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Sara Stein 1935-2005
Sara Stein 1935 – 2005

“It’s the flock, the grove, that matters. Our responsibility is to species, not to specimens; to communities, not to individuals.” —Sara Stein

Sara Stein, natural gardening advocate, educator, and author, died February 25, 2005, at her home in Vinalhaven, Maine, after a battle with lung cancer. She was 69 years old.

Stein is known in the gardening world as an influential early adopter and advocate for natural plant gardening. According to an obituary by New York Times reporter Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, Stein became interested in plants at an early age because she saw the effects of traditional landscaping on her childhood home. In the 1930s the top soil from three acres of her family’s six-acre homestead in Pound Ridge, New York, were scraped to provide top soil for the landscaping of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The images of traditional suburban landscaping stayed with her. As an adult, Stein and her husband decided to learn how to “un-become” gardeners and set out to “restore the ecology” of her family’s homestead.

Stein’s journey towards “ungardening” included careful research and planning to help refurbish the carefully landscaped homestead into a thriving natural ecosystem with indigenous plants. The transformed homestead had new areas of prairies, swamps, rocks and barren areas, and the results attracted a variety of animals.

Stein wrote a book about her experiences in natural gardening called, Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards (Houghton Mifflin, 1993). In it she explains, “My purpose in letting in the hoi polloi [the masses] is eventually to similarly fling wide the garden gate, to loosen the land’s esthetic corset, let it grow more blowsy and fecund, allow it to bed promiscuously with beasts and creatures of all sorts.”

The book was full of gardening anecdotes and practical “how-to” advice. It was a hit with homeowners and gardeners who were looking to learn more about natural gardening alternatives to traditional landscaping. As a result, Stein became a popular speaker for environmental and gardening groups, and her book achieved status as a handbook for the natural landscaping movement.

Stein continued to document her fascination with natural gardening environments with My Weeds: A Gardener’s Botany (Houghton Mifflin, 1994), Planting Noah’s Garden: Further Adventures in Backyard Ecology (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), and her final gardening book, Noah’s Children: Restoring the Ecology of Childhood (North Point Press, 2001), which explored the benefits that a natural environment can play in childhood development.

In addition to her work advocating natural gardening, Stein worked as a toy designer and wrote several books for children including the Open Family Series for Walker & Company that dealt with divorce, adoption, death, handicaps, phobias, and pregnancy. She also wrote books on raising non-sexist children and various pets. Finally, Stein wrote a series of books to make science more accessible for children including, The Science Book (Workman, 1980), The Evolution Book (Workman, 1986) and The Body Book (Workman, 1992).

Ms. Stein was born Sara Bonnett on October 7, 1935, in Manhattan, New York. She attended Cornell College for a year, but ended up earning a bachelor’s degree in Russian studies at the New School for Social Research. In 1959 she married Martin Stein, an architect. She is survived by her husband, four sons, two sisters, and six grandchildren.

—Katherine Purcell