Gardening Can Be Murder

How Poisonous Poppies, Sinister Shovels, and Grim Gardens Have Inspired Mystery Writers


By Marta McDowell

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This fun, engrossing book takes a look at the surprising influence that gardens and gardening have had on mystery novels and their authors.

With their deadly plants, razor-sharp shears, shady corners, and ready-made burial sites, gardens make an ideal scene for the perfect murder. But the outsize influence that gardens and gardening have had on the mystery genre has been underappreciated. Now, Marta McDowell, a writer and gardener with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, illuminates the many ways in which our greatest mystery writers, from Edgar Allen Poe to authors on today’s bestseller lists, have found inspiration in the sinister side of gardens.

From the cozy to the hardboiled, the literary to the pulp, and the classic to the contemporary, Gardening Can Be Murder is the first book to explore the mystery genre’s many surprising horticultural connections. Meet plant-obsessed detectives and spooky groundskeeper suspects, witness toxic teas served in foul play, and tour the gardens—both real and imagined—that have been the settings for fiction’s ghastliest misdeeds. A New York Times bestselling author herself, McDowell also introduces us to some of today’s top writers who consider gardening integral to their craft, assuring that horticultural themes will remain a staple of the genre for countless twisting plots to come.  

“This book is dangerous. A veritable cornucopia of crime fiction and gardening lore, it faces the reader with multiple temptations—books to seek out, plants to obtain, garden tours to book.” —Vicki Lane, author of the Elizabeth Goodweather Appalachian Mysteries


Gardening is not a rational act.

—Margaret Atwood, “Unearthing Suite”

The vicar may have had a morbid fancy for something else—a passion à la Plato for an aspidistra, or a strange, covetous longing for a cactus. He’s a great gardener, you know, and these vegetable and mineral loves can be very sinister indeed.

—Dorothy L. Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon

It was ridiculous to start sidelines like amateur detection when you had a garden on your hands.

—Sheila Pim, Common or Garden Crime

What lethal drops could be distilled from the entries at the Spring Flower Show; what a jolly poison could be extracted from the jonquil and what deadly liquors from the daffodil. Even the common churchyard yew, so loved by poets and by courting couples, contained within its seeds and leaves enough taxine to put paid to half the population of England.

—Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Setting: Garden Scenes of the Crime
Motive: Gardening Made Me Do It
Means: Dial M for Mulch
More Means: Pick Your Poison (Plant)
Clues: Green Evidence or Red Herrings?
Suspects: Shadowy Gardeners
Mystery Writers And Their Gardens: The Poisoned Pen—and Trowel
The End: Why Gardening Can Be Murder
Backmatter of Gardening Can Be Murder: How Poisonous Poppies, Sinister Shovels, and Grim Gardens Have Inspired Mystery Writers
Sources and Citations

Knowledge or skill

Referenced in:

Language of flowers

“The Four Suspects”

Scent of Heliotropium ‘Cherry Pie’


Identification of silver-fleece vine


Plant identification in general

“Greenshaw’s Folly”

Groundsel as a weed

They Do It With Mirrors

Ground elder as a weed

At Bertram’s Hotel

Bindweed as a weed

Sleeping Murder

High standards for pruning


Slug problems

They Do It With Mirrors

Dolly as gardening friend

Sleeping Murder

Dolly’s pride in her irises

Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side

Homemade tansy tea

“The Thumbmark of St. Peter”

