Dishing with the diva


Sally Cunningham, Stephanie Cohen

Garden-related lectures and classes are not a big thing with
me. I work full-time, so I’d rather muddle through on my own and have my
weekends and evenings free. This is probably why I’ve never done master
gardener training. But as it happens, I volunteered to drive Stephanie
from her hotel to a all-day perennial seminar held at local favorite Lockwoods
nursery Saturday—both the drive and the talks I stayed to hear were well worth
the loss of a weekend morning.

When we arrived, my friend Sally Cunningham had just started her
discussion of perennials, which included some of her favorites: vernonia, rodgersia, rudbeckia
“Herbstsonne,” melittis melissophyllum, leucanthemum “Phyllis Smith,” and
others. She mixes this in with maintenance and cultivation advice. There is no
one better able to talk me into a plant than Sally. Then Stephanie Cohen
discussed perennial garden design—which kind of depresses me—but there are a
couple beds I can envision ripping up completely, at which time I will surely
implement her excellent and easy-to-follow advice.

I also talked to Cohen, the author of The Perennial Gardener’s
Design Primer
and (new, with Jennifer Benner) The Nonstop Garden, before her lecture. This is a
horticulturalist who got her start when she collected 200 houseplants in the
70s, and was forced to move outside, eventually gaining a degree from Temple U
and years of experience teaching, writing, lecturing, and designing gardens.
During our conversation, I asked her about:

Turfgrass: “In the burbs, they cut their lawns every week, every week,
every week. I think someone who really has the public ear should say—this is
wrong. So much pollution is called by all these stupid lawnmowers. In my former
house, I had lirope in the front lawn and I cut my lawn once a year. That was it.  I also like these carex lawns where
they look like mini-meadows.”

Native plants: “I’m not a purist; I’m not even close. Why would I plant a
straight native when it’s full of mildew? People spray it and put all that crap
in the air and the ground water. I’d rather they use a cultivar that’s
resistant. I like the word nativar.
And I don’t care if a thug is from India, Europe, or the U.S.; if
they’re thugs, I don’t want them.”

On garden books and writing them: “The market for vegetable gardening books will be saturated
in one year. Every publisher you know asks, “Do you write about vegetables?” I
would love to see a good herb book, that explains how to design an herb garden,
how to landscape with them. A lot of people would like a plant encyclopedia
that not just explains the plants, but also says ‘this is good,’ ‘this is bad.'”

On English gardens and English garden books: “The light is different, the soil is different, the climate
is different. That’s a very small country. That’s Pennsylvania. People read these
books, they see a picture, decide that’s what they want, and then drive
everybody crazy. Buy a book written by and for Americans. We have heat,
humidity—our sun, come summer, is so strong that some of the plants they talk about
would crisp in one minute.”

Three things you’ve hoped to get across with your books and

“I’ve killed plants. I think that’s important. A lot of books
make it sound like everything’s perfect, then a new gardener reads them, uses
them, and has a couple plants die, and they quit. That’s it. People get
discouraged. The guy who comes up from the minors and hits a home run is the
exception, not the rule; most of us just muddle through.  I say to people when a plant dies, that’s an opportunity.

“A lot of people almost everywhere in the country who live in
suburban developments do not realize that their topsoil was sold and that they
are trying to garden on subsoil. They’ve got to start there. They have to do
something with their soil; it’s horrible. Planting in it is making coffins for
the plants. I don’t think people in the garden press talk enough about how to
cure that basic problem.

“I don’t mean that everything’s got to be double-dug, I just
mean basic amendments. And you have to know if something will survive where
you’ve put it, especially shrubs or trees, once they get past the soil you’ve

“The third thing is be aware that shrub tags and tree tags
are not necessarily right. I have a plant in front of my house that was
supposed to be 8-12’ tall; it’s now approaching 20. Then people go to prune these shrubs that are too tall and they
don’t know how to prune. Too often, gardeners think the guy with the pick-up
truck knows something and they don’t. That’s how we get all these meatballs. You need to think about what the shape is supposed to be.”

