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Four Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life

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“The rituals of gardening give a rhythm, even rapture, to everyday life that is apart from the routines of writing and the flows of relationships. Tending my garden became the same as taking care of myself.”

When Laurie Lisle fled the city, she was in such a fever to buy a particular old clapboard house on the green of a historic New England village that she didn’t notice the awkward shape of the backyard. “When I had seen the surveyor’s map of my less than half acre,” she writes, “I was shocked at how very long and narrow a rectangle it actually was; on paper, as if seen from above, it looked to me like a fairway on a golf course, and I wondered how I could turn such an awful shape into a graceful garden.”

Thus begins this modern pastoral, in which Lisle tells us how she heaved compost, dug post holes, planted, and replanted–and how she also found herself digging into her feelings about love and loss, work and play, roots and rootlessness, solitude and sociability. Twenty years later, in these intimate essays that have sprung up around themes such as “Weather,” “Color,” “Woods,” and “Shadows,” Lisle explores the fascinating connections among one’s interior landscape, village life, and the natural world.

In “Roots,” Lisle writes about the generations of female gardeners in her family and the question of whether she has exiled herself into “a floral cage.” In “Sharon,” she traces the grand gardening history of her pre-Revolution town and notes the tensions between natives and newcomers. “Words” contrasts “the easy pleasure of gardening” with “the more elusive satisfaction of writing,” and goes on to examine the role of the garden in the lives of writers such as Emily Dickinson and Edith Wharton. “Woods” tells of the “dramatic demarcation point between nature acted upon and nature left alone.” In “Outside,” Lisle battles back the deer and contemplates the mature garden that has grown up around her. Ultimately, Four Tenths of an Acre is a testament to one woman’s glorious engagement with place.

240 pages, Hardcover

First published May 3, 2005

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About the author

Laurie Lisle

12 books56 followers

Laurie Lisle's most recent book is her memoir, Word for Word: A Writer's Life. Publisher Weekly's BookLife says "it pulses with intellectual discussions, lived feminist history and its resultant tensions…It's great for fans of Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments and Rebecca Solnit's Recollections of My Nonexistence."

She also wrote the first biographies of artists Georgia O'Keeffe and Louise Nevelson. Her best-selling biography of O'Keeffe, Portrait of an Artist, first published in 1980, has been translated into six languages. It is included in Five Hundred Great Books by Women.

Her biography about sculptor Louise Nevelson, known for her dramatic black walls and assemblages, is titled Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life.

She has also written books about childlessness, gardening, and the small girls' high school, where she decided to become a writer. Their titles are Without Child: Challenging the Stigma of Childlessness, Four Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life, and Westover: Giving Girls a Place of Their Own.

Laurie lives in the village of Sharon, Connecticut with her husband, artist Robert Kipniss. When she is not writing or reading, she is hiking or working in her flower garden.

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5 stars
8 (9%)
4 stars
26 (31%)
3 stars
32 (39%)
2 stars
15 (18%)
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1 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 31 reviews
Profile Image for Leah.
750 reviews29 followers
November 28, 2013
I loved loved loved this book so much! I felt like parts of it were my own story. There were many pages where I felt like this book was my blog summed up after many years of careful observation. Laurie Lisle talks about the lifestyle of gardening, the way it enriches and refreshes, inspires beauty and love, and continues a tradition that began hundreds of years ago.

She talks about moving from Sag Harbor to Sharon, Connecticut where she buys a historic home with an oddly shaped yard that she gardens in, shapes with flowers and shrubs, each year trying new things, moving colors around, carefully selecting plants that would create the beauty she longed for. Her emotions about the act of gardening describe a need that is deep within her to be outdoors, to be within nature, and to absorb the beauty from the labor. She even talks about how the men she was in relationships with did not always understand this need, that they resented the time she spent in the yard, and yet the time spent in the yard enabled her to give back in relationships, to find her center and be renewed.

Lisle is a writer and she talks about the tug of gardening versus writing. There was so much I could relate to here, that knowledge that work needs to be done, whether it be writing, reading, cooking, projects around the house, and the innate need to be kneeling before beauty in the form of flower petals and greenery. For anyone who loves to garden, whose soul is refreshed by plants and the life they give, this story will be appreciated and understood. I wish more books like this existed!
Profile Image for Eden.
1,867 reviews
October 23, 2020
2020 bk 362. About half way through I realized I had read this when it first came out. This book had so much potential to be more, but it degenerated into husbands and married life and uncertainties. There was almost an inclusion of other people's reactions to her gardens, a little reflection on her immediate neighbor's gardens and those of her town. She discussed the back yard for most of the book, but little mention of the face/front yard. I would have liked more about the shared gardening vision with her mother and why her sister left landscaping. I would have liked more about friendships she might have established through the local gardening seen. But this isn't my book, its' hers and she wanted to talk about spouses.
Profile Image for PennsyLady (Bev).
1,070 reviews
July 7, 2016
Four Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life

"The ritual of gardening gives a rhythm, even rapture, to everyday life that is apart from the routines of writing and the flows of relationships.
Tending my garden became the same as taking care of myself."
(Laurie Lisle)

It was a delight to walk life's path with Laurie.
I appreciated the gardening histories and the step by step transformations both of her personal life and the essence of her garden.

