Interview With Garden Writer Allen Lacy
The interview below was posted in June, 2013. I was surprised and honored to see it referenced in Mr. Lacy’s New York Times obituary, but I think it may have been one of the last interviews given by the author.
I became acquainted with Mr. Lacy online after he wrote me a friendly note in response to a book review I had written. After this interview, we exchanged a few more emails and then lost touch.
Allen Lacy is without doubt one of my favorite garden writers. For roughly forty years he has written about plants and gardens with passion, knowledge, and gentle (often self-mocking) humor. He is the author or editor of 10 books, including Home Ground, In a Green Shade, The Garden in Autumn, Farther Afield, and The Gardener’s Eye. For a dozen years he wrote a newspaper column on gardening, first at The Wall Street Journal and then the New York Times.
In addition to his garden writing, Lacy was a professor of philosophy at Stockton College, and currently holds the title of Professor Emeritus. In addition to his own garden in Linwood, New Jersey, Lacey also helped create and volunteers at the Linwood Arboretum.
A couple of weeks ago, I unexpectedly found myself exchanging emails with Allen Lacy. I asked him if he would be willing to do an interview, and he was gracious enough to agree.
You started gardening while growing up in Texas. How did gardening become a lifelong obsession for you?
Since I am now, at 78, what I prefer calling “advanced middle age,” questions about the remote past are usually hard to answer. This one is easy because the memories are still vivid. In the third grade, in Irving, Texas, I was something of a disciplinary problem. I managed to get myself expelled toward the end of the spring term. I was in what amounted to a parole, supervised by a wonderful fourth grade teacher, Ruth Harkey, who ran a small nursery and was a breeder of bearded iris. I worked for her after school and on Saturdays. Mrs. Harkey taught me the elements of hybridization, and I was hooked at the idea of interfering with nature to bring something new into being. My first plant acquisition (25 cents, my entire weekly allowance) was a yellow iris called ‘Happy Days.’
The next stage, after moving to Dallas, took place at age 12 when I started working at Nicholson’s Seed Store which required me to memorize its catalog.
When did you start writing about gardening, and how did that come about?
Writing came first, then writing about gardening. In my senior year in college I was privileged to be enrolled in the legendary year-long writing seminar of Professor William Blackburn, previously taken by writers like William Styron, Mac Hyman, and Reynolds Price. At that time, Duke’s Hoof ‘n’ Horn annually put on student-written musical plays, and I was the author of something called “Top Secret,” which dealt with the confusion that erupted when the US Navy wanted to test atomic weapons on Femina, a Pacific atoll inhabited by feminist colonists. I also had a one-act play about Mexican bandits that was produced by the Carolina Playmakers at UNC. Later, after grad school, my dissertation on the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno was published, and I was co-translator of two volumes for Princeton University Press. In the late 1970s I began reviewing books on general topics for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Meanwhile, I harbored the itch to be a novelist, but without success. My wife suggested that I write something about gardening, and I sent off an over-the-transom piece to Horticulture magazine which the science editor, Roger Swain, accepted. Manuela Hoelterhoff, then arts editor of The Wall Street Journal saw the piece, asked me to write for her, and lo, I became a garden columnist.
You’ve written about how at various times you’ve developed a mania for certain plants (hostas, daffodils). Are you suffering from any plant manias at the moment?
Yes. For the Linwood Arboretum, where I am founding curator, I just acquired a large collection of over 100 native pitcher plants, 30 different species or hybrids.
You’ve visited gardens all over the world. Which garden did you think was the most remarkable?
This is an impossible question to answer, for although this garden or that may be striking or impressive, what I most admire is the human urge to take an empty or an ugly site and transform it into a human artifact. Right now the garden I would most urge others to visit is actually the largely mail-order nursery Plant Delights, which co-exists with the Juniper Level Botanical Garden, both brought into being by plantsman Tony Avent.
You’ve been in the same garden for about 40 years, right? From the perspective of all that time, what would you say were your worst and best home garden decisions?
