What You Don’t Know About Saxon Holt: Reflections on His Childhood

– Posted in: Garden Design

Saxon has been contributing to Gardening Gone Wild for over 4 years…practically since its inception. As all of you know, he is a gifted garden photographer, a gardener, a fine writer, and a man with a gentle soul. You can see more of  Saxon’s work on his website: Saxon Holt and his personal blog, Mental Seeds.Fran Sorin

When pressed I confess to being more gardener than photographer. While I do love taking pictures and trying to figure ways to tell the stories I see, gardening is what drives me to pick up the camera. I rarely pick up a camera unless I am in a garden or exploring plants and ecosystems.

I come from a long line of gardeners. My great grandfather, John Sherwood, had a beautiful home in Baltimore Maryland with a huge garden that he left to the City of Baltimore. Sherwood Gardens is still open and famous for its tulip display. The enduring, classic azalea, ‘Sherwood Red” is named for him.

Growing up in Tidewater, Virginia, I became a gardener by osmosis. As the oldest of five kids I think my parents were eager to have me take up the garden chores, cutting the grass, pulling weeds, turning the compost. I don’t remember enjoying any of this. I do remember being paid a penny for every dandelion and thinking this was not much of an incentive.

Lawnboy - Saxon Holt as young child
Lawn Boy

 I got a camera in High School and really got the bug when I got to college at The University of Virginia. Thinking I would be a writer, I joined the fraternity that dominated the daily newspaper only to be recruited by the Photo Editor who converted me to the photo department as soon as I saw the magic of the darkroom.

After graduating I moved to San Franicisco which had a thriving advertising market (and great climate, great food, and the Grateful Dead). It is a total coincidence that my ex-girlfriend had moved there. We were married 2 years later, now 33 years ago, and I started my first garden.

Our first home was a flat in the Richmond District of San Francisco, near Golden Gate Park. We had access to the back yard and I quickly discovered I couldn’t grow many traditional summer vegetables because it was just too cold and foggy in the City. But we could grow amazing other things and I began to fall in love with plants.

Me and my Pop mowing the lawn circa 1955
Me and Pop Mowing The Lawn


The temperate climate of San Francisco is unique in the world, truly. The cool moist fog in the dry summer with wet winters, is a paradise for plants. Tropical plants can grow with Mediterranean plants. Not only that, the native California plants, especially wildflowers, are as showy as any place on Earth.

Meanwhile, I was lucky and had found an apprenticeship with a commercial photographer where I spent four intense years learning the trade. When I started my own studio though, I soon realized I didn’t like the advertising world. Casting about for something else to do I began researching the photography market.

One day, when a friend excitedly showed me a picture of a begonia she was growing in a gardening magazine, a switch literally turned on in my brain.

I could be a garden photographer !

I had been gardening but had no idea there was any garden publishing and “book learning”, having learned everything by osmosis from my parents and from trial and error on my own. I redid my professional photo portfolio to one of only California wildflowers, which impressed an editor at Ortho Books, and shortly got my first assignment.

Between Ortho (now moved and owned by Meredith Publishing) and Sunset I probably worked on 20 books until I got the confidence to do my own. Teaming with garden writers to explore subjects of personal interest I have now done 9 books, started a stock photo library (PhotoBotanic), and dabbled in fine art prints.

Over the years we moved around the San Francisco Bay area, to Berkeley, Sonoma, and now Marin County. At each stop learned a bit more about garden and came under the spell of the amazingly creative gardeners who are pushing the limits of ornamental horticulture in the Bay area.

As we moved around, my wife and I raised two wonderful girls who learned gardening by being pressed into service as models for their father’s work. I’m not sure much stuck with them as they now live in big cities (New York and Washington) and work in theater and international relations. I am pleased they both wanted daffodils from me as house warming presents.

I have also learned the power of photography in the media and have increasingly felt a bit more responsible to change the aesthetic of what we expect to see in a garden photograph. My interests in native plants, sustainable, and eco-friendly gardening have not only changed my own garden, I now seek out these gardens to incorporate into my work as a garden communicator.

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at www.fransorin.com.

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Fran Sorin
19 comments… add one

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Denny Schrock April 17, 2012, 8:57 am

Great story, Saxon. Just one correction on the history of Ortho books. Meredith never owned them. We were the publisher for many years, but they were (and still are) owned by Scotts/Miracle-Gro.

David Perry April 17, 2012, 1:03 pm

Saxon is one of those rare treats in life, a person I like and admire more and more, the better I get to know him, the more time I spend around him. His elegant eye, his childlike curiosity and his gentle soul inform his pictures so completely that I find myself smiling while looking at the world through his generous eyes.

Jean Marsh April 18, 2012, 8:43 am

I have been a big fan for a number of years now – I was hooked when I saw your work in the Grasses book. Your story makes me realize a part of why; your passion for sustainable gardens and native plants… Thanks

ann April 18, 2012, 8:57 am

San Francisco garde sounds like a must see. Not like my garden which is just a hodge podge of plants that survive much but still love to show off beautiful work of nature..

carolyn mullet April 18, 2012, 9:07 am

I always like to hear about how successful people got to where they are now. Since you’re work has to do with gardens, it’s even better. Thanks, Saxon.

Cathy April 18, 2012, 10:25 am

Saxon, you are always an inspiration and your photography posts are always favorites of mine, ones I refer back to time and again. It’s fun – and interesting – to see where your inspiration came from!

What was even more amazing was to realize how many books currently in our own personal library have your name on them.

