Sunday, May 31, 2009

Next in the Pantheon...

With Book Expo America going on this week in New York, there has been a lot of discussion among garden communicators about the future of garden writing. Which got me thinking about what I, as a writer, gardener and designer, like to read, and why.

When I started gardening as a young stay-at-home mom over twenty years ago, I craved information with all the appetite of a neophyte. My bibles were Sunset and Fine Gardening magazines, and the many fine books from their presses. We didn't have the Internets in those days, people! We had newspapers, books, magazines and catalogs, and whatever community we could find among local gardeners.

The highlight of my day was walking with the kids the 1/4 mile to the mailbox, to see what might have come...the 80's equivalent of "Check Inbox" I suppose. My busy mind and gardener's soul, which are now replete with every sort of wit, wisdom and news in the form of Twitter tweets, garden blogs, and a career as a garden designer, had to be satisfied then with the dog-eared stacks by my bed. I still have the first issue of Fine Gardening; I'm an inaugural subscriber, and learned much from its pages. You should see my cabinet of back issues, rivaled only by Sunset in their sanctity.

As I wrote in my first 'InterLeafings' post, one genre of garden writing that I found particularly satisfying in my search for gardening wisdom was the essay. Such a nice, old-fashioned word that seems now, but isn't a blog just that? Eleanor Perenyi was a master of the garden essay, and after reading 'Green Thoughts' I wanted more. Tell me a story about a garden! I found many wonderful writers, but using the nightstand-o-meter, there was no question which one I would introduce next.

'Deep In The Green, An Exploration of Country Pleasures'
by Anne Raver
Anne Raver is the garden columnist for the New York Times. 'Deep in the Green' is a collection of her early columns, mostly from her days as a garden columnist for Newsday on Long Island, but also after her transition to the Times.

I've re-read 'Deep in the Green' nearly as many times as 'Green Thoughts.' The decidedly more contemporary style is a nice contrast, and her foibles as a gardener, charmingly relayed, are particularly endearing. The way she interweaves her own life with that of other gardeners, gardens, pets, friends and readers gives her stories an earthy flavor that touches my heart. I admire her independent spirit; she is a woman living by her own lights.

As with Eleanor, if you are not familiar with this book, I will let Anne make the introduction in her own words. It is, as far as I know, the only collection of her work that has been published (but would be happy to know that I'm mistaken!)

~From the introduction to 'Deep in the Green, An Exploration of Country Pleasures' (copyright 1995 by Anne Raver. Cover shown is from the first Vintage Books edition, May 1996)
"This is not a book that will tell you how to site your garden, or which of the old roses you dare not live without. It does not unravel the mysteries of science or even the Linnaean binomial system. It tells the story of the earthworm and the sea turtle. Of a goose separated from her goslings on the Long Island Expressway. Of the children of farmers who now live in big cities--as the old fields turn into house lots and golf courses. It's about growing old. It's about losing things you love. Dogs, places, people.

But as any gardener knows, it is about going on. Building new gardens, if the old one has been ravaged by a hurricane--or a housing development. Taking the spirit of a beloved dog or person with you, long after you have buried her, as you take a walk she would have loved, or bake his favorite pie, or set the bright faces of Autumn Beauty sunflowers in a lovely old vase from your mother's house.

And exactly. I hope to do the same.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Neighbor's Manihot...

When I moved into my house nearly 3 years ago, the house next door had been empty for some time. The owner, an avid horticulturalist with a particular interest in natives and other dry climate plants, had become ill and was living with family in Southern California while undergoing treatment.

Her garden must have at one time been a paradise, but it was quickly falling to ruin. I would visit it occasionally, to see what was growing, pick a rose, take a cutting of a geranium, or harvest a grapefruit. A monstrous Mermaid climbing rose poured over the fence near my shed, so I gave her a bridge and said Go for it! She had covered the shed roof before the house was sold and the contractors tore her out. That was a bittersweet day...while she did give a brief but spectacular show of single yellow flowers, if you know Mermaid you also know about her wicked thorns. So Mermaid was a thug, and I was actually relieved to see her go.

Hand in hand with Mermaid was perennial Morning Glory, also a thug, but with a more innocent face. He should be planted with great care when neighboring properties are concerned. Our common fence was practically hidden. It was glorious in summer...praying mantises in particular found it a perfect habitat...many small flying creatures and no pesticides. But nothing was as popular as the Mystery Tree just over the fence, with the crazy leaves and the little magenta-and-white flowers that were a virtual bee factory. I couldn't identify it, my smartest plant-geek friends couldn't identify it; I took a branch to an APLD meeting and no one could identify it. It was driving me mad.

One day the owner came back, to empty the house for sale. She was terminally ill and obviously in pain, not only from her cancer, but from seeing her garden this way, for the last time. It was sad to see. But here, at last, was my chance to give a name to Mystery Plant. "Manihot" was all she said, and bequeathed me all of her clay pots. Manihot. Manihot esculenta, (or could be grahamii, she did not remember.) I told her how much I appreciated her garden, and the particular kind of plants she grew. I think she was glad that someone had loved it in her absence.

Reminders of my neighbor's garden exist in mine, in several forms. These are plants that were thriving with little attention (until the bulldozer came and they were no more). Salvia apiana, Salvia leucantha, Leonotis leonurus, some vigorous running bamboo along the fence (nicely confined on my side, will be fabulous), and a fig tree that somehow worked his way under the fence (now that's a fighter!) and whom I have allowed to stay, on the condition that he be a shrub. When they re-landscaped the new, over-remodeled home that took its place, the contractor and I had a few chats about what to plant along the fence, (which was not replaced) and he made some nice choices. He also transplanted all her old roses along the low fence that we share in the front yard, so I can enjoy them too.