The best decision was getting rid of the lawn planted by the previous owner of our house, also some of the little spruces he had dotted in perfect symmetry everywhere. The worst decisions were (1) not getting rid of al those spruces–and (2) planting yellow groove bamboo. But it took time for both plants to become serious space hogs. In the meantime, I had a huge cottage garden in which to experiment with a host of herbaceous perennials.
Please tell us about a couple of people who have inspired you as a gardener or writer.
Easy question. First, two of my editors were also fine writers, namely Roger Swain and Manuela Hoelterhof. Roger’s red suspenders were memorable for all watchers of the Victory Garden on PBS, and his columns of science essays from Horticulture were exemplary in more ways than I can outline. Manuela still writes for Bloomberg, and her columns on opera are astute, delightfully opinionated, and often very funny.
As a gardener–no, really a master plantsman, the late J. C. Raulston, founder of the arboretum at the North Carolina State University now named in his memory, was hugely influential on me and many others.
You taught philosophy at Stockton College for many years. Did your gardening at all influence how you approached philosophy?
I don’t think so. For me, these two categories were strongly different. Philosophy had great, often unanswerable, questions. In horticulture, the basic questions had answers. (Which end of the bulb points down?)
You were instrumental in the creation of the Linwood Arboretum. Describe how this park came to be.
Again, an easy answer. Just down the street from the garden my wife Hella and I have been making for over 40 years, there was a real estate eyesore. It was first an electrical substation and then a cleared acre lot that was proposed as a site for a soccer practice field. I thought it an ideal spot for an arboretum, based on what Raulston had done in North Carolina. Linwood’s city council agreed as did our county freeholders, who came up with a grant for construction and plant acquisition. Many others lent their minds and their hands to building a small arboretum packed with unusual and I think superior shrubs and small trees.
The Garden in Autumn is surely my favorite gardening book. Must pull it out every late summer for ongoing inspiration. Nice job, kind sir.
Thanks, Patrick! I find his writing informative, entertaining, and comforting at the same time.
Didn’t know Allen Lacy until today but the books seem very interesting – thanks for this interview 🙂
You’re welcome. He’s worth checking out.
Interesting! Thank you.
Glad you found it interesting.
Exciting to hear what Allen Lacy is up to! Garden writers make a huge impact on their readers as they move along in their gardening life! Thanks for bringing us up to date with this informative interview!
The chance really fell into my lap. It was a lot of fun!
How great that you got this interview! I have read Allen Lacy and enjoyed him immensely.
Me too. I guess this is one of the blessings of the internet age – there is no telling who you will run into on line. This is the first time I have had more than minimal direct contact with an author I have really enjoyed.
Wonderful interview. He must really be an interesting character as one of his influences was garden writer and celebrity, Roger Swain. I never missed the Victory Garden. I have read two of Lacy’s books and he is a good writer too.
I didn’t watch Victory Garden. I wonder if it is available online.
What a FANTASTIC interview. Such an amazing, interesting man. I could have read on here forever. I haven’t read his books, but I shall now. Thanks for this.xxxx
You’re welcome. His books are fun reads.
Allen Lacy is interesting man. He is certainly versatile and knowledgeable.
Thank you for sharing, Jason!
Yes, he does have an unusual range of interests and has known lots of interesting people.
Thanks for letting us know all about this gardener, always great to hear about other people’s experiences.
He has had an amazing career, I think.
As Alan is my cousin, I perhaps could be called partial! I find that as a writer and as a teacher he has excelled beyond any of our expectations and made the family quite proud. Keep at it, Alan. Now I am going to go buy those books you’ve written in hopes that I can make my yard presentable!
With his help, you can’t fail. Thanks for commenting.
I’m embarrassed to admit that while Alan Lacey has been on my radar for a while, I have not read any of his books. This delightful interview was just the incentive I need to change that!
I would recommend starting with Home Ground or In a Green Shade.
Great interview! I like the way he says he’s in “advanced middle age” now, and still gardening! It’s so fascinating to hear who inspired people along their life walk.
