a landscape-history lesson in the ‘little house’ books, with marta mcdowell

ASK MARTA MCDOWELL what she’s harvesting in her garden this fall, and here’s the kind of answer you might elicit:

“I’m off to pick the overflow crop of ground cherries that I planted, because of a letter that Ma Ingalls wrote to her daughter. Ground cherry preserves anyone?”

Well, the Ma Ingalls in that reply is none other than the mother of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the beloved “Little House” books.

So why does Marta McDowell, a gardener and landscape designer in contemporary New Jersey, take her cues about what crops to grow from the vintage correspondence of others? Apparently, that’s a side effect of delving into their backstory deeply enough to write “The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books,” which McDowell has just published.

marta mcdowell at nybg oct. 11

MARTA MCDOWELL will be in conversation with Thomas Rainer in a special event on Wednesday, Oct. 11, from 11 AM to 12:30 PM at New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, New York City. Information about the event and tickets is at this link.

Like the “Little House” books themselves, it’s a story of a slice of garden history, and an evolving American landscape of the imprint the pioneers had on it, and it had on them too. A tale of their intimate connection with the natural world, and of what McDowell calls Laura’s wild and beautiful life.

Read along as you listen to the September 25, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). (Below, photo of Laura Ingalls in front of her home in Mansfield, from Herbert Hoover Presidential Library collection.)

the ‘little house’ landscape:
q&a with marta mcdowell



Q. You’ve done it again, you and the books, you’re … wow. So much research, so much work, and they keep on coming. So before we pack and head across the American prairie—I guess in a covered wagon, huh?—you’ve examined history through the lens of the landscape and plants before. Tell us a little about where your curiosity and expertise has taken you before this adventure.

A. So, I guess it all started with Emily Dickinson. I was always interested in garden history. I guess I never got over being an American Studies major, and I landed at the Emily Dickinson Museum about 30 years, and discovered that she was a gardener.

Q. Yes.

A. That was like a little door opening for me, and I went on from there to Beatrix Potter, and then a slight detour to the White House with “All the Presidents’ Gardens.”

Q. I know. That’s funny, that’s the one that’s not like a literary-figure thing, right?

A. That’s right. Well, I tried to convince Timber Press to do one on the Transcendentalists, that crowd in Concord, Massachusetts.

Q. Oh yes.

A. But, while my editor said that he’d buy one, he didn’t think anyone else would.

Q. Okay, I would’ve been the other purchaser.

A. Yes, and here I am, out on the prairie, so I’ve left the East Coast, and England—both sides of the pond—and I’m way out here, in the middle of the country.

Q. On your book tour, is that what you’re doing?

A. Actually yes, greetings from the Morton Arboretum. I suppose I’m going to see if it actually plays in Peoria.

Q. You teach landscape history and other things at New York Botanical Garden, and as you’ve just mentioned, you’ve written these books—and that’s a little bit about your journey. So, why Laura Ingalls Wilder this time? What brought you to her?

A. It was actually a book called “Pioneer Girl,” which is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography, heavily annotated and published by the South Dakota Historical Society. It sold, instead of 10,000 copies, which was its initial print run, something like 120,000 copies, and my editor got interested [laughter]. So this one, he actually called me, which you know, that’s a really nice thing, and said, “Would you be interested?” And since I spent summers of my youth out on the prairie, at my mother’s hometown in central Illinois, it really resonated for me.

Q. Okay. In Laura’s lifetime, and I guess we should say she lived from … just for perspective for people.

A. She lived from 1867 to 1957.

Q. So, in her lifetime even before her own marriage and having a home of her own, she lived many places, yes? Her parents I guess lived even more … I think you refer to her father Charles as “the odyssey of Charles Ingalls,” yes? [Map circa 1875 of Wilder homesteads, above, from author collection.]

A. Yes, he was something of a rolling stone. And his family came along with him. So, he was restless in the way of … many of his contemporaries.

Q. Yes.

A. So, you know the West was a real draw at the time.

Q. Well, I was struck by the way you show in the book, that sort of “the next great place” was being marketed to these potential pioneers wasn’t it?

A. Oh, yes. You know, if you were around in the 1820s, you would think of that whole area, what is Kansas and Nebraska now, as the Great Desert. But by Charles Ingalls’s day, boy the railroads and company were pushing it as “the garden of the world.”

Q. Right, “the garden of America,” “the garden of the world.” Like you couldn’t not go, you had to go, yes? [Above, two ads of the era promoting the move West. Image from the book, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.]