Her chronicle often made me pause and consider my own life, my own garden.
I smile at the intertwining of life and gardening.
Taking that bare plot of ground, honestly assessing plus and minus and moving ahead to create something uniquely your own.
When there is clash in your color palette or "too much" of this or that, you gently redistribute and redesign.
A pioneer can be as welcome as an old fashioned favorite.
And the gardening saga goes on and on.

Thank you Laurie, I had fun reading this.
I identified many times with your joys
and trials.

This was a goodreads giveaway. signed softcover
Profile Image for Sandy D..
1,014 reviews30 followers
August 26, 2011
I was a little disappointed in this gardening memoir - it wasn't as humorous as Wm. Alexander (The $64 Tomato), nor as erudite as Michael Pollan or Charles Elliot. But it did have some good information on gardening in the NE (the book is set in Sharon, CT), and a lot of history for someone interested in that neck of the woods. I also really enjoyed her ponderings about women and gardening and how this differs from men and their gardening pursuits.

Sometimes it got a little too self-involved for me....I could have done without hearing about her divorces and marital problems. It didn't seem to fit with the rest of the book, although I do understand she was trying to write about herself evolving as her garden did.
Profile Image for Liz.
534 reviews2 followers
May 24, 2016
After years of trying to read “nature books” – and finding them wanting, somehow – I have finally figured out that what I want to read are “gardening books”! Subtitled “Reflections on a Gardening Life,” Laurie Lisle’s book is exactly where I feel most comfortable, musing on the connections between growing things and living a life, debating with myself about issues of artistry and creativity, and all the while landing solidly in the very practical world of weeds and colors and insect pests and weather.
Profile Image for Kelly Tumbleson.
43 reviews1 follower
May 6, 2020
I’m not as interested in growing flowers as I am vegetables, so I had trouble investing in this book. There also seemed to be an incredible amount of misery. Every good story has some angst, but I realized the author didn’t like writing and I was never very certain that she truly enjoyed gardening. As a mom with young children, I don’t get much time to read, and this wasn’t the peaceful garden retreat I’d anticipated. So I will dredge inspiration from the last chapter, and either arrange a blind date with the book for a friend, or use it as decor in my home.
Profile Image for Christine.
39 reviews
January 31, 2021
This was a gift from a friend who edited my first collection of poetry and knows me well. Four Tenths is a charming memoir about “the garden and the gardener (who) have grown alongside each over over the years,” a divorcee in her early 40s creating a new life for herself in a historic Connecticut village. Her story and mine have many parallels, and Lisle has inspired me to push my own work to completion. A charming volume perfect for combating the winter blahs as I envision work in my own garden this spring... a worthwhile lovely read.
1,335 reviews
February 10, 2018
A pastoral book about Ms. Lisle's narrow EXTREMELY long back yard in her house in Sharon, Connecticut. She discusses gardening, the weather, the affect of weather on gardening, her life in Sharon, the history of her house and how the men in her life adjusted to her garden. She mentions historical gardeners (very interesting if you have Wikipedia handy). An elegant read.
Profile Image for Damaris.
11 reviews
January 18, 2023
This book may be shelved as another one of my “read again to get me through winter” books- such a delight to read. The author made her garden come alive in my mind, and had me sketching out my own spring plans on the backs of envelopes and rogue tissues. If you’re an avid or aspiring gardener, I think you’d enjoy this book.
Profile Image for Stephani.
281 reviews6 followers
June 21, 2018
This was a very enjoyable book to read, especially given the fantastic weather this summer. Listening to birds and with all the windows open and a nice breeze, this book really fit the scene.
Profile Image for Josianne Haag.
Author 2 books10 followers
February 4, 2015
Won in the Goodreads Giveaways.

Having never read a memoir before, I didn't know what to expect. Over all I was pretty underwhelmed: the pacing of the book was really slow, there was no real direction in the story line, and she added in information that was almost boring.

While I knew that this wouldn't be a action packed thriller, I did expect the story to move along at a decent speed. And the beginning was interesting as she got settled into her new house and was gearing up to creating her new garden. But then it quickly became obvious as we read through flashback after flashback that it wasn't going to continue that way. For a good portion of the book we got almost nothing in terms of the development of her garden and instead read about her taking her dog for a walk through the cemetery, or the history of how her house had been built and who the previous owners had been.