Homemade damson gin

Murder at the Vicarage

Homemade cowslip wine

4:50 from Paddington

  • “They had entered”: Peters, Ellis. One Corpse Too Many. (New York: Mysterious Press, 1994), 15.
  • “I draw a great deal”: Cranch, Robbie. “Mystery in the Garden: Interview with Ellis Peters,” Mother Earth Living, December 1, 1993. Available at
  • The Cadfael chronicles that reference lavender, in publication date order are One Corpse Too Many, The Leper of St. Giles, The Virgin in the Ice, The Heretic’s Apprentice, and The Potter’s Field. See: Talbot, Rob and Robin Whiteman. Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden, (New York: Little, Brown, 1996.)
  • “Spike lavender (spica)”: Von Bingen, Hildegard. Physica, translated by Priscilla Throop. (Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1998), 22.
  • “Everything in life must”: Stout, Rex. Fer-de-Lance (1934). (New York: Bantam Books, 2008), 38.
  • “Wolfe started on orchids”: Rex Stout writing as Archie Goodwin, “Why Nero Wolfe Likes Orchids,” Life Magazine, 15 September 1963. Available at
  • Bishop, Michael. “Orchids in the Corpus,” a complete listing of all orchids in the Nero Wolfe books, available at
  • “When people ask”: Albert, Susan Wittig. Queen Anne’s Lace. (New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2018), 14.

Setting: Garden Scenes of the Crime

  • For more on the origins of the paradise garden, see The Islamic Garden. MacDougall, Elisabeth B., and Richard Ettinghausen, editors. (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, 1976).
  • The story of Cain and Abel may be found in Genesis 4:1–17, King James version.
  • Shakespeare’s description of murder in the garden appears in Hamlet, Act I, Scene V:

Sleeping within my orchard,

My custom always in the afternoon,

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole

With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,

And in the porches of my ears did pour

The leperous distilment, whose effect

Holds such an enmity with blood of man

  • From The Project Gutenberg eBook of Hamlet, available at
  • “Somehow, he thought”: Christie, Agatha. Hallowe’en Party (1969). (London: HarperCollins, 2011 Ulverscroft Edition), 137 and 138.
  • Hercule Poirot’s obituary appeared in The New York Times, 6 August 1975, 1, 16.
  • Gertrude Jekyll references from The Mantrap Garden by John Sherwood (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1986), include Yucca gloriosa and Euphorbia wulfenii paired with red hot pokers, 28; quote from Colour in the Garden, 31; Rosa “The Garland,” 62.
  • “Mysterious beauty of”: Jekyll, Gertrude. Wood and Garden. (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1901), 30.
  • “People will sometimes”: Jekyll, Gertrude. Colour in the Flower Garden. (London: Country Life, 1908), 89 and 90.
  • “Attached to her”: Keene, Carolyn. Password to Larkspur Lane. (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1966), 38.
  • “It is funny”: Nicolson, Harold. Diaries and Letters, Vol. III, Nigel Nicolson, editor. (New York: Atheneum, 1966), 257.
  • “Living in squares and loving in triangles” is a quote often attributed to Dorothy Parker, an attribution disputed by internet sources. It is also the title of a 2015 book by Amy License about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.
  • “Autumn in felted”: Sackville-West, Vita. The Garden. (London: Michael Joseph Limited, 1946).
  • “The thing about”: Humphreys, Helen. The Lost Garden. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), 182.
  • “Now Adam”: A poem published in Kew Guild, 1941, 61, quoted in Gardening Women: Their Stories from 1600 to the Present by Catherine Horwood. (London: Virago, 2010), 327.
  • “Let there be Gardens” and “These ardent passions”: Virgil, The Georgics, translated by L. P. Wilkinson. (New York: Penguin, 1982), 127; Book 4, 86–87 and 108–109.
  • “Having laid out”: Mills, Mark. The Savage Garden. (New York: Berkeley, 2007), 75.
  • “That’s when Hettie”: McBride, James. Deacon King Kong. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2020), 290.
  • “So I was”: Dickinson, Peter. The Yellow Room Conspiracy. (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1994), 1.

