nearby, a small group of deer moved quietly into the stand as well some limping – from hot ash sores, we wonder? In this cluster of oaks that remain, their foliage is turning a warm bronze late-autumn early-winter color right on time, fire or no fire. These trees envelope the owl into their branches, the deer among their trunks, and we imagine a whole host of other birds and insects, reptiles, rodents and much more – many (or all?) evacuees from the fires in neighboring trees.

The oaks, the owls, the deer, the bulbs, us – we do adapt and innovate. We move over, we make way, we make room, we get up - albeit slowly and sadly at times - and if we can, we start again. We say goodnight and then in whatever our way, we say good morning not very long after.

I’ve written this before: Fire is not new or foreign to the people and landscapes of California, and much of our native landscapes have co-evolved to live and even thrive with fire as part of the normal, healthy cycle of things. But these are not normal-times and these are not ‘normal’ fires. More often than not throughout the West in the past decade, like much of the extreme weather conditions affecting our entire globe, much of the fire we see today is climate-change-fueled extreme fire, contributed to by a wide variety of human missteps, misunderstandings, and unintentional mismanagement in the form of a long legacy of abusing, subjugating, and ignoring indigenous peoples and land knowledge, fire suppression, and development with short term financial profit put well before and over natural resource conservation, respect, and sustainability for anyone. These, to be blunt, are innovation, adaptation, and opportunism gone very, very wrong.

These are exactly the times when we as gardeners (who innovate and adapt in our un-ignorable human impulse to cultivate our places), nature lovers, and advocates need to continue to coordinate and collaborate. We need to deepen and expand our questions, our listening, learning - our individual and collective understanding and advocacy. We need to continue to grow together in order to continue to grow the gardens – large and small, natural and cultivated, figurative and literal – those standing and those lost – that we all love and find inspiration, solace, and hope in.

These are agonizing and yet teachable moments for us all. My fervent prayer is that our resounding human capacity for innovation and adaptation integrates with our learning and produces much better results, for all.



I do realize that I am on a run of garden book interviews in these weeks leading up to the winter holidays – and, just wait - next week is an entire round table discussion and sharing by three fabulous guests on their favorite garden books to recommend this year! I’m really excited for that. The series of garden books was not entirely conscious other than the book round up next week – because trust me I do know the garden book habit can be hard on the wallet, and the bookshelf space. But here’s what I figure friends – there are a lot of books on the market and to get even a small insight into which might resonate with you can help us to determine which we really want to own and which we can just enjoy learning from a conversation about them. And where we spend our money matters – on what and for whom. I’d rather inadvertently encourage you to invest in a good garden book than just about anything else in the world – except your garden itself. Someone else can encourage you to spend money on unnecessary plastic objects for your children and home and car and wardrobe. Haha – my goal is as ever to write you the permission slip saying: go outside and play, love, revel, and revere – your garden and your gardening impulse are valuable and among your highest expressions of what it is to be a caring, engaged human.

Don’t forget, if you follow the Indiebound links (Below) to buy books you’re interested in the episode notes each week here at the website, you support independent booksellers, contribute a fair price to authors, and support Cultivating Place.

And a quick reminder that this is the last week for the holiday special offer from Womanswork to Cultivating Place listeners. Now through December 3rd only get 10% off your entire order of the best garden gloves, and other great garden gear and gifts when you enter the code WW10 at checkout. And shipping is free in the lower 48 states for orders over $40.

For every order you place with this code -- WW10 -- at checkout, a generous donation will be sent to Cultivating Place in support of the program. And every dollar of this is now going to #campfire support in my region. Last year every man, woman, and child in my family received gloves, lotions, and t-shirts from Womanswork from me, which they all loved!

Shop at Indiebound:

Interested in buying The Compendium of Gardening Innovations, OR The London Garden Book A – Z, AND in supporting Cultivating Place? Purchase at - you'll support independent bookstores, Chris Woods, and for every purchase made through these links (the green titles are live links), a small donation comes back to Cultivating Place. Which is a win-win-win. :)

Shop at


(more info soon)

Use the code WW10 at checkout for your 10% off through Dec 3, 2018. And Free shipping for orders over $40 in the lower 48 states.

For every purchase made, a donation will be sent to Cultivating Place!

For the month of November, through December 3rd, I'm proud to share with Cultivating Place listeners a wonderful partnership with Womanswork – makers of my favorite garden and work gloves - from buttery soft leather gloves, to everyday gloves, to virtually impenetrable leather gauntlets, and more great garden gear – Womanswork gloves work. To make use of the discount code go to and type WW10 at check out.

I am such a fan of their gloves – the leather ones, the long-wearing weeders, my daughters loved the Womanswork t-shirts and stole mine. My partner, John, a professional plantsman, says his manswork gloves have lasted longer than any he’s ever used. So support – strong women building a gentle world – support Cultivating Place and enjoy the best gardening gloves (shirts, hats, clippers, and creams) ever.

Cultivating Place is a listener-supported co-production of North State Public Radio.

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Thank you in advance for your help making these valuable conversations grow.

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