Superwoman Stewart strikes again with gardening book

January 19, 1992|By Charlyne Varkonyi

Once upon a time a 3-year-old girl named Martha Kostyra was sent into the garden by her father to pull weeds on the cobblestone path. Unlike her five siblings, she loved the garden and didn't run away from her duties. Soon she was planting seeds and watching all the wonderful things in the garden grow -- tomatoes, cucumbers, dill, peppers, figs, beautiful flowers.

She continued to love the garden throughout her childhood, and when she was in the sixth grade she won a first-place award for flower arranging in a contest sponsored by the Nutley (N.J.) Woman's Club.

That little girl grew up, got married and became Martha Stewart, the one-woman conglomerate who does everything that the perfect superwoman dreams about. She writes lavish coffee-table cookbooks that have sold more than 2 million copies. She edits a bimonthly lifestyle magazine, Martha Stewart Living. She lends her name to a line of products at, of all places, Kmart. And she's a regular on NBC's "Today" show.

If there is one person who has the ability to make American women feel hopelessly inadequate, it's Martha. We have watched her make her own wrapping paper, gild pumpkins for use as centerpieces, serve lavish dinners on perfectly decorated tables and still look like a beauty queen who continues to defy time. Now she has used her "fantasy lifestyle" formula to feed America's recently discovered desire to go back to the earth in her "Martha Stewart's Gardening" (Clarkson Potter, $50).

Why gardening?

"There certainly is a revival in gardening," she said while picking hard-shell crabs at Obrycki's on a recent tour to promote her book. "More than 70 million households are involved in some sort of outdoor gardening. It's now considered America's favorite outdoor activity."

She hopes that those same people who continue to flock to bookstores to buy her cookbooks will snatch up the close to 300,000 copies of the gardening book that have been printed thus far.

The hefty book, with 650 pictures by Elizabeth Zeschin, chronicles the gardens she planted 20 years ago at her six-acre home in Westport, Conn., known as Turkey Hill Farm. Built in 1805 by Captain Thorpe, an onion farmer and barge owner, the Federal farmhouse sits on the highest hill in the neighborhood.

Over the years, she has transformed the once-neglected house into a showplace, and the two fertile acres into apple, pear and plum orchards, cutting gardens and herb and vegetable patches. These days she grows hundreds of varieties of roses, ** more than 50 kinds of lettuces, 18 kinds of basil and what she says is enough food for the family so that they don't need to go to the store for produce in the summer.

Like her other books, this is a sensual delight. It's filled with elegant illustrations of flowers and fruit, photographs of barren fields dotted with snow and colorful vases filled with late-blooming azaleas, Japanese iris, larkspur and centifola roses. There are the requisite pictures of Martha -- in jeans and work shirt with a hoe and wheelbarrow, sitting in a silk brocade chair ordering from seed catalogs, pruning trees, shoveling rose bushes with compost, clipping flowers and placing them in a curved basket.

Like many other gardening books, it lists the essential tools you'll need to get started. It tells you how to prune trees, propagate seeds and make a compost bin. It provides a list of sources for everything from seeds, bulbs and plants to flower and plant societies. But unlike other gardening books, it gives recipes for each month's seasonal foods, instructions on making potpourri for Christmas presents and a step-by-step process to transform cement garden containers in faux copper urns.

The most distinctive part of the book is her month-by-month organization tips. Novices may think there is nothing to do in the garden in the chill of January and February, but Martha wrote down everything she did each month for the four years she was writing and photographing the book.

For example, her January journal says she gathered catalogs, began seed orders, ordered roses and trees to replace those that are dead or damaged and started herb seeds in a greenhouse. Contrast that with the entry for July, when she painted the wooden tomato stakes cupboard blue, weeded the garden almost daily, did a lot of watering to combat a dry spell, planted cucumbers and squash as well as picked a variety of crops -- lettuces, baby string beans, beets, radicchio, eggplants, Swiss chard, red onions and blueberries.

As well as using her journal as a guide, she suggests that every gardener keep his or her own journal to keep track of rainfall, temperature and other factors, so good and bad crops can be tracked by the variables.

But how do you start if you are a novice?

She suggested buying a good book, studying it carefully and then starting small with an herb garden or a few plants. Soon, she said, you'll be reaping the rewards.

"Gardening shouldn't be considered work," she said. "It should be considered a hobby, a release for stress, a way to obtain a sense of accomplishment in a natural easy way."

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