Gardening and murder mysteries have a lot in common, according to New York Times bestselling author Marta McDowell.

“I’ve always been a mystery reader, and it pairs up nicely with gardening,” she said in telephone interview. “You go out into the garden with a problem, put in some work, and it is all tied up and tidy by the end.”

She said that her new book, “Gardening Can Be Murder,” was a project of the pandemic, because she couldn’t travel and visit gardens as she has for her other books, which include two on Emily Dickinson’s gardens, the excellent “All the Presidents’ Gardens,” which I have read, and others, which I have yet to read, on the gardens and other landscapes that influenced Laura Ingalls Wilder, Beatrix Potter and Frances Hodgson Burnett.

She said she needed a project she could do from the deck of her New Jersey home.

“I ordered a lot of books from my local book shop and watched a lot of Masterpiece Mysteries,” and that was her project. She avoided any books that were particularly violent or involved serial killers.

The chapters describe the different ways that gardening can be involved with the murder mysteries. In some cases, the detective is a gardener. In other books, gardens, plants or tools are settings, motives, means or clues.


Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple, with her cottage gardens, is a prime example of a gardener detective. Her gardening helps her solve her crimes because, while she is tending her plants, she also can watch what is going on in the village of St. Mary Mead.

While Marple is an avid gardener, McDowell describes Christie’s other star character, Hercule Poirot, as the anti-gardener, never touching a plant except in one case throwing a vegetable marrow (British for zucchini) over a fence in frustration. The Poirot books sometimes have garden settings, where clues are found, however.

I was pleased McDowell included my favorite mystery writer, the late Tony Hillerman, whose Navajo mysteries have been continued by his daughter, Anne Hillerman. In “The Wailing Wind,” rookie officer Bernadette Manuelito uses hitchhiker seeds found on a corpse to determine the scene of the crime.

There are no Maine authors listed in “Gardening for Murder,” but Bowdoin College graduate Nathaniel Hawthorne gets a lot of attention, although I would not describe him as a mystery writer.

Shortly after Edgar Allan Poe created the mystery genre with “Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, Hawthorne wrote “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” set in Padua, Italy, which has ancient botanical gardens. The gardens are tended by a young woman who kills pests with her touch.

“Hawthorne created a garden morality tale with science as its driver,” McDowell writes. “It posed the question to every hybridizer who had cross-pollinated or grafted in pursuit of a better plant. Is it right and proper to tinker with nature?”


One New England writer in the book, new to me, is Cynthia Riggs, whose novels set on Martha’s Vineyard feature 92-year-old Victoria Turnbull as the detective. She is based on the author’s mother, who knew every plant on the island. The fictional offshoot uses that knowledge to solve the crimes. I need to try some of these books.

In writing about Ann Ripley’s 1994 book “Mulch,” McDowell revealed that she and I share a common gardening practice of using an electric grinder to chop up leaves to create mulch.

While I have plenty of leaves on my property, McDowell has sometimes pilfered bags of leaves her neighbors have left out for collection. In the book “Mulch,” but not in real life, some of the bags also have dismembered body parts.

In my conversation with McDowell, who in addition to writing garden books consults on public and private gardens and teaches landscape history and horticulture at New York Botanical Gardens, we discussed Emily Dickinson’s umbrella magnolia.

The tree, which goes back to the mid-1800s, has survived in western Massachusetts for more than a century. Only recently, because of warming temperatures, have the seeds from the plant produced viable seedlings.

She harvested one of those seedlings, and it is growing well in her New Jersey garden.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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