When the morning was done, I had met a fascinating
personality in the world of plant culture and learned about at least 5 new
plants I had to have in my garden yesterday.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I’m reading The Nonstop Garden right now, and she said right at the start not to be upset when (not if) you kill plants. Great advice, and I love her point about reading books for American gardeners rather than fantasizing about the English garden you can’t have.

  2. I love the sound of this lady. I am ordering her boosk TODAY. I definitely agree about the differences between English gardening and US conditions. Where I live we are not even close to Pennsylvania, let alone England. As the traveling salesmen in ‘The Music Man’ sang so eloquently, ‘ya gotta know the territory!’ Heal your soil, pick the right plants and be prepared for plant death. Thanks for this post!

  3. I so agree with her about turf grass. But it will take a major cultural shift to end the American love affair with the lawn. I like opinionated gardeners and would enjoy an encyclopedia that says which plants are good and which are losers, but such a book would need to be regional, as some plants thrive in one place, and wither in another.

  4. Well, I’m certainly with the Diva on not planting thugs, natives or not. Purists might call a locally native plant aggressive, not invasive, but I still don’t want it in my garden. But I disagree with the comment about sprays. I’ve never met a native gardener who sprayed for bugs and mildew, instead, we usually delight in little nibbles and minor problems which attract wildlife.

  5. Terrific advice from Stephanie – as always!
    On a side note: I’m th one booking these wonderful garden speakers and events and it is like pulling teeth to get folks to come out for FREE, stellar programs – I’ve tried changing timing, offering drawing prizes, etc. Cannot figure out WHY more folks are not taking advantage of these priceless garden experts – 1 hour with then could save you months of unneeded chores and grief as the above demonstartes. How can we get more folks out?
    Ranters, why do YOU attend or not attend your local garden club meetings/talks/events?

  6. Kathy J, we don’t get speakers of this caliber in Buffalo too often–our yearly garden show usually just features local vendors. The “insiders” who belong to the local chapter of the nursery/landscaping society get some interesting people in now and then, but the public is not invited.
    I think if we had regular programs bringing in such people, there would be an audience, if the PR was properly directed.

  7. Kathy J – The local club meetings/talks/events almost all happen in the middle of the day and I have to work to supply my gardening habit. Sure, there are lunch meetings, but just getting to them would eat up all the time I have for lunch, never mind the actual meeting time. And there seems to be no way to discover if there will be a speaker or who that speaker is unless one is already a member (which leads back to the mid-day meeting issue).

    Some day – but certainly not today.

  8. I’ve been hunting for a number of years now to find a fast growing ground cover that can be walked on to replace our back yard lawn. I live in New Hampshire and what our nurseries offer grow slowly (in my mind anyway.) So as yet, the ones I tried haven’t made it to the yard. If anyone has any suggestions I would appreciate them!

    For the garden books: I stopped buying books because I found they contained so many things that weren’t suitable to NH environment. I would love to see periodicals or books written for specific areas. Even a book for all of New England wouldn’t work for me. So much of what works in Mass, Connecticut and Rhode Island just won’t survive here.

  9. Kathy J–I would love to attend local garden lectures. The best way to get my attention is through Facebook. An email 3 weeks in advance will probably be forgotten. But a reminder via Facebook the day before the event and the day of the event will get my attention. If can’t go and you post photos the next day and let me know how much fun I missed, I’ll be more likely to go the next time.

    Also, you’ve got to cover topics that are current. Roses and glads are so 1960. Getting rid of lawns, container gardening, small vegetable plots, sustainability, etc, are hot now.

  10. Onc time a long time ago I was a tour leader on an APGA tour bus and Stephanie was on the bus. I love her but trying to get that woman back on the bus stop after stop was a full time job!

    I too, couldn’t agree more with her comments, particularly about soil. It’s like a dirty little secret we don’t talk about The functional horizons are often essentially all gone; either they were eroded away or scraped away by the developer. Even local natives won’t grow where there is no real soil.

  11. Have them in the winter (the speakers), when I can’t be in the garden and am dying for a garden fix.

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