Motive: Gardening Made Me Do It

  • “The neatness of”: Rendell, Ruth. “Weeds,” from The Copper Peacock and Other Stories. (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1991), 131.
  • “It is necessary” and “more sneaking and”: Burnett, Frances Hodgson. In the Garden. (New York: The Medici Society of America, 1925), 21.
  • “My warfare with”: Warner, Charles Dudley. My Summer in a Garden. (Boston: James R. Osgood & Company, 1871), 102.
  • “It’s just rather”: Hill, Reginald. Deadheads. (New York: Macmillan, 1984), 134.
  • “Any fool would”: Eglin, Anthony. The Blue Rose. (New York: St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2004), 44.
  • For more information on plant patent number 1, Rosa ‘New Dawn’, see “Climbing Rose” from A History of Intellectual Property in 50 Objects by Brad Sherman; Claudy Op Den Kamp and Dan Hunter, editors. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 185–192.
  • Darwin, Charles. On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects. (London: John Murray, 1862).
  • “The air was”: Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. (1939). (New York: Ballantine Books, 1972), 13.
  • “They are nasty”: Chandler. The Big Sleep, 15.
  • “‘I see,’ said”: Wan, Michelle. Deadly Slipper. (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 15.
  • “He avoided their”: Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” from Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). (London: G. Routledge & Company, 1852), 60.

Means: Dial M for Mulch

  • “someone poisoned her”: Beaton, M. C. Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 107.
  • M. C. Beaton’s Blockeley, inspiration for the village where Agatha Raisin settled, was also the Cotswold shooting location for much of the BBC’s Father Brown mysteries, starring Mark Williams.
  • “The prisoner”: Sayers, Dorothy L. Strong Poison (1930). (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 8.
  • “When had he”: Sayers, Dorothy L. “Suspicion” from In the Teeth of the Evidence and Other Mysteries (1940). (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 183.
  • “Her eyes rested”: Ripley, Ann. Mulch. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 137.
  • “She vomited”: Ripley. Mulch, 61.
  • “Emma stared”: Atherton, Nancy. Aunt Dimity and the Duke. (New York: Penguin, 1995), 51.
  • “The piece that killed”: Aird, Catherine. Passing Strange. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1981), 164.
  • “For Banks”: Shepherd, Lloyd. The Poisoned Island. (London: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 25.

More Means: Pick Your Poison (Plant)

  • Contra vim mortis, nos est medicament in hortis” is attributed to Regimen sanitatis Salerni, a health regimen written at the University of Salerno, then the Schola Medica Salernitana, possibly as far back as the tenth century. It was widely published during the Early Modern Period and has continued to be quoted regularly since then, for example in Medical Botany, Vol. I, by William Woodville. (London: James Phillips, 1790), 111.
  • Watson comments on Holmes’s knowledge of botany and specific poisons in A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle wrote “Gelsemium as a Poison” for The British Medical Journal, 20 September 1879, 483. Available at Note, Agatha Christie also employed Gelsemium in a Poirot short story, “The Yellow Jasmine Mystery,” published in magazine form in February 1924 and in book form as part of The Big Four (1927).
  • “It would not”: George, Elizabeth. Missing Joseph. (New York: Bantam, 1993), 248.
  • The alkaloid toxin in Conium is called coniine. It acts as a paralytic and is also found in the pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava).
  • Midsomer Murders “Garden of Death” (Season 4, Episode 1) first aired in September 2000.
  • For more on Japanese strawberry farming in California’s Pajaro Valley, see Nihon Bunka/Japanese Culture: One Hundred Years in the Pajaro Valley by Jane W. Borg and Kathy McKenzie Nichols. (Pajaro Valley Arts Council, 1992.) Available on the Santa Cruz [California] Public Library’s local history site.

Clues: Green Evidence or Red Herrings

  • “The reader must”: Van Dine, S. S. “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” in American Magazine, September 1928. Reprinted in Writing Suspense and Mystery Fiction. A. S. Burack, editor. (Boston: The Writer, 1977), 267–272. Available at
  • “We know in”: P. D. James interview with Terry Gross, Fresh Air, 1 December 2014. Available at
  • Wandersee, James H., and Elisabeth E. Schussler. “Preventing Plant Blindness,” The American Biology Teacher 61, no. 2, 1999, 82–86.
  • “It’s in the fall”: Lane, Vicki. Signs in the Blood. (New York: Bantam Dell, 2005), 112.
  • “I think it’s”: Stasio, Marilyn. “Tony Hillerman, Novelist, Dies at 83,” The New York Times, 27 October 2008.
  • “He rhapsodized”: Rothenberg, Rebecca. The Bulrush Murders, (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1991), 62.
  • Helleborus niger, the”: Grimes, Martha. Jerusalem Inn. (New York: Little, Brown, 1984), 264.
  • “It was the first”: Godden, Rumer. Quoted in the introduction to An Episode of Sparrows. (New York: New York Review of Books, 1955), xi.

