IN HONOUR OF SPRING: An interview with philosopher/gardener Merilyn Simonds, author of A New Leaf

An interview with Merilyn Simonds, author of A New Leaf, a book of essays that offer both practical gardening tips and more spiritual musings prompted by a year of growing seasons in her expansive eastern Ontario garden  By Sarah Brown

Photography by Garrett Elliott.

It is a book that started life as a blog. In 2009, writer Merilyn Simonds was looking to explore shorter forms and write about something she loved. That was when her son designed a website for her and a blogging career was born.

Every week Simonds would add one gardening-inspired post as the frugalista gardener. “It was a real delight to write, because there was no sense of having to commit to a really big project,” she explains.

When a frequent visitor to the blog, who also happened to be an editor with Doubleday Canada, suggested that the essays be developed into a book, Simonds was thrilled.

Her blog project grew into the 2011 book A New Leaf, which features 59 essays, most of them beautifully reworked versions of frugalista posts.

The essays are often very contemplative. Do you find yourself composing as you garden? The general spark of what I want to pursue starts in the garden, but I don’t write the essay in my head. I find I need to have a pen in my hand to actually get down to the business of writing. But the initial stimulus comes from working in my gardens — that’s what provokes me into the essay-writing headspace.

Your family and friends play key roles in the essays, but you don’t call them by name, instead giving them such pseudonyms as the Garden Guru, the Woodcutter, the Farmer. Why? I really like this technique, because it gives readers room to go into the story and make it their own. It allows readers to identify more closely with the characters and make them their own, as well. The secondary reason was to allow my neighbours and friends some anonymity — although I have to say that in our community, there is no privacy anymore!

Who did you picture writing to? I was talking to other gardeners, aiming to strike a chord with my fellow gardeners.

Photography by Garrett Elliott

One of your essays talks about your Hortus Familia, a garden filled with plants that remind you of your family. How did you come up with this idea? It was a reversal of a historical idea I came across while researching. A Child’s Garden of Verses is a collection of poetry for children [first published in 1885 by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson]. At that time, the term “garden” meant an anthology. I thought, if you can make a book that’s a garden, why not create a garden that’s like a remembrance book. The first plant in my Hortus Familia was a golden spirea. I had given it to my parents to celebrate their golden anniversary. After they passed away, I asked the new owners of their house if I could dig it up for my garden.

What are you working on next? A book called The Paradise Project that will be printed later this year. It’s a limited-edition book of short fiction printed on paper made from plants in my garden — the stories revolve around the theme of plants. It will be hand-printed on a 19th-century letter press.

For more news from Merilyn Simonds, visit her website at