A. Yes, you’d be crazy not to go.

Q. Yes.

A. And you know, I garden, as I think you do, in a place that has a lot of rock. So the idea of if you had to plow a field, it would be nice to be flat, open and essentially treeless.

Q. Right, so you saw these sort of newspaper and magazine kind of advertisements that really beckoned people to come to the garden, to the garden-to-be, and to make their way farther and farther across the country.

I thought early in the book you quote something else I loved. You quote a botany textbook, I think it was published in the mid 1800s, like 1840-something, that was very popular in schools at that time you say. It has this little bit of wisdom. It says, “Botany combines pleasure with improvement.” I feel like in a way, that would be a great message that we should still be teaching [laughter], but certainly Laura and her family got it, huh?

A. Yes, well they were having to live off of it, but it’s still a message that’s really important. Get kids out there. I had what I think of as my ur garden, the garden that imprinted on me and made me a lifelong gardener. And I think: you have to give kids chances for that.

Q. So, it says, “Botany combines pleasure with improvement.” In terms of some of the sort of improvement, the more practical part of the landscape and the garden practices, and plants of Laura’s and her family’s time, they’re in the “Little House” books—there are so many examples of the plants in these books. The pioneers, they didn’t just like them, they were dependent on them, yes?

A. Yes, I mean do really feel that if you read the “Little House” books again, you think, “Oh, the ‘Survivor’ series should really do a prairie.” I would not make it, I’m sure [laughter], but they were changing the land from—in the case of Wisconsin—trees or forests, or prairie, to being an agricultural land. For better or worse nowadays, we kind of have a different perspective on that conversion and yet it is very, very fertile agricultural land.

Q. How would you describe the practices, or the approach that they took to cultivating the land? If there’s any comparison to today—what camp would they be in?

A. Well I think of the Ingalls family and then later, Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband, Almanzo in what we think of today as a small family farm, right? So this was intended to support a family to have enough cash crops, but then also grow enough that the family could eat off of it. They certainly supplemented with hunting, but the idea was that this would support the family. It didn’t always work out, but that’s certainly what they were after.

Q. And today, everyone talks about organic, etc. Where did they fit on that sort of spectrum? I assume they reused everything and they had animals, right?

A. Yes, nothing went to waste. So the scraps went out to the pigs, or the chickens. Everything was preserved. The whole series is full of, “We dried this. We canned this. We made the green tomato pie.” I’m a little embarrassed, because my green tomatoes don’t get used up…

Q. Right. [Laughter.]

A. …they end up going into my compost heap. But they really took very close care, and this was true in Laura’s real life. As a farm wife and writer, she was writing about her preserving techniques and her chickens—all the things that are popular again.

Q. So they were really kind of sustainable farmers and gardeners, yes?

A. I think of them as ahead of their time.

Q. Yes.

A. There’s an article she wrote—she actually writes it in the voice of her husband, Almanzo—where she talks about, “He’s going to bring in ashes and sawdust, to amend the soil, so that when he plants his little apple (well, not so little) apple orchard that the soil will be good.” And he says, “I think I don’t have as many bugs, and pests, and diseases, because of the soil and because I let the quails roam, and they eat the bugs.”

Q. Yes.

A. Right? It sounds like the same things that we’re trying to preach.

Q. So again: “Botany combines pleasure with improvement.” Let’s talk for a minute for about some of the pleasurable things. I was fascinated to read about some of the plants that they —and I use the word loosely—indulged in, but they allowed themselves some plants that didn’t produce anything, yes?

A. That’s right.

Q. What were some of the ornamentals? And what did it take to be an ornamental that was allowed to have space, and be purchased—that people would spend money on in those days?  What was an ornamental?

A. Well once you made it, right, you plant lilacs. Lilacs were a biggie, so if you had a little money, you would want a lilac. Lilacs are tough, they like northern climates as well. So, why not have a lilac? Tough as nails and so beautiful, and so fragrant, but gee, you might have morning glories as well. Caution to all your listeners, because they do self-sow, but aren’t they beautiful? And the fact that they just last one day, it’s really touching and poignant.

And she named her daughter Rose; she loved roses—both the wild prairie rose, but she had roses around her own farm as well.

Q. I was fascinated by an illustration, I think it’s like a black white print of fancy leaf-geraniums, the pelargoniums. I wouldn’t have thought it, but what about those? They were a favorite too, huh?

