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History, gardening are seeds for book

Thomas Mickey is the author of  “America’s Romance with the English Garden.”

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Thomas Mickey is the author of “America’s Romance with the English Garden.”

Thomas J. Mickey of Quincy is an avid gardener and also a specialist on the history of public relations; he’s professor emeritus in the communications department at Bridgewater State University, where he still teaches part time.

Combining the two areas of expertise, Mickey, 74, wrote “America’s Romance with the English Garden,” tracing the phenomenon’s roots to marketing by 19th-century seed companies and nurseries. His book was recently named by the Spectator magazine in England as one of the year’s best gardening books.

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With a fellowship from the Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Horticulture Services, Mickey spent a year studying old seed and nursery catalogues. It took five years to write the book, published by Ohio University Press.

“With English-style gardens, which Americans love, the lawn is the number one symbol,” he said. “Then there’s a curved path to the house, trees to line the property, perhaps a little flower bed to the side of the house. And behind the house is a vegetable patch. It was very important visitors didn’t see the garden.”

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That’s why “some people are upset when their neighbors plant tomatoes in the front lawn — it’s a sacrosanct place,” he said. “People also get stressed when a neighbor doesn’t take care of his lawn.”

The lawn love affair in America started around 1850. Before that, Mickey said, “people were mostly farmers concerned with surviving” — unless you were wealthy and lived in places like Boston, Brookline, or Milton, where sweeping, manicured lawns of the English style were the norm. “It wasn’t until a middle class developed that more people could afford a house and lawn,” he said.

A Milwaukee native, Mickey has lived in New England for more than 30 years, teaching at Bridgewater for the past 25. He grew up watching and helping his father garden.

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The master gardener and graduate of the Boston Architectural College’s Landscape Institute has a home in New Hampshire, where he tends to his perennials and shrubs. Each chapter of the book also contains information about his own plants there.

Asked if he gardens in Quincy, he laughed.

“No, I live in a condo,” he said. “I just have a couple of containers on the balcony.”

Paul E. Kandarian

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