Interview by Emily Levine
During long city summer days in Boston there are few places more beautiful than the Boston Public Garden. Thomas Mickey—scholar, author, retired professor, and active Master Gardener—says there is nothing more lovely and welcoming than a well-designed public garden “for anybody to go in and enjoy.” Mickey has lived on the east coast for almost 40 years and holds the title of Master Gardener in the state of New Hampshire. After earning a Ph.D. in Communications from the University of Iowa, Mickey moved east for a teaching job at the New England College in Henniker, NH; after ten years, he moved to Bridgewater State to teach communications, of which he is now Professor Emeritus.
Purchasing a New Hampshire home sparked Mickey’s green thumb, and his research interests lie in the intersection of “history, marketing, and gardening.” Mickey won the Enid A. Haupt Fellowship from the Horticultural Services Division of the Smithsonian to research seed catalogs at Smithsonian archives in the District of Columbia. His studies formed the foundations of his book America’s Romance with the English Garden (2013). Mickey has authored several other books, including Best Garden Plants for New England, Deconstructing Public Relations, and Sociodrama: An Interpretive Theory for the Practice of Public Relations.
I sat down for a conversation with Mickey to talk about his research, gardening, and the Athenæum.
Q: I understand you grew up in the Midwest.
A: Yes, in Milwaukee, I was born and raised there.
Q: Did your gardening thumb come as a consequence of living in the Midwest?
A: No, it just happened when I bought a house 30, 35 years ago and it needed some gardening. It just needed some landscaping outside, so I really started back then, I suppose. That is when I was teaching at New England College in Henniker, NH.
Q: Did your family garden?
A: My father did. My mother and father are both from farms, but my father did some gardening in our house in the backyard so I could see that as I was growing up.
Q: Farms? I have fond memories of Iowa, and I understand you spent some time there.
A: I went to the University of Iowa! I was a student there in the journalism school, that is where I got my Ph.D. I loved it. I loved all my years at Iowa. I love Iowa City. It was really a lot of fun.
Q: What brought you to the East Coast?
A: I got a job teaching at New England College in Henniker; I taught there for ten years and then I taught for almost 30 years at Bridgewater State University near Boston. That is what brought me out east, and I have lived here all these years.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to teach?
A: I did actually. I knew that I liked teaching; it is a lot of fun.
Q: Speaking of school, I understand you have the title of Master Gardener. What kind of schooling or manual labor does that require?
A: Oh yes, I am a Master Gardener of the State of New Hampshire. Master Gardening status is given by the University of New Hampshire Extension Service, so I took a year of classes with them… Every state has a program that is usually connected with the state university extension program. In Iowa, there is a big Master Gardener program too, I think. You have to pass all these tests, and every year you have to volunteer community service in gardening. You are trained not just to do gardening in your own garden, but to help in the community in some way. Master Gardener programs don’t want people to go for all of this training and then just go home, they want you to give back.
Q: I saw your blog that details your travels and interests, http://americangardening.net. Are there specific gardens you really like, or that have inspired you in your journeys?
A: The ones that stand out in my mind that are open for anybody to go in, the great public gardens. There are so many wonderful public gardens that we have all across the country. When I travel, I try to see those when I can. Those are the ones that have particular designs expressed in them that I enjoy. It gives you a feel for the city and for the area. When I was writing the book, I was invited to give a talk related to the content of the book in England. So I went to England with my wife and while we were there, I visited nine classic gardens that date to the 1700s. Old gardens, those are really exceptional! I was so happy I saw them. One of them, Stowerham, is on my blog, a real classic garden. The classic gardens often have what we would call a mansion attached to them. These gardens usually belonged to people who had a lot of money, so they not only had this extensive land to have amazing landscapes, they also had huge houses. They were often summer houses; they would be in London during the cold months, and have estates in the warm summer months.
Q: Could you tell me a bit about how you came to write your most recent book, America’s Romance with the English Garden?
A: I teach public relations writing and public relations campaign strategies in the communication department at Bridgewater. However, I am also interested in gardening and landscaping, so I wrote a proposal to the Smithsonian that I come to Washington to the horticultural resources that the Smithsonian has to study how the garden was promoted to America in the nineteenth century. My proposal was titled, “The Selling of the Garden in Nineteenth Century America.” The Smithsonian loved the idea, and they invited me down for a whole year. I traveled back and forth and really looked at the seed and nursery catalogs in the horticultural archives. I did not know going in that I was going to do a book. The book evolved after the year was over, and I went from there.
Q: It seems like the research out of your fellowship is a direct fusion of your gardening and marketing interests.
A: Correct! Most of the people who receive fellowships from the Smithsonian are from the departments of horticulture at universities. However, I was one of the rare individuals invited in from another field (communications and marketing), but I still possessed a strong knowledge of plants and gardening. Both fields combined well for a research project, and the Smithsonian loved it.
Q: When you were at the Smithsonian, did you have any individual objects you very much enjoyed? I noticed the cover of your book.
A: That is a catalog that I came across—actually that is a catalog cover. The image of the woman in the center at the flower beds is from another catalog. The artist put the images from the catalogs together to create the cover of the book. I thought the image of the woman was so powerful and so brilliant in its color. It illustrates so well the theme I was raising of marketing to an American audience.
Q: Could you tell me a bit about your personal gardening?
A: We live in a condo in Quincy, but our house in New Hampshire is the house we had before I took my job at Bridgewater State University, and this is where my big garden is. We had this house before so we just kept it, and this is where I do most of my gardening.
Q: Do you garden in Quincy too?
A: Just containers on the deck. I am precise about what I want in them, but my gardening ideas can get expressed in that way too even though space is limited.
Q: Are you putting in plants or flowers right now, or is it past that time? Tell me more!
A: I have a lot of things I am planting now because this is the time to plant annuals. Not quite seeds yet, it is too cold for that at night, still, so we will wait for warmer nights to put some seeds which grow quite well when the weather warms. We also are planting easy things to grow, like nasturtiums.
Q: Do you grow vegetables?
A: No, because I have too much shade. To do veggies, you have to have a lot of sun, otherwise all you get are leaves and no yummy fruit. I tried in the past, but I am happy with what I have. For many flowering ornamental plants you don’t really need total sun, just partial sun, which is what I have.
Q: If I was in a small city apartment and I wanted to get a plant or I wanted to start gardening and just had a patio, what would you suggest?
A: Well, you should do a container with ornamental flowering plants and ornament plants with colored leaves, like coleus. Coleus is a wonderful plant and there are hundreds of varieties. You can get short ones, big ones, all kinds. They’re really pretty. You have to experiment to see what’s going to work. Leaves are really an incredible beauty in themselves. They really are so powerful. You can contrast a purple leaf with a yellow plant, or a leaf that’s kind of gray-green or fuzzy next to a plant that has bright green leaves and a yellow flower. Striking combinations like that can really be quite charming.
Q: What is your relation to the Boston Athenæum?
A: I used to come every week when I was in the throes of the book, but now I come once a month or so. I still have to research articles for my blog. I am working on two new books as well, which I cannot reveal to you, but I am at the Athenæum to do research for topics on history, marketing, and gardening.
Q: Thank you so much for your time!
A: Happy to do it! I love the Athenæum. They are very helpful to me.