A. Yeah, so geraniums today, you think, “Oh, they’re everywhere. They’re so common.” But, it was really a collector’s plant at the time, and a collector’s plant with some history, some roots, pardon the pun. Jefferson grew them. By the time we get to the late 19th century, there was an explosion in the different varieties available. So it was one of those things like dahlias, where there were actually more varieties available then, than there are today.

Q. Yes, and it’s interesting because—and I guess maybe the reason it caught my eye—I love the fancy-leaf types, the old-fashioned fancy-leaf types, and not that many wholesale operations put up with them. They’re plants that get viruses and the in culture of them, you have to be fastidious and so forth. They’re not as cheap to create as the seed-grown modern ones, but they’re beautiful. They’re incredible looking, even just in leaf, even if they’re not flowering.

So it caught my eye, because they’re a collector’s plant sort of again now—do you know what I mean?—with this interest in heirloom plants that we have today. There they were and there they are now, in some of my favorite catalogs.

A. And there’s things that you can pass along, if you’re willing to put up with their own persnickety needs, but you know, pass-along plants were really important to ornamental gardening across the country. So things where you could share seeds, or share cuttings, or share divisions, and I guess it was really just as true of agriculture, right? If you were growing a kitchen garden, gee, it was really nice if you could save that lettuce seed and grow it again next year.

Q. Yes. Before we go on to some sort of food stuff, what were some of the other shrubs beside lilac that might be in my front yard if I allowed myself to indulge?

A. Yes, snowball Viburnum, right? That was there.  And then things that today we would think of as wild plants, native plants, but they were trying things like wintergreen to plant, to see if they could get it to grow, because that was something that resonated for them, and so it wasn’t really happy I don’t think when they transplanted it to Missouri, but they did try. [Laughter.]

Q. Right, hope springs eternal among gardeners, right Marta? [Laughter.]

A. Absolutely.

Q. Yes. In one anecdote in the book, and I don’t know which of the “Little House” books it’s in, but you mention that Pa, Laura’s father, goes off to town. I think he’s trading some pelts in, and I don’t remember which homestead this is at, but he’s trading some pelts from his hunting conquests, and he’s going to trade them partly for some of the real essentials like garden seeds, seeds for food crops. So what kind of things did they grow for edibles? [Seed catalog cover from the book, courtesy of the Smithsonian Libraries.]

A. They grew corn. They grew wheat. Some of that was also for sale. They grew squashes, and they grew beans, and they grew beets, and they grew carrots. So not that different from the kinds of things we grow today. Though no mention of kale.

Q. Oh, no kale. It was a kale-free…

A. No kale.

Q. Okay.

A. Yes, too bad. I like kale. But, what a variety. There were seed catalogs. It seems early to me for seed catalogs, but there were seed catalogs, or they could buy from a general store, so I think you’re talking about Independence, Kansas, with his taking pelts.

Q. Yes, probably that’s right. Well what was very interesting was there was this sort of hand-me-down sweet potato, maybe that came as part as a holiday meal, or something? And ended becoming a crop forever. Tell us about the sweet potatoes, because there’s something that lately, we sort of think, “Hey, it’s new. Northern gardeners can grow sweet potatoes.” And we buy sweet potato slips from mail-order nurseries and again, it’s another one of those “everything old is new again” things.

A. There is a story in “Little House on the Prairie,” that Mr. Edwards comes for Christmas and he crosses the creek that’s very deep, and he comes with Christmas presents and some food stuff, including sweet potato. I think it was four sweet potatoes, although don’t quote me on that. So, it says in the book, “Ma saves the sweet potato, to plant through the next year.” And I’m being somewhat suspicious, but is this even possible?

So, my sister has a farm share from a biodynamic farm. I go, “I have a sweet potato, okay?” And so I do what you do when you’re in kindergarten, right? You stick toothpicks in, and you stick it in water, and you stick it on the windowsill, and so it sprouts sort of everywhere, and then you—I mean sweet potato slips, you just pop them off and you root those. [Laughter.] [Sweet potato illustration from author collection.]

And so, not this growing season, but last year, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to plant these out. This will be great. I’m going to test it out.” And so I planted half of my 10-by-20 community garden plot with these sweet potato slips. I thought it was going to take over the entire garden.

Q. Yes.

A. Not just my plot but everybody else’s, because it’s the same like sweet potato vine that you plant as an ornamental, and I harvest several bushels of sweet potatoes that voles hadn’t actually eaten by the time I got to them. It works; it’s amazing.