My two most recent acquisitions are “Hardy Succulents ” and “Grasses”, both of which we got last year. However, when I visited the Saxon Holt page at Amazon, I was in for a huge surprise. Since the article mentioned you have been publishing since 1985, I thought it would be interesting to see what else you’d published. Imagine my surprise to find that over the last 15 years or so, many of the books we’ve purchased list you as the photographer.

Steve and I are both drawn to the visual when it comes to gardening books; we don’t buy a book unless we really like the pictures. Of course, before joining GGW, I never really looked at who TOOK the pictures, I just knew what I liked (and didn’t like), so I am chuckling now to see just how many of my gardening books also have your name on them LOL.

The Step-By-Step guides (esp. Pruning Made Simple, which I had to buy a second copy of as the first was so terribly dog-eared, binding cracked, and absolutely destroyed since it spent so much time in the garden) are among my long term and most well-thumbed favorites. The rose books (Heirloom Roses, Miniatures) and books on herbs (Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs and The Herbalist’s Garden) are other favorite references that I am embarrassed to say, I never linked to you. (Then again, I didn’t pay attention to who wrote them either LOL.) Shame on me!

One thing that I will tell you is that some of the older books are among Steve’s and my perennial favorites. They might not have the latest rose varieties and hybrids in them, but they provide excellent foundation information that we refer back to time and again.

If nothing else, this article made me stop and realize just how long I’ve actually been a Saxon Holt fan and how some books just never go out of date.

Saxon Holt April 18, 2012, 12:19 pm

Thanks Cathy – You are generous in your praise for my older work. I sometimes grimace when I hear someone say “I love your work” because I wonder what old, tired photo and antiquated style they may have seen. However you cite specific reasons, most importantly communicating garden information, that makes me proud to know gardeners still find my older work useful.

Saxon Holt April 18, 2012, 12:27 pm

Carolyn – I am indeed blessed to combine gardening with photography as a career that constantly calls for being out of doors … where I long to be this April morning with my garden a mess ….

Saxon Holt April 18, 2012, 12:31 pm

Ann – Many of the best gardens are hodgepodge, where creative folks put together amazing and photogenic combinations. “The Camera Always Lies” has been a tag on my posts here ever since the first one; don’t disparage beauty in any manner.

Saxon Holt April 18, 2012, 12:36 pm

Thanks Jean – That Grasses book, which I did with Founding GGW blogger, Nancy Ondra, was the first book that truly sold me on the power of collaborating with authors, and really got me hooked on grasses as garden plants.

Saxon Holt April 18, 2012, 12:37 pm

Dave – How can I reply to this ?! Thanks, my friend…

Saxon Holt April 18, 2012, 12:44 pm

Denny – Thanks for the correction. I really did think Chevron sold Ortho Books to Meredith, and only later Meredith sold the brand to Scott’s, now Scotts/Miracle Grow. I was always amazed that the Ortho editors never asked for any preferential treatment for garden chemicals, and the garden info was, and still is, the most important reason to produce a book.

Janet Davis April 18, 2012, 1:54 pm

Saxon – this was a beautiful way to describe a profession that I often think of as the best-way-ever-to-get-paid-for-having-fun. Outdoors. Just you and nature! And I love the last sentiment, about feeling responsible for communicating an ethos in your images. Lovely.

Saxon Holt April 18, 2012, 2:27 pm

Thanks Janet – As a garden photographer yourself you know the power of imagery, not simply as eye candy but to inform and perhaps provoke.

Wendy Peterson April 18, 2012, 7:09 pm

Saxon, you truly are a man after my own heart… and we perhaps share a history as well.
With dreams of becoming a professional photographer, I became schooled in the technology of printing and color balance, and soon ended up working in San Francisco and Marin County custom photo labs~possibly even with you; although, after all these years, I’d have to see your face to be sure~ in the ’80’s and early ’90’s.
My secret obsession, and frequent photo subjects were plants and flowers; being endlessly fascinated by the structure and beauty of nature close-up.
I left the photo business after the Loma Prieta ‘quake nearly destroyed our quaint downtown San Francisco photo lab, and went to work at a local wholesale landscape nursery~ hoping to learn more about plants.
Years later, I now have my own business locating and arranging for the delivery of landscape plants required in the installations of professional the landscapers, designers and architects of the Bay Area.
It is almost an obsession for me- a lifelong one.. this ‘thing’ with plants.
It is most wonderful to find what appear to be a kindred spirit or two here.
I shall subscribe to your blog forthwith, and look forward with great pleasure to future postings.

Saxon Holt April 19, 2012, 10:32 am

Wendy – Our paths probably crossed somewhere. I usually used New Lab for all my processing and rarely ever made prints in those days. I hope our paths meet again, somewhere in a garden. Thanks for stopping by.

Alan Detrick April 24, 2012, 7:48 am

Hi Saxon:

Always a warm smile and a bountiful collection of elegant images. Thanks for the story.


And thank YOU for dropping by – Saxon

Noel Kingsbury April 25, 2012, 2:04 am

How wonderful to turn onto gardening in San Francisco!

Will Holley April 27, 2012, 5:42 am

A very interesting and insiteful read. It always fascinates me how people end up choosing a certain path in life. Is it preordaned, are we doing what were supposed to be? Or is it free will?
Who knows, im just glad I found gardening and im able to devote my life to something im truly passionate about. Im shure you feel the same. Thanks

Lucky indeed. We count our blessings – Saxon

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