*Fate Loves the Fearless: The Perennial Divine

Gardeners of Grünberg
Magical Gardeners of Grünberg

A Pentecostal snake handler fell victim to natural selection in Middlesboro, Kentucky, on the same weekend I was attending a horticultural conference in Grünberg, Germany. Pity the poor pastor.

The folks in Grünberg know better: Perennials are perfectly divine and much easier to handle than poisonous snakes.

Mary Vaananen, my Jelitto Perennial Seeds colleague, and I were invited to speak at the Seventh International Perennial Plant Conference in mid-February. Georg Uebelhart, our Jelitto boss in the German home office, asked us to come over. The invitation was an honor, as Georg is a dear friend, and Grünberg is special.  I’d spoken in Grünberg once before, in 2010, and expected that the conference would be good again this year. Georg and Anja Maubach, a third generation nurserywoman and landscape architect, organized the speaker’s lineup this year.

Anja wrote a portion of a Rumi quote on a poster board near the speaker’s podium that illuminated her hope for the conference: Join the community of spirit and feel the delight…This was to be no ordinary get-together.

Weeping Beech, Grunberg Vaananen photo 021514
European Weeping Beech at Grünberg
Photo Courtesy of Mary Vaananen

One advantage was Bildungsstätte Gartenbau Grünberg, a horticultural conference center supported by the German green industry.  The center, in central Germany, 47 miles (75 km) from Frankfurt, is unique. It’s an Esalen for gardeners. The center was surrounded by a pleasing garden with a few promising early flowering harbingers of spring. The guest rooms were comfortable and quiet, too. I had three delicious square meals per day (I’ve sworn off schnitzel for Lent). And I only had to walk down the stairs to a well-stocked and boisterous bar.

Does it sound like this community soup pot needs anything more? You can’t forget the main ingredient: cocooning gardeners. Good company is essential for any good gathering. The audience of 80 professional, perennial plant enthusiasts— gardeners, plant growers and designers—traveled from 13 countries to be in Grünberg. They were itchy for spring. 80 attendees is a good number.

Larger conferences can be overwhelming. Newcomers can feel left out. At many conferences, everyone scatters for lunch, dinner and late night carousing. Not in Grünberg. There was no need to leave the grounds. Everyone was together for meals, talks and drinks. I met old friends and made new ones, too. This was a key to the conference’s success.

Every talk was exceptional. There wasn’t a clunker in the bunch. I’d never seen photos of sub-tropical mega-alpines in Yemen. And I couldn’t have dreamed of a giant Ethiopian Lobelia rhyncopetalum that grows to nearly 20’ (6 meters). And you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen the wildflowers in the Badlands of “Skaskar” near the village of Tosor, in the mountains of Kyrgystan. The momentum gathered for two and a half days.

Georg Uebelhart, Jimi Blake, Anja Maubach, Allen Bush, Cassian Schmidt, Mike Kintjen, Fleur van Zonneveld, Mary Vaananen and Graham Gough
Georg Uebelhart, Jimi Blake, Anja Maubach, Allen Bush, Cassian Schmidt, Mike Kintjen, Fleur van Zonneveld, Mary Vaananen and Graham Gough

There were presentations from seasoned old hands—growers and garden makers with years of experience—as well as from fearless young professionals who are fashioning beautiful garden impressions. Everyone in the room was hungry for surprises. Oh, the energy! The learning!

I was puzzled why Noah loaded his ark with animals, but forgot the plants. I wish he’d left room for a few perennials, alpines—mega-alpines!—and some annuals, too.

My question became: How can I translate design ideas from high mountains and dry steppes around the world and make it work in a hot and humid Kentucky summer?   Maybe it will become clear if I “Live like someone left the gate open.” I’ll be “striving for freedom” in my garden, trying to create a “natural spontaneity.” George Washington Carver saw a bigger picture. He said, “You see a flower and I see the universe.” The message was clear: Take some time to “get giddy with the present.” There is magic in the garden.

While snow lay thick on the ground back in Kentucky, small clumps of snowdrops were flowering in Germany.

No one got snake bit.

Winter was coming to an end.


* The title above comes from James Russell Lowell’s poem “The Voyage to Vinland,” specifically from this passage:

Doubt not, my Northmen;

Fate loves the fearless;

Fools, when their roof-tree

Falls, think it doomsday;

Firm stands the sky.


  1. Sorry, but you are wrong about natural selection in this case. The snake-bit pastor was not selected against. He was past the age of reproduction and already had a Darwinian fitness of at least 0.5; his son took over his ministry (and he may have siblings). So those genes have not been removed from the gene pool, or even become less common, as yet.

    • Phyto, I think we’d both agree: These charismatic, Pentecostal snake-handlers are dumber than dirt. I can’t figure-out why they wouldn’t handle the less venomous copperhead.

  2. Thanks for sharing your description of this conference. And great lead-in. I heard about the death of the snake handler in a Kroger parking lot in Elizabethtown, KY – home to visit my parents, as my dad was in the hospital. It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s novel The Little Friend, which I recently read. The snake-handling character in The Little Friend is naïve and allows himself to be used by the meth-cooking bad guys. Those snake scenes really creeped me out. Much nicer to hang out with gardeners!

    • My wife is a big Donna Tartt fan but hadn’t read this book. Thanks for mentioning this. Lovely Saturday in Kentucky. Warm and sunny but tomorrow it turns cold and snowy again but only for a day or two. Crocus are in full swing and the early daffodils are just beginning. Hope your dad is on the mend.

      • My dad is much better, thanks. Here in upstate NY we’re still frozen, but a few days “way up” in the high 30’s / low 40’s are slowly melting the snow and ice. I can see 4 inches of yellowing daffodil foliage emerging from under some of the snow-plowed piles of ice. I wonder when they found a chance to come up. That ground has been buried for months.

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