Journalist, editor, and author Catie Marron joins Zibby to discuss her latest book, Becoming a Gardener, which recounts Catie’s eighteen-month journey of building a garden during the pandemic. The two talk about what prompted Catie to try her hand at building a robust garden, why she made sure to incorporate literature and books about gardening into her personal narrative, and how she found the watercolor images that accompany her words. Catie also shares the fascinating story of how she became the chair of the board for the New York Public Library and what ambitious project she’s looking to start next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Catie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Can you hold up your book just for me to see? It’s so beautiful. The cover art, oh, my gosh.

Catie Marron: Sure. Thank you. It’s the marking.

Zibby: It is so beautiful. I’ll post a little clip of this. Becoming a Gardener might be the most beautiful book. I’m actually totally curious as to why you formatted it this way. It is so beautiful. It could’ve easily just been a memoir of sorts, a memoir in gardening à la Dominique Browning. Instead, it has the most beautiful illustrations and photographs and everything. Welcome. Congratulations on this beautiful book.

Catie: Thank you. Thank you very much. What I’d love to say to you is congratulations to you. Your book, Bookends, is something I enjoyed so much. I read it in two nights. I am not a fast reader like you. I just savored it. I savored the story. I appreciated your openness and your honesty. I just really loved it. I also love your love of books and how far back that goes. There’s a story in my book that’s rather similar to that. I love that. I will always think of you as the book messenger. Really, bravo to you. Really, bravo.

Zibby: That is really nice and made my day completely. Thank you. Thank you for saying that. It’s always nice to be able to connect through our story. It’s so neat. I write my story. You read it. You write your story. I read it. It’s a fast-forward of a whole relationship. It’s really neat.

Catie: Also, obviously, we’re both from New York. I didn’t grow up in New York, but I did move to New York City in college. Hearing all of those bits and pieces, too, was fun.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Tell everybody — you moved out of New York. You found this house in Connecticut. You were going to make a garden. Then the pandemic hit. Now all of a sudden, it’s a book. Tell the whole story.

Catie: Several years ago, our family really fell upon this house in Connecticut, which had amazing land. It was a really nice house. We decided, thinking about future generations, our two children having children and all of that, it would be a great house for that. We decided to buy it. We definitely made it our own, very much so. There were some big differences. Yet somehow, I felt like I was living in the previous owner — they designed it — their house. That was a rather uncomfortable feeling for me. In fact, I tried different things such as waving sage around the doors and windows, which I’d never done before, to try to feel better about it. Somehow, I can’t understand why, but it was not working. Then one morning, I was walking our dog on our typical morning loop. It dawned on me that if I rooted myself to the land, maybe that would help me root myself to the house. I have always loved gardens. There was one other inspiration for this book I’ll say in a second. Always loved gardens. Right now was the time to make my own for the first time. I’d also just say that — this is something you’d appreciate because both of these concepts came in at the same time. A quote I heard about ten years ago — it’s from Cicero about two thousand years ago. It says, if you have a garden and a library, you have all you need. That quote really caught my attention. I’ve thought about it many times since. I understand some of what he’s talking about. I don’t understand it fully. That and trying to understand the meaning of gardens is really the gist of the book.

Zibby: I love how you decided to do this rooting experiment. You turned so much to books, as you referenced, and how even the quote that you included by Jamaica Kincaid of how she tried to make her first garden and was black and blue and split her thumbs open, something like that — then she knew she was a gardener. You’re like, yes, that’s what I’m going to do.

Catie: That’s so totally true. In fact, though, what happened for her is, on a Mother’s Day, her husband gave her all sorts of things, all the tools. She went out and planted some plants, which she said did not come up. She said, that did not yet make me a gardener. Now she is a gardener. For me, becoming a real gardener takes some time. It takes some experimentation. Gardening is all about experimentation. I really wanted to become a gardener and understand what it would mean for my life. It dawned on me in thinking about this that there is no test I have to take to suddenly become a gardener. I could call myself a gardener whenever I wanted to. I called myself any kind of gardener whenever I wanted to. That was something great. Right now, I would call myself a novice gardener. There’s lots to learn, which is one of the exciting things about gardening.

Zibby: There’s something about sharing your excitement and enthusiasm for gardening, which is infectious, contagious. I appreciate gardens a lot, obviously, because they’re beautiful but have never been bitten by that bug. Reading your book, especially all the corollaries between the creativity of planting and the creativity involved in writing and words and all sorts of output and even that you laid out a set amount of time where you’re like, I’m going to garden in this amount of time, and I could get it done, it seems like, somehow, an achievable goal, that you could actually even, no matter how small a little piece of land or a pot or whatever, make a huge difference and have things last beyond you, which I think is perhaps at the heart of a lot of the things that we do subconsciously. Tell me a little bit more about falling in love with this or what the challenges were and what you say to people who want to get into gardening now.

