One garden may not look like the next! In Tanya Anderson’s latest book, A Woman’s Garden, she explores the many different kinds of useful gardens and the women behind them. Join me in my conversation with Tanya all about her book and life behind being Lovely Greens.
I’ve long been a fan of Lovely Greens and the woman behind the name, Tanya Anderson! Like me, Tanya is a soapmaker and makes many of her own beauty products from herbs she grows right in her own garden.
But beyond the skincare garden, Tanya has featured seven other amazing gardeners and the types of useful plants they grow in her latest book, A Woman’s Garden, Grow Beautiful Plants and Make Useful Things.
Today, Tanya joins me for an interview covering everything from her inspiration to begin gardening, the female gardeners featured in her book, and how to define and grow a useful plant.
Be sure to read all the way through to the end for an exciting giveaway featuring Tanya’s book!
Photography courtesy of Tanya Anderson and others where noted.
In Conversation With Tanya Anderson
Garden Therapy: In your book, you asked each person, “Who inspired you to start gardening in the first place?” and most said their mothers and grandmothers, and that there’s a sisterhood in passing plant traditions. You personally mentioned your grandparents’ house. What did you learn most from their homestead that you passed down to your own garden?
Tanya Anderson: It’s true that the things you learn as a child go on to create the person you will become. I grew up with a family that didn’t have much money, but they had land, farming skills, and a tradition of growing their own—my grandparents and great-grandparents on my mother’s side especially.
Looking back, I feel grateful for those initiations of seeing plants grow into food that we can eat. Potatoes, swiss chard, and raspberries were the three that I loved the most. Picking, digging them up, and of course, eating.
My great-grandfather loved growing plants. Dahlias lined the front of the house, gigantic pear trees framed the drive, and he also had a productive veg patch. He was quite the imposing character, though, and I don’t remember spending much time with him. I do remember his home-canned peaches, though!
His daughter, my Grandma Gladys, is who I learned from the most. Those first experiences of being in the garden, washing veg in the outdoor sink, and serving it up for dinner. Every family and person is, of course, different. But in speaking to quite a few people, it’s often our mothers and grandmothers who have led us down the gardening path.
The biggest lessons that I’ve learned from my grandparents are independence and resourcefulness. They grew their own fruit and vegetables, canned them, raised chickens and livestock, hunted, foraged, fished, dug clams, and collected mussels. You don’t need to have a lot of money to eat well, but you need to understand the land, learn practical skills, and work hard.
GT: The main theme of the book is “usefulness”. How can gardeners find a balance between growing “useful” plants versus those just for show or simply because they love them?
TA: This is a great question, and for me, it ties back directly to the worldwide loss of biodiversity and wild spaces. The simple answer is that if people cannot find importance in something, they are often apathetic at its loss.
By introducing ‘useful plants,’ I want to open the eyes of the reader to the fun, healthy, and creative things that we can do with plants. Also, to show how important they are to humanity and our planet’s future. Plants are more than just dressings for our window boxes and yards – they represent our values.
Growing plants simply because we love them can be wonderful. Education about what they are is incredibly important, though. Many ornamental and/or flowering plants can catch the eye, but they can have a darker side. Some are so overbred that they no longer produce food for pollinators. Plants can be sprayed with insecticides, planted in peat, or illegally and unsustainably harvested from wild spaces—the plant and garden choices we make matter.
A garden need not be utilitarian to be a bountiful and aesthetically pleasing space—that’s a clear message in A Woman’s Garden. The words between the beautiful photography share another message, though. Growing useful plants can create relationships with people and connections to the land. Learning how they can fit into our lives or support local biodiversity is a real eye-opener.
The act of gardening also makes clear that the plants we eat and bring into our homes represent everything we’ve poured on and around the plant. Hopefully, that realization, and others, will help lead more people to choose organic gardening methods and support soil health.
GT: What are the requirements of a “useful” plant?
TA: It’s a broad definition and is a plant that can help people, other plants, animals, and the land. It could be plants with deep roots that help stabilize a slope or a plant that helps feed or clothe your family. It could also be a flower that reminds you of a loved one or helps you through a tough time. Plants and gardens that support mental well-being and the arts are just as useful as those that provide sustenance.
It’s important to note that some useful plants are not helpful in different scenarios, though – for example, introduced species that outcompete native flora. It is a reminder to keep an eye on what you’re growing and don’t let it spread into the wider world.
GT: What “useful” plants do you tend to grow?
