Garden Muse Frances Tenenbaum

Frances Tenenbaum’s 2006 book, Gardening at the Shore, holds a place of honor on many an Island bookshelf. The author, a much-revered garden writer and editor, highlighted coastal gardens from California to Martha’s Vineyard, and dispensed invaluable seaside gardening advice. In writing the book, Frances capitalized on her own experience, since for more than four decades, Aquinnah has been her summer home.

Among the book’s featured Island gardens are Trudy Taylor’s, overlooking Chilmark’s Stonewall Pond; a Squibnocket garden designed by Phyllis McMorrow; Sam Feldman’s garden above Chilmark Pond; Roger Sametz’s Aquinnah garden; and Jeanne and Malcolm Campbell’s John T. Hoff–designed Vineyard Haven garden above the harbor.

Frances also shared advice specific to coastal locales, such as protecting gardens from strong winds with fences and stone walls, and planting salt-tolerant trees and shrubs. There is information on preserving sand dunes by planting sturdy American beach grass, and the reader learns that salt spray isn’t always harmful and can even enhance such plants as phlox and lilacs, roses and hollies, by preventing destructive mildew.

Winters, Frances now lives at Cadbury Commons in Cambridge, the city that has been her home since 1972. There’s a vegetable garden and a bit of a flower garden there, and she simply enjoys them without having to do the weeding and dead-heading. She has decorated a room with prints, photographs, and needlepoints of hydrangeas and roses, Baltimore orioles, sandpipers, and sweeping wild grasses, creating a feeling of the outdoors inside. And all around her are the books she has edited and the ones she has written.

For her contributions to horticulture, the New York Horticultural Society, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, and the Garden Writers Association of America, among others, have honored her. Now ninety-two, Frances admits with some sadness that her own gardening days are probably over, but she happily remembers them, as well as the years she spent nurturing garden writers.

Frances is particularly proud of having obtained for Houghton Mifflin – the Boston publishing firm with which she was affiliated for more than thirty years – Tasha Tudor’s Garden by Tovah Martin. It’s a book about the children’s book illustrator’s “paradise on earth” and includes the artist’s charming drawings of her Vermont garden.

Another coup as a garden editor was her establishment of the Taylor’s Guides series. In 1936, Houghton Mifflin had published Brooklyn Botanical Garden botanist Norman Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening. Fifty-six years later, Frances inaugurated and became the editor of a new series of garden guides bearing the Taylor name. Written by other garden specialists, these included a guide to annuals, one to perennials, one to trees, one to shrubs, and many more. Altogether, there were forty-five guides in the series. All were written with North American garden growers in mind; prior to then, most such guides were written by English garden writers for garden growers in the British Isles. Indeed, one book critic credited Frances with having invented “American garden books.”

The new Taylor’s Guides culminated in 2003 with the 464-page Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, a compendium of all the others Frances had edited. When that book came out, The Boston Globe called it “one of the top tomes” for the gardener published that year, and the Christian Science Monitor’s garden writer said she would buy any gardening book “simply on the strength of Frances Tenenbaum’s name on the cover.”

Another special garden book she helped publish was a 1988 reprinting of Celia Thaxter’s An Island Garden with illustrations by Childe Hassam. It was a book first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1894 and rediscovered in the publishing house archives in Frances Tenenbaum’s day. She immediately urged its reprinting. That handsome slipcovered volume is filled with lyrical descriptions of its author’s garden on remote Appledore Island in the Isles of Shoals off Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Frances Tenenbaum’s own books include Plants from 9:00 to 5:00: Gardening Where You Work; Gardening with Wildflowers (illustrated by her daughter, Jane); Nothing Grows for You? A Brown Thumb Guide to House Plants; The Secret Gardens of Cambridge; and Over 55 Is Not Illegal, a book on aging gracefully.

A native of Long Island, Frances Tenenbaum inherited her love of gardening from her mother, Regina Mendelson. (It is her mother’s needlepoint of flowers that graces a wall in Frances’s apartment today.) Reggie Mendelson was a noted gardener on the south shore of Long Island, regularly winning honors in the local garden club. She, however, had professional gardening help – something her daughter never did. In an acknowledgment of her debt to her mother, Frances wrote of her mother’s tact “in never once hinting that she might know more about gardening than I did.”

Frances was born and grew up on Long Island, but – on something of a whim – went to the Midwest to attend the University of Michigan. Her roommate there was Laya Wainger, the lifelong friend who, after she had become Mrs. Jerome Wiesner, led Frances and her husband, Frank, to summer on the Vineyard.

But before that, Frances was graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, married an Army Signal Corpsman who spent World War II in the Pacific, worked for the New York Herald Tribune while her husband was overseas, wrote a weekly column for a local Long Island newspaper when her two children – David and Jane – were small, and worked as an editor for a church publishing house on Long Island. She was also on the editorial staff of the Better Homes and Gardens Family Book Club.

In the early years of their marriage, the Tenenbaums lived in Great Neck on Long Island and in Boston, and there was always a garden of one sort or another. They vacationed on the Vineyard in Chilmark, at Menemsha, and in Gay Head (now Aquinnah) before finally deciding to build a house of their own on Lighthouse Road in 1969. There, near her back deck, Frances planted day lilies, coreopsis, butterfly bush, Siberian irises, and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’. In early 1972, Frank died unexpectedly and Frances established herself, alone, in a Cambridge apartment. She soon took over designing the landscaping of her newly built condominium. A happy consequence of the move, however, was being able to make use of her editorial skills at the venerable Boston publishing firm of Houghton Mifflin.

In the beginning, she edited books of all sorts: on crafts and cookbooks and travel books. She was the editor for Richard Rashke’s Escape from Sobibor, the story of an escape from a concentration camp in Poland during World War II, and of his Silkwood, about Karen Silkwood, who was poisoned while working at a nuclear power plant. But gradually, more and more garden writers were steered her way, and clearly she had found her milieu as a garden

“What has always struck me about Mom as a gardener,” Frances’s son, David, says “is her spontaneity. Some gardeners pore through lists and catalogues and books looking for what they want. Mom has always just gone to a nursery or watched what friends were doing in their gardens, and found a place in her own garden for this or that plant that she liked. I’ve never seen her putting a lot of forethought into her gardens – maybe because she was spending so much time on garden books. But what I’ve always liked about her gardening is its delightful, unplanned quality.”

When guests came to visit her on the Vineyard, they found that they were obliged – if they were to be her house guest – to take a black garbage bag down to Red Beach off Lobsterville Road and fill it with eelgrass to nourish Frances’s garden. Her Connecticut brother, trying to enrich her sandy Island soil, shipped her a box of compost filled with worms; by the time the compost arrived, however, the worms had all died.

Besides gardening, her Vineyard pastimes over the years have included gathering wildflowers on walks to West Basin, picking beach plums and making jelly for the long winter months, bird-watching, and playing tennis and bridge with friends she would import each summer from Cambridge. Always an animal lover, before her current favorite, Mocha, her chestnut-brown Burmese cat, she had been the proud owner of a genuine Vineyard Black Dog offspring, a cross between a retriever and a cocker spaniel, and of a perky pumpkin-colored Dachshund, appropriately bearing the name Pumpkin.

Her time on the Vineyard these days is more limited than in the past, but on good summer evenings, she still looks forward to sitting on her deck and watching the sun set red over Cuttyhunk, or meandering among the balloon flowers and irises and daisies in her garden.