Q. And what’s so great though, again, it was sort … when I began gardening, I don’t know, 30 years ago or something, it wasn’t something that Northern gardeners were encouraged to do.  But here’s this anecdote that she, from these dinner sweet potatoes—that anecdote—she said, “Hey, I’m gonna stash one aside and grow some,” you know what I mean? And then in perpetuity, she had her stock plant, so to speak, for her sweet potato crop, which I think is just brilliant.

A. And it’s a way, you know, again, I think now, the “Little House” books is a way that you could get kids gardening. Read the book, you try sweet potatoes. [Laughter.]

Q. Yes. So, and speaking of things like sweet potatoes, or root crops, storage crops, you mentioned some squashes before. We probably think of like, “Oh, they probably had a root cellar,” as in below ground or whatever. But the attic? Is it really true that the attic was a place for storing vegetables in the winter?

A. Well so the story goes.

Q. Wow. [Laughter.]

A. Right. It was Wisconsin that she actually lived in twice, even though the book sort of fudges that. And the story is that they stored at least some of their crops up in the attic, which would’ve had the chimney through it. So, I guess it would’ve gotten some warmth from that. And the house, it was tiny. This is like tiny houses world, so it would’ve gotten some heat from the fireplace itself. So, yes, I wouldn’t store them up there, but I have forced bulbs up in my attic.

Q. Up in the attic, yes. So I have to ask you about your ground cherry adventure, because that made me laugh when you emailed me the other day and said that you have an overflow crop, because you’ve been inspired by that letter that you’d found in your research. Ground cherries and tomatillos, they grew tomatillos, again: something that we think is sort of hip and you know, now and happening and you’re seeing them more of the last say 10 years. They were something that they loved too.

A. So, here I am in Lisle, Illinois, so I mentioned this thing about the ground cherries this morning [at my lecture], and people go, “Oh yeah, they’re wild around here.” [Laughter.] [Ground cherry photo, above, from Kathy McFarland, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.]

Q. Yes.

A. So, it was probably something that they started out just going out and picking, the way we used to pick blackberries and raspberries when I was a kid. Then they started growing them probably to extend the season. And ground cherries are very, very bizarre I have learned, because you basically pick them when they fall on the ground. Very strange, like a tomatillo it’s got a kind of waxy coating, and then a little husk.

Q. Yes.

A. And you want to wait until they’re yellow, and even when they’re fully ripe, the taste is something I’d say like rhubarb. If you like rhubarb, I think you’ll like ground cherries.

Q. Okay.

A. So, I decided, “Okay, time for a big harvest, ’cause I’m not going to be home.” And then, what do you do with all these things? I tried them in plum cake, they sort of got lost, and the preserves, I found some recipe, some Quebecois recipe that had a lot of ginger, which I like as well. And I love it. It’s like one of those preserves that you’d use with cheese, or something really savory, but I think it’s great.

Q. They’re in the genus Physalis I think, yes?

A. Yes.

Q. And so tomatillos are their … are another form.

A. Yes.

Q. I always grow tomatillos, and I always make kind of a jam-chutneyish kind of thing, so it really appealed to me.

A. Yeah. The seeds had a sort of Laura connection. I got them at Baker Creek Heirloom Seed…

Q. Oh, sure.

A. …which is in Mansfield, Missouri, which is also where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived and wrote all of these books.

Q. Oh, well then it all circles around.

A. It all circles around.

Q. The biggest takeaway from all your rooting around, is there one thing that you just think over and over again, having gone on this adventure at the suggestion of your editor, into Laura’s life? [Above, the Ingalls girls, image from Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, De Smet, SD]

A. Yes, it’s that there is so much that you can share with kids through this.

Q. You said that. yes.

A. You know, if you go visit the home sites, basically, every home site, all around the country, they’re close to a wonderful natural area. So, you can show kids what it was like, and you can get them out in the garden doing so many different things that are connected to this book.

Q. Because as that 1845 textbook said, “Botany combines pleasure with improvement.” Good message. [Laughter.]

A. Don’t we just know it?

enter to win ‘the world of laura ingalls wilder’

I’LL BUY ONE LUCKY READER a copy of Marta McDowell’s latest book, “The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspire the Little House Books.” All you have to do to enter to win is answer this question in the comments box below (and it’s an easy one):

Were the “Little House” books part of your childhood reading list, or have you read them perhaps to children of your own?

I’ll pick a random winner when entries close at midnight Tuesday, October 3; U.S. and Canada only.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Sept. 25, 2017 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission. Author photo near tip of page, by Kirke Bent.)