TA: I grow a wide range of plants, but I love those with many roles. Plants that I can eat, look good, support wildlife and soil, and even make handmade soap and skincare. I grow in no-dig beds and try to incorporate polycultures into most of my plantings. Mixing plants that can support one another in some way, i.e., companion plants. Some are edible plants, others not, but each has importance in my garden ecosystem.
I’ve also been making soap commercially for twelve years now, and my customers and I love that the herbs and flowers I use come from the garden. Before they made their way into skin salves and soap bars, the calendula, lavender, and peppermint grew happily and healthily in a setting where they fed countless insects. Aside from their skincare value, those plants also helped better the ecosystem around I live! That is the power we have as gardeners.
GT: It’s refreshing to see so many gardens featured in one book. What made you want to work with other gardeners for A Women’s Garden?
TA: The idea of A Woman’s Garden partially came from my many years of working alongside other garden communicators. So many of us wrote about how gardens can be places of healing, beauty, nourishment, and down-to-earth joy. It was not a mainstream gardening theme even ten years ago!
As we pottered along on our blogs, the idea grew. It was a grassroots movement and the digital equivalent of what’s always happened—the passing of knowledge and tradition between friends and family. This new way to share means that anyone could learn some of the same things I’d learned from my grandma with a simple google search.
That’s one of the reasons that it was important to me to share other women’s gardens in the book. I wanted to show the collective strength of both the sisterhood and knowledge that has been with us since time immemorial.
Not only that, but I wanted to share the personal stories of different people who have a passion for growing useful plants. The reasons why each feels drawn to gardening and what drives them to keep working. A Woman’s Garden is not just about my garden; it’s theirs, and yours, and every one who grows plants to make a difference.
GT: How did you select which gardens and gardeners to feature?
TA: Each chapter of the book focuses on a category of useful plants–for natural dyeing, skincare, edible flowers, herbal medicine, and much more. I invited women that I admired and who specialized in growing those types of plants. I then interviewed them on Zoom to chat about their gardens, and what I learned from each was fascinating.
For example, Rekha, a British-Indian gardener, grows for flavour, but she had no idea what culinary herbs were when she first arrived in the UK. It’s something that I’ve always taken for granted – the idea of using rosemary, thyme, or sage in cooking. The idea is not universal!
Some of the women I’d known for years, and others I knew only from social media. What was important to me was to show gardens and women in a diverse and thought-provoking way. I also specifically asked women who had never written a book before as a way of lifting up their message. Now at least two of them have written their own books. One directly as a result of being in A Woman’s Garden–I feel proud of that.
GT: Do you have a favourite project in the book?
TA: As a soapmaker, I had to squeeze in a soap recipe, which was always going to be my favourite. I show how to naturally colour soap purple using a plant that I wished more people with a Mediterranean climate would add to their gardens!
Second-favorite is using onion skins to naturally dye wool yarn yellow. Before writing the book, I’d never used plants for natural dyeing fibres, and I took a fascinating introductory workshop from a friend. My goodness, dye plants–now that’s a group of plants that could easily get you hooked on both gardening and the creative arts.
There are several projects per chapter, one a gardening DIY project, such as building an herb spiral or a planter with reclaimed wood. The others as ways to use plants in food recipes, skincare, medicines, and even art. The edible flower recipes are probably the most beautiful and simple, but the skin salves and ways to create plants for free are also fun and useful.
GT: Tell us a bit about Lovely Greens and how our readers can follow you.
TA: My book, A Woman’s Garden, is available through all major booksellers, but you can also find me online as Lovely Greens. I have a popular gardening YouTube channel, the Lovely Greens website with plenty of free tips and advice, a bi-weekly newsletter, and I’m pretty active on social media. Lovely Greens shares a similar message to my book: live simply, grow your own, make natural things, and you’re welcome to visit me over there any time.
In honour of Mother’s Day, I want to celebrate the women of gardening with a giveaway! Enter to win a copy of Tanya’s book, A Woman’s Garden as well as a copy of my book, The Regenerative Garden.
To enter, leave a comment down below sharing your inspiration behind why you started gardening. You have until 12 PM PST on May 19th to enter where I will select a winner using a random number generator.
Please note that this contest is open to residents in US and Canada (except Quebec and where prohibited) only.
Although I can grow plants only in containers now, I have fond and vivid memories of my grandparents’ extensive gardens and learning that both food plants and pretty plants are valuable in their own way.