I like “advanced middle age” also! Makes me sound so much younger!
I met Allen because of the Linwood Arboretum. As one of the original volunteers that helped plant the arboretum in 2009, I am humbled regularly by his immense knowledge of plants. I have learned and have been inspired to learn more and more each day. Thank you Allen.
I like his insight into his 40 year old garden. My yard is full of spruce trees I secretly hate and are slowly dieing. Very Interesting interview. Thank you!
You know, plants I secretly hate have a tendency to have unexpected “accidents”. Just saying.
Allen Lacy rocks! I’ve enjoyed reading his writing for years and your interview was wonderful! Thanks for this!
Well said, and you’re welcome!
Huh! didn’t know about Linwood Arboretum in NJ. There are so many treasures to find still. Also, hearing about this writer first time, but that’s no surprise as I have got into gardening in the last two-three years only.
Check him out at the library, I think you’ll enjoy him.
What a great interview. I have all of Lacy’s books and have found them so helpful. I love the idea that he is the founder of a small arboretum in his own neighborhood. We should all be on the lookout for locations to plant a public garden. Lacy is a great man!
I don’t have all his books, would still like to get a few. I also thought his involvement in setting up the arboretum was inspiring.
Great interview, thanks so much for sharing.
Allen Lacy is probably my favourite garden writer of all time, with The Garden In Autumn being particularly outstanding. Thank you so much for seizing the opportunity to catch an interview with him. I really enjoyed reading it.
Thank you. It really was a total surprise coming into contact with him – one of those things that happen in the age of the internet. I’m really glad I took a chance and asked him for the interview.
Thanks for this interview. I am a fan of his writing. I first discovered his column in the WSJ in the mid-80s. It coincided with my total embrace of gardening. I was taking horticulture classes and Master Gardener training. I had only been gardening for two years. Mr. Lacy’s columns were entertaining as well as instrumental in introducing me to new plants to try.
A few years later I was working as an intern at the fairly new Bellevue Botanical Garden. I had the idea to write him to ask if he would consider being a guest speaker for the Garden. To my surprise, he accepted the invitation. He was already planning to visit a friend in Seattle that summer.
We turned his appearance into a fundraiser. He was invited to a special dinner arranged by the Garden Society and a tour of the perennial border.
His Garden in Autumn book had just been published and that was his topic. We had a great turnout and even made money for the garden.
It was inspiring to read that he has stayed active and has helped establish an arboretum in his own town.
Thank you for this interview! I actually became acquainted with Allen Lacy online around 1990, when I got my first computer and joined a pre-Web community called Genie. Genie had “roundtables” — groups categorized by interest. Allen Lacy was a prolific poster and very generous with his time with other online gardeners. You could always expect Allen to post something thoughtful or thought-provoking. Several of us were the first to sign up for his newsletter, HomeGround.
I’m so happy to see he’s still active in gardening pursuits and passing along his wealth of practical knowledge and gentle humor to anyone lucky enough to be within driving distance of the arboretum. His books are timeless classics and well worth exploring no matter where one lives.
Would you be Dr. Allen Lacy who lived at 922 Chestnut Drive, Harrisonburg, VA and taught philosophy at Madison College, now James Madison University? I am your former baby-sitter and neighbor, Jane Garber. I have wondered so many times about “Cricket” and Michael. I just read the article, Roots: The House on Chestnut Street and I thought about trying to find you on the internet and say “hello”.
If you are not the person I have described, I apologize for bothering you.
Reblogged this on gardeninacity and commented:
Allen Lacy died this past Sunday at the age of 80. He was my favorite garden writer: funny, smart, gentle, possessing a passion for plants and an affection for people. I’ve read his book Home Ground several times.
I was lucky enough to interview Allen Lacy back in 2013. This seemed like a good time to reblog that post.
Thank you for your latest comment. I had not heard of Mr. Lacy’s passing. He leaves a magnificent legacy to the gardening world!