Catie: I’d say the challenges were really learning how to plant. How deep should I put a seed? That kind of thing. I had two wonderful hands-on mentors to teach me, Katherine , a very talented young landscape designer, and , who knows a lot about vegetables. I am particularly interested in vegetables. I loved the fact that this house was in Connecticut. I wanted to somehow tie it into colonial times. Vegetables were important to me. Eighteen months was a fair amount. The idea was, design it, plant it over six months, and then have twelve months, a full year, to watch the plant cycle. I’ll say one thing that I look back on. I am still a New Yorker by life. That’s where we live. I don’t imagine myself living there full time. My daughter, on the other hand, really loves it and possibly could live there full time. I was very naïve to think that I could’ve made that garden, which is forty-eight by fifty-four feet, and to the extent that it was, if I didn’t live there full time. During the pandemic, we escaped to that house and lived there and isolated there.

That was, in its way, a phenomenal experience. It was really a saving grace for the garden. It made the book many times better. Not only did it help me to plant and understand the garden, but it really helped me to understand nature. I think one main reason people garden is to get in touch with nature. As Thoreau says, we are really made of the same elements. E.O. Wilson will talk about a concept he discovered in the 1980s, that people not only need connection and relationships with people, but they need them with nature and animals. I really do believe in that. I think Michael Pollan’s quote is, “The endlessly engrossing ways a person can connect with the earth.” That was very helpful. I have one big piece of advice out of all of this, which is to start small. I started bigger than I would’ve otherwise, and in fact, shrinking the garden so I could tackle it more easily. I really mean it. Don’t bite off more than you can chew because it’s hard at first. It takes learning. It takes experimentation. You don’t want to have so much work to do that it loses its fun.

Zibby: That’s true. That’s good life advice on all fronts. Did you know starting your garden that it was going to be a book?

Catie: No, not initially, but soon because then I did propose the idea to a wonderful publisher, Jonathan Burnham, who runs, now, Harper Books. I’d done two other books for Harper, so I thought about it for that reason. He liked the idea, which was great. I got the contract. It was about the same time that you start planting. That’s what happened.

Zibby: Was it always going to be such a visual delight?

Catie: I suppose so. I wouldn’t say that’s what I was going for, but I think most gardens are if you have plants come up, visual delights. One thing about kitchen gardens and —

Zibby: — No, I’m sorry, I mean the book. The book, not the garden. Is that what you were answering?

Catie: Oh, you meant the book.

Zibby: Yeah, I found the book to be a visual delight. When you had your proposal and everything, was it intended to be the larger shape and with so many beautiful watercolors and photographs and all of that? Were you ever thinking of it as a straight memoir about becoming a gardener?

Catie: I’m very visual by nature. One of the other two books had that same sort of mix of text and photos. Gardens do need to be seen to be understood. In that sense, I think there was always going to be visuals. It was fun because Jonathan and I, in debating whether to do this book, decided we would go to bookstores. He lived downtown. I lived uptown. He went down here. I moved downtown. I first went to this charming bookshop called Kitchen Arts & Letters on Lexington Avenue in the nineties. It’s been there seventy years or something. It feels like it hasn’t changed. The people there are very nice. I picked up a book on a Danish chef. I was so struck by the watercolors and took that to Jonathan when we had our first meeting about it. He loved watercolors just as much as I did. The company that did them is called All the Way to Paris. It’s run by two women. It took a while. They were hard to track down. They were in Japan at the time. They were just hard to track down. I’m so glad I persevered and love the mix of the photos. I should also add, Bill Abranowicz, who was introduced to me by Liz Sullivan, an editor at Harper, is a really talented photographer. I think he captures light in an amazing way. He’s also a super nice man.

Zibby: After your deep dive into books about gardening, what did you take away that those of us who have not read all those books haven’t gotten?

Catie: I would take away, first, that it was really fun to try something new. Learning something new, really from scratch, was exciting. Since I’ve loved gardens, I’ve always gone to see gardens whenever we travel. We did have a small garden somewhere else that I asked someone to help do because I didn’t have a clue. I actually found I knew tidbits here and there, more than I thought. Still, it was totally learning something new. That’s something I’d like to impart. It doesn’t have to be gardening. It can be anything, but the idea of learning something new. The other is the fact that being closer to nature does enhance your life. It enhances my life as I walk down the street because I suddenly become more observant. The writer Penelope Lively calls it having gardener’s eyes. I see plants in ways I hadn’t. I identify plants in ways I haven’t. It just enhances my everyday experience. Putting some seeds in the ground and watching them come up is really, really satisfying. I have read, as you know, a lot of about what the writers say about gardens. I have realized it’s really quite true.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. Wow. Can you back up and explain your love of books and when it started, when you started writing your own books, how you got involved with the library, which I know we’ve both been involved in, at the New York Public Library? How did this all happen?