Categoriesradio podcasts
  1. Betty Maupin says:

    The books have been a part of my life, my daughter’s life and now my Granddaughters life. She loved to dress up like Laura, .

  2. Eva Munday says:

    I have also read them over and over and lent out copies to others to get them interested. I love to read the long winter in the summer when it is so hot and humid that I don’t even want to go outside!

  3. arlene says:

    I laughed when i saw ground cherries, we grew them one year and have had them ever since. This year i’m calling it the chipmunk trail. Two directions about 30 feet of ground cherries.

  4. Nancy says:

    We are actually reading Little House in the Big Woods again, my daughter and I. We have read them all. Farmer boy is actually my favorite- it’s all about Almanzo, who is from New York State, as we are.

  5. We watched the series and for many years after, my daughter watched the reruns over and over. I believe my son read some of the books. Now I have a little granddaughter that eill enjoy them.

  6. Rebecca davis says:

    I believe I read them all! Great, heartwarming stories but though I love the stories, I am very thankful for living In our present day culture. We have the best of both worlds. Lots of ability to live off the beautiful land God has created but all the modern conveniences to help me can, grow and preserve but not starve if my crop fails! This book sounds great!

  7. Angela Naccarato says:

    The “Little House” series was my favourite when I was a child! Later when I was a little older I watched the tv series with Michael Landon and always hoped to marry a man like Pa! I have read the whole series many times over to may two daughters and my son. I have recently started a permaculture garden and have become very interseted in growing, harvesting and storing as much of my own foood as possible! The book by Marta sounds amazing and I would love to have a copy! :)))

  8. Nancy says:

    I became aware of the “Little House” books as an adult so they were not part of my reading growing up, but I have since learned to love them.

  9. Olivia says:

    Would love that book .
    Was a fan of the show – Little house on the Prairie- didn’t think it was real until college. What an appealing life to ne, little girl growing up in an oil town.
    I grew ground cherries this summer for the first time and had a great harvest. Also, I left many on the ground / ensuring plants next spring‼️

  10. Olivia says:

    Would love that book .
    Was a fan of the show – Little house on the Prairie- didn’t think it was real until college. What an appealing life to ne, little girl growing up in an oil town.
    I grew ground cherries this summer for the first time and had a great harvest. Also, I left many on the ground / ensuring plants next spring‼️

  11. Rita Hlasney says:

    I always loved the series and my children and grandchildren have read or been read to. A great read out loud series of books.

  12. Winifred says:

    Yes! As a girl in the 1960’s, my favorite books ever. From my life comfortably in New England, loved the struggles (and solutions) to living on the prairie a long time prior, but could relate to them all, especially Laura. Favorite was By the Shores of Silver Lake – I still remember it. Read them all, including a book report on Farmer Boy too.

  13. Dianne says:

    I have read the books, watched the show and watched the play Walnut Grove community put on every summer about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Walnut Grove has a few little shops I like to shop at. Plum Creek is outside Walnut Grove and I have seen the site of the dugout the Ingalls lived in.

  14. Caroline Spear says:

    Oh my gosh, a HUGE part of my life growing up. I’ve read the entire series, plus all the “side” books I can find, at least 10 times each; that’s understating it, truly. What a woman Laura was, and how wonderful that she documented what life was like in her time so thoroughly, fiction or not. Her autobiography and her advice to farm women through the newspapers was a treat to read.
    (Another author to read to learn about plants of England through history: Elizabeth Goudge, especially The White Witch)

  15. Lisa Walser says:

    As an only child, I read & re-read these books. I lived into the stories: the girls were my siblings. I changed my name to Carrie for a bit. When traveling to see family in South Dakota in the ’80s my family took me to De Smet to visit a site where Laura had lived. As a school teacher, I read Little House in the Big Woods aloud to my 2nd grade class. In 3rd grade the whole class read the Farmer Boy chapter book during the school day.

  16. PL C says:

    I read those books over and over (first in 3rd grade, when the librarian required permission from my mother to read them), and I believe it had a profound influence on my perspective on managing my household, learning to garden, and becoming something of a prepper. In the mid-sixties, my great-aunt first read them and really enjoyed learning about American pioneer history (born and raised in France, arrived in the U.S. in the 1920’s). I, too, read them to my second-grade class (in part to counteract books like Captain Underpants, etc.) and they loved them. There’s a recipe book based on the book series, too.

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