But I did appreciate the book for what it was: a retelling of her life and her relationship with gardening. Some of the points that she brought up during the book were interesting and I really liked her writing style. It was very poetic and it felt as though every word was picked carefully to be able to convey her thoughts the best. I really felt like I understood some of her emotions and I've had some similar experiences as well while gardening.
Profile Image for Anthony Stancomb.
Author 4 books60 followers
May 9, 2016
A delightful book, full of the mysteries and intricacies of living with a garden. Written for already faithful gardeners, and full of enchanting detail, it’s not the sort of book that is going to covert anyone, but it is a wonderful hymn to the joys of being a keen gardener.
But the book is more than just about gardens, it’s a book about the writer’s life and how gardening has laced its way through it wherever she was. Throughout the narrative, the author has cleverly woven in brief excerpts from her childhood/ relationships/ jobs/ marriages, and also some illuminating information about the history/politics/scandals of where she lives in new England.
But above all, the book comes over as an ode to the life-force behind nature and life-force behind the author herself. Following the progression of her gardens, you gain an understanding of her successes and failures in life, and it’s touchingly revealing at times.
The book is exquisitely written with a light humorous touch, and with a colourful yet economic use of words. the finely balanced chapters take you through the various periods of her life as if they are seasons, and by the end of the book, you feel as if you have taken part in her journey.
Profile Image for Nanci.
223 reviews4 followers
January 25, 2008
Booklist says: "Time does not stand still in a garden. Just as winter's tranquility masks the feverish underground activity of bulbs gathering fuel for spring blossoms, so, too, does a life undergo complex metamorphoses as transitions are either chosen or forced upon it. Lisle found herself at just such a turning point following her divorce and, leaving behind the hectic, sophisticated pace she enjoyed as an acclaimed journalist in Manhattan, she set out to find a simpler, more rewarding way of living. A historic village in rural Connecticut held just the right house and garden in which Lisle could rediscover her true essence. In this beguiling and wise memoir, Lisle recounts the lessons learned as she worked a tiny plot of land, weeding not only errant plants but also those wayward thoughts and behaviors that she once thought impossible to let go. Lisle's cogent meditations on the rewards of working the land and nurturing the soul are elegant, eloquent reminders of the importance of listening to your inner muse."

Profile Image for Kristen.
833 reviews20 followers
April 21, 2011
This was a spur of the moment pick from a display about gardening books in the local library. I'm glad I picked it up. Laurie Lisle reflects on her garden, which she began to establish about 20 years before. She bought a new(old) house on a village green in a small Connecticut town after a painful divorce, and proceeded to transform the back yard. As she goes through other relationships, the garden is a place of escape and restoration for her. Lisle was already a published author when she began this garden, and her desire to work the land for a time outweighs her desire to write. Interesting snippets of gardening through other writers eyes appear throughout. Many life lessons are taken through her observations about gardening. I finished this in Hawaii while there for my Mom's memorial service, so I'm sure this book will stay with me forever. Gardening was something Mom loved, and that I love as well, so it was a poignant read.
Profile Image for L.
18 reviews1 follower
June 9, 2016
I adore this book. Laurie speaks in a tender and honest voice about her own experiences relocating from the city to a small town, weaving together stories of nature, gardening, and universal themes of life. What began as a gardening journal evolved into a memoir with well developed stories and visual clarity. Her expertise as a biographer is apparent in her richly detailed research on her house, her new town, and the plants in her garden that, like life... is a continual work in progress. The layers of the story flow naturally, making it an enjoyable and engaging read. I recommend "Four Tenths of an Acre" as a gift to yourself or to anyone with an interest in gardening, memoir (reading or writing), or who enjoys rich, gently paced stories of learning and evolving through life.
1,351 reviews11 followers
March 4, 2017
I think that the gardening parts were interesting. There was a lot of detail about her oddly shaped garden, and good information on the history of the area, and what does well there. I live somewhere very different so it was nice to read about. However, there was a lot of non-gardening stuff that I didn't care about. I guess it is a called a Gardening Life meaning not just gardening, but I didn't really think it through.
Overall, it was a worthwhile read though.
Profile Image for Anne.
184 reviews22 followers
February 26, 2012
I started out really liking this book, but as I continued with it I became less and less engaged. Not only does the author seem to hold the reader at arm's length, she also seems to distance herself from her own story. I came away not caring very much.
Profile Image for Mairibethe.
7 reviews
July 30, 2016
I am happy to say that I entered and won this giveaway for my mom, and she will hopefully be a new goodreads member soon. Although I have not yet read it, when I received the book I read the first few pages and I know she will enjoy it!
Profile Image for Joy.
123 reviews24 followers
January 20, 2015
I enjoyed reading about the author's love of gardens and gardening, and to see how both her personal life and her garden evolves over the years.
Profile Image for Jackie.
91 reviews2 followers
January 21, 2015
I won this book in a Goodreads Giveaway. I enjoyed it for the most part, but would have enjoyed it more if the author would have included photographs of the garden.
Profile Image for Malia Walter.
24 reviews
December 13, 2014
A fine distraction from my day job. Helped fuel my desire to garden more flowers even though I personally focus on food production.
Profile Image for Sharon.
113 reviews
February 11, 2015
A good winter read... but slightly disjointed. I would recommend first checking out Margaret Roach or Dominique Browning for this genre.
Profile Image for Kathy.
32 reviews
June 8, 2015
Interesting look at gardening, writing and the changes both bring to light and life during a woman's middle ages of life.
Profile Image for Elfrieda.
12 reviews
August 8, 2015
Words of wisdom using gardening as a metaphor for life. Inspiring, charming, and full of wisdom
Displaying 1 - 30 of 31 reviews

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