Around the Press in 80 Books: The Garden Diary of Martha Turnbull

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Senior Editor Catherine Kadair writes about The Garden Diary of Martha Turnbull, Mistress of Rosedown Plantation.

TurnbullGARDEN_jktfrontHRI come from a family of passionate gardeners, and both my husband and daughter also love to work a vegetable patch. It’s become a special father-daughter thing, twice a year—planning together what they’re going to try this summer or winter; preparing the beds; going to the nursery to pick up seeds and plants; and then starting all the backbreaking work of planting, watering, weeding, and spraying. I enjoy the results so much—being able to step out the back door and pick fresh veggies for a salad or side dish—that I like to think I will take over the job if and when they’re not able to do it anymore. But I realize I may be kidding myself—I just don’t seem to have the same enthusiasm for the process as I do for the result.

One passionate Louisiana gardener from the nineteenth century, Martha Turnbull, left us a fascinating account of her fifty-plus years working the gardens of Rosedown Plantation. Suzanne Turner, herself an avid weekend gardener (in addition to being a landscape architect who specializes in cultural landscape preservation), spent fifteen years transcribing and annotating Turnbull’s journal, which the Press then published as The Garden Diary of Martha Turnbull, Mistress of Rosedown Plantation. As Turner says in the Introduction, her role was really one of translator—explaining and placing in context Martha’s sometimes cryptic notations, meant only for her own use (and later, that of her daughter) as she laid out her vast gardens year after year.

Martha began her garden diary in 1836, two years after she and her husband Daniel built Rosedown Plantation. In the early years Daniel Turnbull was away on business much of the time, leaving Martha the responsibility of tending the working plantation and producing food for her family and 250 slaves. Her journal records work in several gardens: a kitchen garden, which provided food for her family and guests; a large plantation garden, which produced vegetables for the many plantation workers; an orchard; and an ornamental garden. Martha was an enthusiastic gardener, eager to try new implements and trends. Her journal entries, though spare, convey a range of emotions, from exuberance at her successes (“put out Dahlias, look extremely well”) to near despair at her failures (“our trees won’t do, dieing continually”).

Amazingly, Martha kept her journal for nearly sixty years—the period leading up to the Civil War, the time of the conflict itself (only a handful of entries over those years), the difficult era of Reconstruction, and on. The only notable interruption in the diary, of about a year and a half, occurs when Martha traveled north during the immediate aftermath of the war. During that period, Martha wrote to her daughter and son-in-law to “look at the book”—that is, her garden diary—to see how to maintain the gardens while she was gone. Upon her return to Rosedown, Martha again picked up her journal and spent the next thirty years faithfully recording plantings, weather conditions, and particular techniques she and her helpers used. Suzanne Turner’s annotations bring Martha’s brief comments to life. The result is a fascinating record of a long, full life spent gardening, and so much more.

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