Exploring world of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a gardener and farmer

Jim Higgins
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
In "The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder," gardening expert Marta McDowell writes about the "Little House" author's gardening and farming experiences. McDowell will speak Sept. 19 at Milwaukee's Boswell Books and Sept. 20 at Oconomowoc's Books & Company.

Walking in the footsteps of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family, Marta McDowell found people who have much in common with today's gardeners and farmers.

"I think of Almanzo and Laura Wilder as prototype sustainable farmers," McDowell writes in "The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired the Little House Books," a lively, detailed look at Wilder's plant, farm and garden interests in the many places she lived, including her early years in Pepin.

Laura and Almanzo practiced a nothing-gets-wasted philosophy that's familiar today, McDowell said in a telephone interview. And what today we call the farm-to-table concept, for the Wilders that was "the length of a walk from their kitchen garden and barn to their back door," she said.

McDowell will speak Sept. 19 at Milwaukee's Boswell Books and Sept. 20 at Oconomowoc's Books & Company. She is a writer, teacher and horticultural consultant whose earlier books profiled Beatrix Potter and Emily Dickinson as gardeners and chronicled the White House gardens of presidents.

"She did a wonderful job of differentiating the different places she lived," McDowell said of Wilder. "I really felt like she captured what today we would call the different ecosystems, the different biomes."

McDowell reminds us of Wilder's careful reconstruction of tending the family's vegetable garden in her one novel set in Wisconsin, "Little House in the Big Woods": "Laura's description of pulling the skinny carrots and the round turnips from their underground homes is rousing."

When McDowell, who lives in New Jersey, visited Pepin, she drank in the "beautiful rolling farmland," which made her ponder how hard Charles Ingalls (Laura's Pa) would have worked cutting down trees with hand tools. 

Outside of Pepin, visitors can explore a replica of the family cabin where young Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up.

If McDowell could travel back in time, she would love to know how close the Ingalls fields were to their cabin, and what tools they used. She would like to know more about the wildflowers Laura saw and what the family used for medicinal herbs — she makes only sparing mentions of those herbs in her novels, McDowell said.

"I was also taken with how much of the agricultural transition she caught in the period that she wrote about, and also during her own life," McDowell said. The Wilders were not Luddites; they adopted new technology, she pointed out.

 In addition to her careful reading of the Little House novels, McDowell also gleans material from Wilder's diaries and her farm journalism for the Missouri Ruralist and other publications. McDowell's book includes a reproduction of "My Ozark Kitchen" (1925), a Wilder article with accompanying photos of how the Wilders set up and outfitted their new kitchen at their Rocky Ridge Farmhouse. The text includes Wilder's wonderful lament, "the average farm kitchen is enough to break the spirit and strength of any woman."  

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired the Little House Books. By Marta McDowell. Timber Press. 390 pages. $27.95.

For readers who want to get their hands dirty with this material, McDowell offers an extensive list of the garden flowers, wildflowers, vegetables, fruits, grains and other plants that Wilder grew and knew, with common names, botanical names and citations to her books and diaries.

For those of us more skilled at eating than gardening, McDowell offers encouragement. Wilder always said, she notes, "we need to continue to be inspired by nature and go out into nature." 

Jim Higgins is the author of "Wisconsin Literary Luminaries: From Laura Ingalls Wilder to Ayad Akhtar" (The History Press). 


Marta McDowell will speak at 7 p.m. Sept. 19 at Boswell Books, 2559 N. Downer Ave., and 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at Oconomowoc's Books & Company, 1039 Summit Ave.