A Feminist Falls for Gardening

9780813588896If I’d only known, I would have waved to Susan Brownmiller as I sailed up the Hudson River as a guest on the schooner Bluenose, in the great Tall Ships parade celebrating the Statue of Liberty’s centenary in 1986. Susan was on her 20th-floor balcony, in her glorious highrise garden, watching the ships go by, and her new book about that garden inspires just this sort of friendly sense of connection. My City Highrise Garden (Rutgers University Press, $25) is so down to earth, so cheerfully direct and intimate, that it sparks an instant bond with anyone keen on flowers, on New York, or on Brownmiller herself—pioneering feminist author of the groundbreaking 1975 classic Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape.

Gardening has always been close to my heart and it is really easy to fall in love with it. Even with that, I still wonder why many people do not just start gardening suddenly. With all the tools, machines, and tips on BestOfMachinery and from other gardeners getting started seems so easy.

For 35 years, Brownmiller (now in her early 80s and apparently as nimble as ever) has passionately cultivated everything from blue hydrangeas to a peach tree on the terrace that zigzags around three sides of her Greenwich Village apartment. She has bribed building employees to schlep cow manure up to her roses, leaned down from the roof to prune eager vines, and dug up her pelargoniums to overwinter above her bedroom radiator. Her ingenuity is evident in this garden book that reads like an impromptu journal. There are no stern or snobbish horticultural directives here, just lively descriptions of the plants she loves, her struggles with errant insects and wind storms and her improvised techniques to cope with her difficult garden location. I was able to ask her about how to maximize 2×2 grow tent yield and how she managed to set up the garden in her location regardless of the size around the area. There’s even a recipe for peach jam, should you happen to have a peach tree as abundant in fruit as Brownmiller’s. Those peaches, by the way, reveal an unexpected attribute: Brownmiller’s impish glee at embarrassing mishaps. Occasionally, over-ripe peaches would plummet to a terrace several flights down. “They’re animals up there,” one neighbor was heard to complain. “They take one bite out of a peach and throw it over the railing.”

Sister gardeners may be delighted, as I was, to learn of shared favorites—Brownmiller loves the same roses I do!—but non-gardeners will find just as much to please them. Every chapter, whether nominally about clematis or water views, is peppered with nuggets of history about early horticulturists, or anecdotes about Manhattan real estate, the rules of small airplane navigation above the Hudson River or the comical mating shenanigans of mockingbirds. (What on earth is a cloacal kiss?) No matter how arcane the snippets of information, the prose is earthy, vigorous and often self-mocking. After a brief disquisition on the French farmer who discovered an excellent form of lavender, she quips “Do you think I knew any of this when I bought my three pots? I didn’t.”

The musings of a well-stocked mind and a tart sense of humor enrich every page, though, surprisingly, there are only the slyest small hints of political views: The William Baffin rose, for example, was developed in Canada through a government-funded program. “Imagine that!”

Enhancing the outright fun of this book is Brownmiller’s unrepentant defiance of political correctness when it comes to insects. She is absolutely certain that bees destroy her flowers and revels in maligning them; ants, she declares, are “a nasty presence. I bait them with traps, crush them under my foot, slam them by hand and spray them with Raid.” In the hushed decorum of the world of garden prose, this riotous malevolence is delectable.

Brownmiller’s Jewish identity is made explicit just once: harvesting some balcony herbs, she reflects delightedly on the seder moment when “humble parsley is held aloft and blessed.”

My City Highrise Garden is a beautifully produced book, with attractive little drawings to adorn the chapter titles and a satisfying number of photographs (gorgeous, although non-glossy) of the plants she writes about.

Gardening, for many of us, is a seriously addictive pastime, with intoxicating sensual rewards for the vigorous labor. Brownmiller offers some satisfying glimpses into the deep pleasure she derives from the emotional and intellectual engagement demanded by garden work.

Also gratifying, for the feminist reader, is her closing chapter, a gossipy and unsentimental appreciation of famous women gardeners: Colette, Gertrude Jekyll, Eleanor Perenyi–but also including an enjoyable dismissal of Vita Sackville-West’s “noblesse oblige” and “leaden poetry.”

Beginning to end, Brownmiller informs, amuses and delights with her wit, knowledge and urbanity.


Michele Landsberg is a Canadian feminist journalist. Among her books: This Is New York, Honey and Writing the Revolution. She lived in Manhattan when her husband, Stephen Lewis, was Canada’s ambassador to the U.N.