The Randomness of Branches


Ever look up at a grand old tree and marvel at the randomness of its branches? They dodge and weave. They angle off. They roam this way and that. The complexity is a wonder to look at. Exhilarating, sometimes. And the sum of these parts makes for a living thing that defies gravity, shakes off weather, and mocks time.

I am not an organized person. Describing my life as “a reign of random” might understate the case. And this has caused me untold stress. You see, I’m mostly of German heritage. Some fragment is Irish, and, somehow, inexplicably, this tiny genetic minority has made itself dominant, dragging my poor frustrated autocratic, goose stepping, timetable-oriented German side into whatever unplanned and unbudgeted “shiny object” direction my Irish eyes catch a sideways glimpse of. And, so of course there are no records of any of my adventures in gardening. Cultivar names, when plants were acquired, and where they got planted, all left to a construction-grade memory corrupted by time (too little at any given moment; too much overall), maybe an electrical surge or two, and, of course, plenty of Guinness. My inner Patrick shrugs and wonders why anyone would worry about any of this when the result has been a green and growing garden in which one can wax poetic over a pint or two, while my inner Wilhelm storms off to holler at the dog.

The work space of a disorganized person.
Always within arm’s reach!

So it was with great joy that I recently exhumed a forgotten bucket of plant tags that I had squirreled away over several of my formative years. The result: a warm, pleasant immersion into nostalgia. Who remembers Etera? The name means what? To me, it sounded like an evil plot concocted by a Bond villain. But I bought a bunch of their reasonably priced plants. Came with steel name stakes that lasted in the garden–I still unearth them on occasion–and each plant came with its own little booklet with cultural information. Of course with so much front loaded expense, Etera was doomed from the start, but a good way to load up on plants while they lasted.

A tag from Eco Gardens reminded me of a story regarding that mail-order nursery. It was the nursery of legendary plantsman Don Jacobs. A friend and I combined on an order, but somehow, between us, we managed to drop the ball on payment for several months. Eventually this resulted in a card written in the shakey, elderly hand of Don himself pleading with us to pay. “Achtung!”shouted Wilhelm. Patrick immediately wrote a check, including an apologetic note full of silky words, flowery passages, and an at once lyrical and perplexing side narrative about potatoes. Meant to keep the card–it was, after all, an autograph of sorts–but, of course, one of us lost it.

Don Jacobs. Photo taken from the jacket of his book on Trillium.

Heronswood Nursery. I say the words with reverence. I bought so many plants from there. I might have one left. But I loved Heronswood, and, like so many others, took perverse pride in the number of my Heronswood failures. I went on a dream trip there for an open house with my friend Pete Zale back in the early 2000s. Dammit, I miss my friend Peter. We were best buds once. Both of us nobodies. Actually, I was a nobody. Him? He was a younger, better-looking nobody with a mind that could potentially make him a somebody. Why does time happen? Why do people move on? Now he has a PhD, travels the world tracking down plants, works for Longwood. Actually, I think he’s the owner of Longwood. Not sure though. He’s still a good friend. Usually answers my calls. But neither of us are really any good at staying in touch.

Peter Zale (far right), pre-PhD, at the gardens of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (Now Newfields).
The potager garden at Heronswood. Not really representative of the place, but the best and most accessible picture I have from that pre-digital age.

Anyway, Heronswood was the finest garden I’d ever seen, and I still count it as one of the best. But Hinkley moved on. Mail-order nurseries burn people out. The nursery mercifully closed pretty quickly after that. Without Dan’s guiding hand and beautifully written catalogs that introduced us to new, exotic, and oh-so tantalizing rare plants along with tales of the epic adventures that found them, the magic just disappeared. His prose was why everyone gambled on these gems. No one cared if they lost a plant from the mountains of Vietnam to an Ohio winter. Dependable garden performance was never the point. Thankfully, Heronswood, the garden, was eventually bought and resurrected by a non-profit.

Heronswood catalogs cost $5 and were the top selling item for the nursery. Used copies can be found on Ebay at around $80.

At the other end of the catalog-writing spectrum was (the late) Bob Stewart from Arrowhead Alpines in Michigan. Grammar? Spelling? Hell. His catalogs read like a loner’s manifesto. Rambling, opinionated, offensive, and, yet, for those of open mind, intelligence, and maybe a dash of imagination, informative and hilarious. In a completely different way these catalogs inspired gardeners to try things they otherwise wouldn’t. I killed a bunch of Daphnes because of him. I miss each and every one of them. And Bob.

Bob and Brigitta Stewart, photo taken from:

I met Bob and Brigitta on the second of two trips to the nursery. Because I’d read his catalogs, I was nervous, but they couldn’t have been more gracious! Spent so much time with my father and me. The ride home, however, was starkly unpleasant. My German side was just giving living hell to my Irish side. “We went to Arrowhead,” he shouted over and over, “and you bought a boxelder!” In fact, I had. It had beautiful blue bark. But the scolding quickly ended when my truck’s transmission burned up, and we–my father, a trailer-load of not hardened off plants, and both Patrick and Wilhelm–coasted to a stop at a forlorn and freezing exit outside of Piqua Ohio. The whole fam damily was mobilized in multiple sorties to eventually get us all home.

More tags from Woodlanders, Plant Delights, Oikos, Arbor Village, Roslyn, Forest Farm, Greer, and others reminded me of what a blessing it is for gardeners to have sources of rare and cool plants, and how much better we need to support these companies. They give us possibilities. They lure us into trying things we otherwise wouldn’t. This is–I’ll argue–for the greater good. Expanding ourselves is important, and certainly better than the alternative.

All this remembering and reflecting eventually got me thinking about my gardening journey. On the surface, so spontaneous, random, and Irish. So many different phases that got me from there to here—organic veggies, heirloom roses, alpines, Irises, natives, Asian maples, and more. Travels to great gardens and nurseries, drifting into new ideas, old friends, new friends, new associations, nights spent in questionable places, and nights at home poring over catalogs and websites. I’m so glad my Irish DNA dragged my German side into a forever meandering and widening delta of experiences.

Katsura leaves

Reminds me of tree branches in a way.  So remarkably random when you’re amongst them, but from a distance, a place of perspective, you can see they’re really not random at all. They have but one purpose: aim towards the light. And because they do, there’s growth.

This post is a re-write of a column that first appeared in Ohio Gardener Magazine in 2017. 



  1. I was just talking about Etera at Cultivate, with a friend with history working for the company that produced the plants. I probably have a few of those metal tags in my garden still – about 3” down and the plants long gone. Maybe tags aren‘t such a bad word if they can bring back such memories. Though I really like my garden journals better for that job – and that would be the German in me. Das stimmt !


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