Read This: Spirit of Place


July 30, 2020

The Garden Conservancy preserves significant American gardens and shares all manner of interesting gardens with the public via its beloved Open Days program, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year despite the Covid-cancellation of all tours. I’m a big fan of their work, particularly because their outreach goes beyond the catered-to garden corridors of the coasts and into Texas and other states. So when I heard that the Conservancy’s former director of preservation, Bill Noble, had written a book about his own garden in Norwich, Vermont, I was intrigued.

Photograph from Spirit of Place courtesy of Timber Press

I picked up Noble’s book Spirit of Place: The Making of a New England Garden (Timber Press, 2020) this summer, the Coronavirus Summer during which we Americans are largely housebound and investing financially and spiritually in our own gardens as refuges from disease, depressing news cycles, and boredom. Noble, a self-taught gardener, garden designer, and preserver of historic landscapes, introduces his book as a “story of the pleasures and challenges, both aesthetic and practical, of creating a garden that feels genuinely rooted to its place.”

Photograph from Spirit of Place courtesy of Timber Press

It’s a serious book, not in the sense of proclaiming design rules — Do this, Don’t do that — but rather in terms of the author thinking deeply through the process of making his almost 30-year-old garden. It’s about considering the history of the property, about rooting a garden to a particular place in the world, and about creating garden spaces that evoke an emotional response. In many ways, it’s a rather blog-like book in terms of the author’s deep focus on year-to-year design decisions and plant choices.

Photograph from Spirit of Place courtesy of Timber Press

For my fellow Texas gardeners, and gardeners anywhere outside of New England, you may ask, “What relevance does a book about a Vermont garden have for me?” Well, sure, the plants won’t be ones we can grow. (Forget that Himalayan poppy, y’all.) That’s not the point. It’s a story of intention, time, and connection to a particular plot of earth. And that’s what all gardening is about.

Photograph from Spirit of Place courtesy of Timber Press

Noble took almost all of the photos in the book himself, and they are lovely. His garden is stunning, and well documented through the seasons. While my attention wandered a bit during the details of the many plants Noble is growing in his 4b hardiness-zone garden, I found myself caught up again by his lyrical descriptions of the land itself, the wildlife he shares it with, and the experiences he’s trying to create.

Noble is a plant collector always on the lookout for the next “choice” plant, but he’s also a designer who relies on foliage contrasts and carefully considered spatial layout for powerful effect. He’s an experimenter with an artist’s sensibility. All that is reason enough to get inside his head while admiring the images of the garden he’s made.

Disclosure: Timber Press sent me a copy of Spirit of Place for review. I reviewed it at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

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