Suspects: Shadowy Gardeners

  • “Beyond, sheep were”: Ironside, Elizabeth. Death in the Garden. (New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2005), 152.
  • For more information on Elizabeth Ironside, listen to her interview with Diane Rehm, 2 December 2005, available at
  • “In the summer”: Rendell, Ruth. The Crocodile Bird. (London: Hutchinson, 1993), 119.
  • “Verity read”: Marsh, Ngaio. Grave Mistake. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978), 44–45.
  • “Planting a garden”: Constantine, K. C. The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes. (Boston: David R. Godine, 1982), 109.
  • “The garden, at any”: Sayers, Dorothy L. Busman’s Honeymoon (1937). (New York: Avon Books, 1968), 65.
  • “three circular garden”, “heavy, hairy”, “hanging up”: Chesterton, G. K. “The Perishing of the Pendragons,” from The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914). (New York: Penguin, 1970), 129.

Mystery Writers and their Gardens: The Poisoned Pen—and Trowel

  • “An engagement to”: Letter from Nathaniel Hawthorne to George S. Hillard, 16 July 1841, from Selected Letters of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Joel Myerson editor. (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 2002), 88.
  • “However rich” quoted in Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, Volume I, by Patricia Dunlavy Valenti. (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 14.
  • “too dull”, “as to Lawyers”, “becoming an Author”: Nathaniel Hawthorne to Elizabeth Clarke Manning Hawthorne, 13 March 1821, quoted in Nathaniel Hawthorne by George Edward Woodberry. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1902), 15–16.
  • “A man’s soul”: Nathaniel Hawthorne to Sophia Peabody 1 June 1841, quoted in Passages from the American Note-books by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, editor (1868). (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1886), 235.
  • “Burns never made”: Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1855), 60.
  • “from the mere”: Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Mosses From an Old Manse. (New York: George P. Putnam, 1851), 10.
  • “as red as” and “planted vegetables enough”: Nathaniel Hawthorne to Zachariah Burchmore, quoted in Hawthorne: A Life by Brenda Wineapple. (New York: Random House, 2003), 220.
  • “of wide circumference”: Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables (1851). (New York: Charles E. Merrill, 1907) 33; “aristocratic flowers” and “plebian vegetables,” 135; “wilderness of neglect”, 125.
  • “The summer is not”: Hawthorne. Passages from the American Note-Books, xxiv.
  • “Romance and poetry”: Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Marble Faun (1859). (Akron, Ohio: Saalfield Publishing, 1902), iv.
  • “Perhaps if we”: Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Complete Works, vol. 9. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1883), 393.
  • “The garden was” and “excitingly tall”: Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977), 9.
  • “the bedroom slops, my dear. Liquid manure–nothing like it!”: Christie. An Autobiography. 29.
  • “our children”: Thompson, Laura. Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life. (London: Pegasus Books. Kindle Edition, 2018), 345.
  • “a beautiful jungle,”: Christie. An Autobiography, 495.
  • “Hitler-Lavin”: Thompson. Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, 423.
  • “the loveliest place” Agatha Christie to Max Mallowan, 27 October 1942 quoted in Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life by Thompson. 310.
  • The 80th birthday article on Rex Stout’s irises: “Rex Stout Marks 80th Year With New Book,” by Marian P. Prilock in The Owasso [Michigan] Argus-Press (AP). December 1, 1966, 29.
  • On Ruth Stout, see “More Vegetables, Less Work: Lessons from the Mother of Mulch,” by Barbara Damrosch in The Washington Post, March 9, 2017.
  • “And you turning”: Stout, Ruth. “Verdict: Iris are Wonderful,” Popular Gardening. June 1956, 48–53, available at
  • “I write for 39” and “I figure on six”: Whitman, Alden. “Rex Stout, Creator of Nero Wolfe, Dead.” The New York Times, October 29, 1975. 1, 36.
  • “The bee balm”: Riggs, Cynthia. The Bee Balm Murders. (New York: Minotaur Books, 2011), 1.

