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Crockett, James Underwoodlocked

(09 October 1915–11 July 1979)
  • Ann T. Keene

Crockett, James Underwood (09 October 1915–11 July 1979), gardener and writer, was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the son of Earle Royce Crockett and Inez Underwood Crockett. After attending area public schools, he studied horticulture briefly at the University of Massachusetts. By 1935 he had moved to Long Island, New York, where he became an employee of Oak Park Nurseries, in East Patchogue. Four years later he moved again, this time to Texas, and became the superintendent of the Japanese Nursery Company in Houston. During his two years in Texas he studied horticulture part time at the state Agricultural and Mechanical College, now known as Texas A&M University.

During World War II, from 1941 to 1945, Crockett served in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of lieutenant. In 1943, on leave, he married Margaret Williams; the couple subsequently had four children. After the war ended, he moved back to Massachusetts and in 1946 opened a small business, Crockett's Flower Shop, in Lexington. A year later he began publishing Flowery Talks, a newsletter that included helpful hints for florists. Crockett sold the shop in 1948 but continued to publish the successful newsletter until his death more than thirty years later. During that time he made several lengthy trips to Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Canada to search for botanical specimens.

Crockett's first book, Window Sill Gardening, was, as its title suggested, a how-to book for gardeners with modest abilities who wanted to grow plants in the windows of their homes. Published by Doubleday in 1958, it was a success and led to a more ambitious volume—for more ambitious gardeners—three years later: Greenhouse Gardening as a Hobby (1961), again published by Doubleday. Its further success led the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to hire him as the editor of a book on greenhouse gardening for their prestigious and widely praised how-to series; the result was Greenhouse Handbook for the Amateur, published in 1963. This was followed by another book for Doubleday, Foliage Plants for Indoor Gardening (1967).

Working from his suburban home in Concord, outside Boston, Crockett was hired in the late 1960s to write and edit the Time-Life Encyclopedia of Gardening, a series of fifteen volumes issued at regular intervals during the following decade. Volume 1, Annuals (1971), was succeeded by books about roses, landscape gardening, lawns and ground covers, flowering house plants, bulbs, evergreens, perennials, flowering shrubs, trees, foliage house plants, vegetables and fruits, herbs, and wildflower gardening. Greenhouse Gardening, the fifteenth volume, was published in 1977, the same year that yet another Crockett book, Crockett's Victory Garden, was issued by Little, Brown. The latter was a companion volume to a weekly show by the same name that Crockett had begun hosting two years earlier on public television, through the local PBS station, WGBH in Boston.

The television program “Crockett's Victory Garden,” which offered gardening tips to novices and professionals alike, was an immediate success, in large part because of the easy, reassuring manner of its host. Dressed in a denim work shirt and khaki pants, the bespectacled, graying Crockett beamed out upon his audience like a cherished uncle or trusted family doctor. Anyone, Crockett told his viewers, could grow anything, provided that care and patience were shown—and they believed him. The program proved such a hit locally that it was soon being broadcast throughout the country, reaching at least four million viewers each week, and the publication of a companion volume to the show was a testament to its popularity. The book became a bestseller, and Crockett arguably became the best-known gardener in America.

The show's title—and the name of the book—were derived from a common practice during World War II among city and rural dwellers alike: tending so-called “victory gardens” that were planted with fruits and vegetables to supplement the restricted diets caused by wartime food shortages. Crockett's Victory Garden—the book and the show—cashed in on the rebirth of interest in gardening that had occurred in the 1970s, in the wake of the back-to-the-land movement inspired by hippies and environmentalists, beginning in the late 1960s. Crockett's show—and two subsequent bestselling companion volumes, Crockett's Tool Shed (1979) and Crockett's Flower Garden (1981)—came to embrace both edible and ornamental plants.

Unfortunately, Crockett did not live to finish writing Flower Garden. He died while on vacation in Jamaica, not long after being diagnosed with cancer, and the book was completed by Marjorie Waters. The television series was abruptly canceled, although it was subsequently made available in reruns to PBS member stations.

In addition to his television appearances and book authorship, Crockett was also a syndicated columnist for United Press International during the 1970s. As a resident of Concord he was active in community affairs, including the local Congregational church. He was a member of, and active in, numerous professional organizations as well, including the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and the Garden Writers of America.

Bibliography

Biographical information on Crockett is limited. See “Crockett, James Underwood,” in Contemporary Authors, vols. 33–36, First Revision (1978), p. 217; Contemporary Authors, vols. 89–92 (1980), p. 115; and Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series, vol. 13 (1984), pp. 132–33. An obituary appears in the New York Times, 14 July 1979.