Catie: I suppose my love of books started when I was young. I thought of you and your story about Charlotte’s Web in your book because I had a similar story about The Secret Garden in mine. I didn’t use a flashlight when I got under the covers. I don’t know why I was able to see it. I think it was daytime. Anyway, I loved that book. It was books, really, that introduced me to gardening. Many people, by the way, who are gardeners have this gardening gene, particularly in England, and often, oddly enough, jumps a generation. It might be a grandparent who has a garden. We did not have gardens in our family. For me, learning about gardens really came out of books. It came out visiting gardens. I’ve just always admired writing and writers. In the other two books, really, what I did was assemble writers who wrote on a specific topic, so this is the first book I wrote myself. I just so appreciate what writers do. I really admire it. It changes life. There is so much that can be said through writers. My involvement in the library, funnily, started because — Tom Wolfe. It was Tom Wolfe — now I’m a friend of his daughter — who sent me a letter to be on some committee at the library. I didn’t really read the letter. I tossed it figuring it was just whatever, another standard fundraising letter, something like that. They did follow up and ask me. I thought, thank goodness they followed up because it really did change my life. I started to be on that council. Then I don’t know why I, for whatever reasons, was asked to join the board. I did that. At that point, I was distinctly the youngest member of the board. It was very exciting. I did various things. Then again, it was a surprise when they asked me to chair the board. That was the most rewarding work experience I’ve ever had.

Zibby: How so?

Catie: I felt like I was making a difference in various ways. I thought it was always wonderful when and I and Katherine Dunn, for instance, and others would go to a branch library which had had a renovation and see it in action because sometimes you work in the abstract. It was working with the people of all sorts. There was wide range. I just enjoyed that so much. In fact, I really enjoyed writing this book. It was hard. I realized I’m not a writer. I really don’t want to be in the quiet of writing all the time. I don’t plan on writing another book. I just feel like I need people around more or doing something with people. I really enjoy working on a project with people for the same goal.

Zibby: Interesting. You could have a cowriter or something.

Catie: I guess I could. We’ll see.

Zibby: Aside from the solitary aspect — although, you were writing during COVID too, which I’m sure made it even more acute, what was going on. Did you feel rejuvenated? Do you feel like you got meaning maybe you wouldn’t have paused to get out of the gardening experience by writing about it, being that extra layer of observation?

Catie: Yeah. I think a lot really comes from the research with the writers. There are so many quotes of the writers, their advice, that are woven throughout the narrative. That enhanced my knowing dramatically. I think writing about it, certainly putting it on paper, it helped me to understand the meaning of a garden. Yes, .

Zibby: That’s wonderful. If you’re not planning on writing another book but you are planning on continuing to garden, it sounds, in a smaller section, what else comes after this book? Is there anything on your wish list for why you wanted to write this book that you haven’t done yet that is still on your list?

Catie: That’s a really interesting question. I’m one of those people who really has to work in some way. I keep thinking that all these things that I’ve done are great, but then they finish. Then I have to start something new. This time, I really want to start something that will last for the long haul, as I say it. What has always interested me is farming. What I am thinking of is trying — it’s rather ambitious — trying to find land and create farms which are farmed, actually, in my mind, by refugees. There are a lot of different groups who it could be for. They would be paid. The produce or whatever would be going for them. Whatever the excess food, either sold or given to food banks or whatever. That is my interest. I’m, right now, finally feeling I have a good amount of time to really devote to it. I have a couple of wonderful friends who are willing to help me, Cheryl Effron being one, Kim Elliman being another. It’s, again, something that I’ll be working on with people. How rewarding that is.

Zibby: Wow, that’s wonderful. Amazing. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Catie: Simply try, is what other people say. Put something on paper. At one point, the editor had said to me, “Just write one chapter. Write one section.” I did. I wrote it on roses. I really thought it was pretty terrible and tucked it away. For whatever reasons, let’s say, seven, eight months later, we were talking about it. She said something. I said, “All right, I’ll show it to you.” She loved it. It’s basically in the book as I wrote it. You never do know. Your writing, I would wager, anyone’s writing, is better than you think. There’s a ton of editing that goes into this. I edited this book again and again and again. When I was doing the book on city squares, I was working with a writer who would send me draft number eighteen. She just kept going. I understand that. It doesn’t really matter what you put down at first.

Zibby: I love the advice of the editing. Amazing. Catie, thank you. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for talking about your beautiful book. It is such a perfect read. You’re a beautiful writer. It’s also a great gift for anybody who loves to garden. Really beautiful. I know I keep saying beautiful, but that’s what I think about it. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Thank you.

Catie: Thank you to you. Bye.

Zibby: Bye. Take care.


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