Excerpts from Murder at the Vicarage, Hallowe’en Party, A Pocket Full of Rye, An Autobiography (© Agatha Christie, 1930, 1969, 1953, 1977) reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Other quotes from Karen Hugg, Naomi Hirahara, Vicki Lane, Cynthia Riggs, and Ruth Ware are from email correspondence with the author during 2021.




  • “What could be more intriguing than a murder in the garden? In her newest book, Marta McDowell takes us on a delightfully diabolical romp through the role of horticulture in crime fiction. From deadly seeds, to menacing pruning shears, to suspicious groundskeepers, the garden has always provided both the motive and means to commit the perfect crime. Gardening Can Be Murder belongs on the shelf of every Agatha Christie fan—and every gardener who enjoys a little mischief and mayhem.”—Amy Stewart, author of Wicked Plants
  • “I qualify my endorsement because I lost an entire morning of gardening to this most fascinating book with its interweaving of plant information with mystery books in which gardening figures. I am now torn – do I rush out to the garden to prune the hop vine, or shall I retrieve one of my Brother Cadfael mysteries from the upstairs bookcase? Interesting, well organized, original, captivating reading for gardeners and mystery fans.”—Cynthia Riggs, author of the Martha’s Vineyard Mysteries
  • “This book is dangerous. A veritable cornucopia of crime fiction and gardening lore, it faces the reader with multiple temptations—books to seek out, plants to obtain, garden tours to book. It’s a delightful wander through the mystery genre from Poe to Penny and its surprisingly numerous ties to gardening. Presented in McDowell’s elegant and accessible prose, it’s completely captivating.”—Vicki Lane, author of the Elizabeth Goodweather Appalachian Mysteries
  • “Gardeners and mystery lovers alike will delight in Marta McDowell’s charming bouquet of gardening mysteries—a botanical encyclopedia of horticultural crime. Both a handy, informative guide to a fast-growing genre and just-plain-fun reading, Gardening Can Be Murder belongs on your bookshelf. And what a lovely gift for your favorite gardener!”—Susan Wittig Albert, author of Hemlock
  • “Wonderful mash-ups of literature and gardening lore.”—Vicki Lane Mysteries
  • "Marta McDowell digs up the dirt on an unsuspecting source of inspiration for the mystery genre: gardens. Gardening Can Be Murder marries McDowell's encyclopedic knowledge of plants and the murder-mystery genre. She documents every shady gardener and poisoned tea, consulting literary giants both classic and current along the way."—Reader's Digest
  • “Delves into the many ways in which mystery writers have found inspiration from poisonous plants and the more sinister side of gardens.”—Gardens Illustrated

On Sale
Sep 5, 2023
Page Count
216 pages
Timber Press

Marta McDowell

Marta McDowell

About the Author

Marta McDowell’s writing has appeared in The New York TimesWoman’s Day, Country Gardening, and elsewhere. Her previous books include Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, All the Presidents’ Gardens, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life, and Unearthing The Secret Garden. She consults for public gardens and private clients, writes and lectures on gardening topics, and teaches landscape history and horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, where she studied landscape design. She lives, writes, and gardens in Chatham, New Jersey.

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September 2023

  • Book Launch Event

    Darien Library hosts Marta McDowell for a book launch event. Registration required.

    Darien Library | Darien, CT

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October 2023

  • Author Talk

    Iowa City Book Festival hosts Marta McDowell for an author presentation.

    Coralville Public Library | Coralville, IA

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  • Author Visit

    Clive Public Library hosts Marta McDowell for an author event. Registration required.

    Clive Public Library | Clive, IA

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  • Conversation & Q&A

    Reiman Gardens hosts Marta McDowell for a conversation followed by a Q&A.

    Reiman Gardens | Ames, IA

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