French Dirt

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Gotham teacher Richard Goodman’s memoir French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France. And the book is still in print, a rare accomplishment in today’s world where books come and go at breakneck speed. It's the story of Richard living in a small village in France for a year, acclimating himself to the surroundings and people and tending a garden—a simple story with enduring power.

The legendary writer M.F.K. Fisher rendered the book this praise: “I possess a deep prejudice against anything written by Anglo-Saxons about their lives in or near French villages. So, Richard, I thank you for breaking the spell. I like very much what you wrote.”

Here is the opening of the first chapter:

I had a garden in the south of France. It wasn’t a big garden. Or a sumptuous one. Or a successful one, even, in the end. But that didn’t matter. It was my garden, and I worked it hard and lovingly for the few months I had it—or it had me. This little piece of tan, clayey, French earth, nine meters by thirteen meters (thirty feet by forty-three feet), was in fact the first garden I ever had. It taught me a great deal about myself. “Your garden will reveal yourself,” writes the wise gardener Henry Mitchell. It did. It taught me that I am generous, impatient, hard-working, sentimental, boyish, stubborn and lazy.

Having a garden also connected me to France in a way more profound and more lasting than any other way I can possibly think of. Part of me is still there. And always will be. Even though my friend Jules Favier has recently written to me from the village that “only one of the four boundaries of your garden remains standing,” I’m not upset. What does that matter? The garden is in my heart. Having a garden gave me a place to go in my village every day, a task to perform and a responsibility. You cannot ask more of a land in which you are a stranger. To feel the French earth, clear it, plant seeds in it, despair over it and, ultimately, to take from it, that was a precious gift.

I live in New York City now. A good friend of mine has a house in rural Pennsylvania. I am her official gardener. Because we both know and love France, we have given me the nickname “Le Nôtre,” the name of Louis XIV’s famous gardener. There in Pennsylvania I dig her wild dark ground, dislodge the hundreds of stones, then plant and weed the kind of flowers that will grow in her shadowy back yard—impatiens, marigold, so on. When I’m in New York, I yearn to be back there. I can spend an entire day working in her yard, easily. Even though the land is hers, I’m content. Ownership does not always provide freedom. In her back yard, I am lost. I am lost in my work.

I love to garden for the obvious—but, because of that, no less meaningful—reason: to feel connected to the earth and its moods, to its weather and its seasons, to its eccentricities and surprises. I love to bend and dig and pull and haul. (Just look at those words! Short, simple words. Not a prissy, ten-dollar word like decorate among them.) I am always searching for ways to make myself simpler. Gardening does that better than anything I know. It reduces me to who I am. It casts off the superficial and the artificial. It leaves me with the essential, the economical, the no-frills me.

Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books. To buy the book online, visit For more information on Richard and his book, visit