But of all the gifts my neighbor gave me, the Manihot is my favorite. Pictured above is a one year old volunteer seedling that sprouted in the gravel of my side yard. It towers over my head, and gives beautiful lacy shade to my daughter's west-facing window...which is what I had been wishing something would do. He has several friends around him, and from the way they reseed, I may have many more (let me know if you want one!)

More about Manihot: common names: cassava, manihot, manicot, yucca, tapioca, mandioca. Native to tropical South America, where the root is used in many ways. My sweetheart is from Brazil, and the first time he cooked for me he pulled out a little bag of dried meal that he toasted to serve with the meat...and there on the bag was a picture of that leaf! It seemed like a sign...and the plant above appeared right around that same time.

I love this's tropical, and melts back to main stems when temps hit the 40s, but with that kind of growth in one season, it could be used as an annual or wintered indoors. Here it fares better than Brugmansia, so if you can keep that prima donna alive, you'll do fine.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Nicotiana Love...

Someone asked about Nicotiana sylvestris on Twitter this morning, and I went out to snap a picture of mine; wow, had it grown! It was about 6:30, and the fragrance was still intense. Much sweeter than the N. alata grandiflora next to it..more like Regal Lilies. And massive? There's a full-size tomato cage in there!

This was grown from seed casually tossed in my east-facing nursery bed last spring, collected from an equally impressive specimen at the Elizabeth Gamble Garden in Palo Alto California.

Nicotianas seem to be happiest where they seed themselves... they sulk if transplanted beyond seedling stage, althought they'll forgive you eventually. Light but regular water is keeping my fellow lush...he'd probably be fine with less.

N. sylvestris is a great plant to tuck in an odd corner to perfume summer nights. But beware! Each flower will produce a seed capsule bursting with tiny seeds! But it's not a thug about it...and good deadheading will keep side shoots coming, so you'll be motivated to keep things tidy.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Good In The Beginning

I have just finished a gift of a sabbatical, made possible by the same economic lull that is affecting us all. This winter and spring the last pieces have fallen into place…a hand-built front garden that's already getting some serious attention, a new website and blog…and a final piece that was Twitter-shaped.

My apprenticeship is over. June 1 marks 8 years since leaving the corporate world to be a landscape designer. It seems a fitting time, then, to honor the masters. Though my personal pantheon is rather vast, there are some particular footsteps I wish to honor, and to follow. Many of these masters are not designers. Mostly they are women, they are writers, and they are passionate about gardening. So I’d like to inaugurate this blog with a dedication to these particular teachers, My Wise Women, as it all began with them.

I will begin with a writer whose words have become part of my own lexicon. Her book has done more nightstand time than any other. I love essays, and appreciate that to say something briefly, yet well, is a gift.

Eleanor Perenyi ‘Green Thoughts, A Writer in the Garden’
Eleanor was the daughter of an American naval officer and a novelist, and met her husband, a Baron, in Hungary before World War II. They lived in a castle, but were very poor, and also very happy. She braved a brutal climate to start a garden with all the enthusiasm of young wife and mother, but lost it and her husband behind the Iron Curtain.

Eleanor wrote a book about this period of her life, published in 1946, called ‘More Was Lost.’ I came across it after becoming quite familiar with Eleanor as an older woman, speaking from a lifetime of experience...she was just a couple of years younger than my grandmother. To be re-introduced to her as a young woman was a nice surprise.

When she left Europe, Eleanor came to live on the Connecticut coast with her son and parents. There she created her second garden; reluctantly, at first, because of the pain of losing her first, but with growing dedication and skill. She writes of her hard-won gardening experience and opinions in 'Green Thoughts,' as alphabetical essays. Eleanor’s garden was the eclectic mix of an ardent enthusiast… perennials, vegetables, fruits, berries, roses, herbs. She was a lifetime subscriber to Organic Gardening magazine, and even writes of interviewing the original Mr. Rodale at his farm during her career. (see Compost).

Wow. In fact-checking I discovered that Eleanor Perenyi died just three weeks ago, May 3, 2009. I shouldn’t be surprised...I also lost my grandmother last November. But still, it comes as a bit of a shock…

Eleanor Perenyi, Writer and Gardener, Dies at 91
Eleanor Perenyi, a writer and deliciously opinionated amateur gardener whose book “Green Thoughts” is widely considered a classic of garden writing, died Sunday in Westerly, R.I. She was 91 and had lived in Stonington, Conn., for many years.

Here is her full obituary,

I’m quite moved by this news, and now feel a particular urgency to pass on her words and continue her legacy.

From the Forward to ‘Green Thoughts’ By Eleanor Perenyi, 1918-2009

“Why, then presume to write a book about gardening? The simplest answer is that a writer who gardens is sooner or later going to write a book about the subject—I take that as inevitable. One acquires one’s opinions and prejudices, picks up a trick or two, learns to question supposedly expert judgments, reads, saves clippings, and is eventually overtaken by the desire to pass it all on. But there is something more: As I look about me, I have reason to believe I belong to a vanishing species. Gardens like mine, which go by the unpleasing name of ‘labor intensive’ are on their way out and before they go, I would like to contribute my penny’s worth to their history.”

And so would I. Please comment if you visit! Thank you…