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Sara Stein, 69; Wrote Influential Books on Science, Gardening

Times Staff Writer

Sara Stein, the author of several influential books on gardening and a number of innovative science books for children, has died. She was 69.

Stein died Feb. 25 of lung cancer at her vacation home in Vinalhaven, Maine, according to her husband, Martin Stein.

Stein built her reputation on nonfiction books meant for parents and children to read together. “About Dying” (1974), “About Handicaps” (1974), “On Divorce” (1983) and others explored sensitive subjects in appropriate ways for children.

Twenty years after her first children’s book was published, Stein wrote “Noah’s Garden, Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards” (1993). In it, she gave a personal account of the environmentally friendly garden she and her husband created at their Pound Ridge, N.Y., home.

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“Fling wide the garden gate,” Stein wrote, in her exuberant prose. “Loosen the land’s aesthetic corset, let it be more blowsy and fecund, allow it to bed promiscuously with beasts and creatures of all sorts.”

“Noah’s Garden” quickly became a reference book on natural habitat gardening. The approach emphasizes cooperation with the local climate and nature’s cycles. Many such gardens are filled with native plants. Hardly any have tidy flowerbeds or manicured borders.

Stein became interested in the natural style after she realized her own traditional garden was best suited to a climate milder than that of Pound Ridge. She also missed seeing butterflies, hummingbirds, dragonflies and other creatures that stayed away because her garden did not offer the right food or protective covering.

The book tapped into a nationwide trend. After decades when ecologists and environmentalists were alone in promoting the natural habitat approach, more gardeners were taking an interest.

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“Sara Stein made the subject of ecological gardening accessible and acceptable,” said Bart O’Brien, director of horticulture at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. “The issue of ecologically appropriate gardening has been discussed for years, but she was an approachable voice on the topic.”

Stein first became interested in natural habitats when she attended a lecture on the subject in 1991 at the New York Botanical Garden. She went home and began restoring a pond she had recently drained, hoping to encourage wildlife to return. She also planted more of the native blue stem grass that had been growing wild in her yard.

“This style of gardening isn’t for people who need to be in control,” said Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wis., who delivered the lecture that changed Stein’s ideas about gardening. “It’s not for conformists, either, who want what everybody else has. That made it perfect for Sara. She was totally contrarian.”

Stein wrote several other books about gardening. “My Weeds” (1988) explained why weeds grow and what their proliferation tells us about a garden. “Planting Noah’s Garden, Further Adventures in Backyard Ecology” (1997) included how-to guidance on a natural habitat. “Noah’s Children, Restoring the Ecology of Childhood” (2001) looked at the benefits of cooperating with nature in a garden.

Her children’s books also conveyed her fascination with science.

“Stein was in the forefront of children’s nonfiction books at a time when parents were being encouraged to discuss babies and hospitals, adoption and other sensitive issues with their children,” said Cynthia Richey, a past president of the Assn. for Library Service to Children. “Stein’s books were stalwarts.”

Stein’s “The Science Book” (1980), filled with games, projects and experiments, was a particularly popular example of what Richey referred to as “fun science.”

To explain how humans digest food, Stein suggested that readers first listen to a growling stomach. To illustrate the mystery of sound waves, she advised setting up dominoes and watching them fall.

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“Her books were quirky and full of humor,” said Richey. “She clearly loved the natural world.”

In addition to her husband, Stein is survived by two sisters; four sons, Aram of Richmond, Calif., Joshua of Acton, Mass., Rafael of Ramsey, N.J., and Lincoln of Glen Cove, N.Y.; and six grandchildren.


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