Looking for Something More Positive

22

Lovettsville, VA

Dear Scott,

Rain. Glorious rain!

The exclamation point is, I assure you, fully justified. After three and a half weeks without the stuff and without piped water to my sunniest gardens, I had reached a point of exhaustion and had begun the process of separation.

Not so positive - milk jugs on thuja
Last year and the year before were the years to plant trees – and I did. But this year, I finally had time to put in the thuja hedge. Now it’s being kept on life support by milk jugs schlepped up from the creek. How wonderful that the crab grass and creeping charlie seem undaunted.

I know you are familiar with this gardener’s trick of self-preservation. Just stop looking at the things that upset you so that they in effect, disappear. My inherited 100ft Long Bed currently requires a machete, pith helmet and vaccine certificate to enter, but by simply turning my head left instead of right when I exit the back door, the issue is solved until winter takes a crack at it.

Douglas Adams wrote of something similar in his Hitchhiker’s series – advocating the use of a towel over one’s head to successfully protect the wearer from seeing anything dangerous.  And I am successfully using something similar with my mirror these days – you do not have that many years on me you know.

I touched upon this August feeling of exhaustion/annoyance two weeks ago on my own website – pulling no punches – only to have a subscriber withdraw her reading services, citing “Looking for something more positive.”

Oh how I wanted to reply to her – breaking no doubt, sixteen Mailchimp covenants and sworn oaths of privacy – to say “My friend and fellow gardener, this IS positive. It’s the perfectly packaged pap from the everything-is-okay-I’m-doing-awesome-having-it-all-#BestLifeEver crowd that you should be avoiding.  We’re all in this together – it sure as hell helps if someone is truthful about it.”

I refrained. But I did get a giggle when Anne Wareham of The Veddw House Garden commented “Still knackered – I measure this by how many times a day I say f… off to an inanimate object.” Wonderful.

I believe you are dry in the Midwest too this year – isn’t it annoying to find ourselves more dependent on the wet stuff than we wish to be? And that’s just the vodka gin and tonics. The despair attached to a long cool spring and mostly rainless summer in a year where I am writing and photographing a book on tropical plants has necessitated a few more visits to the drinks cabinet than are advocated by those that officially advocate these things.

lilies on drinks cabinet
Fresh flowers on the drinks cabinet keeps the intoxication process civilized.

Some mornings I can feel the ghost of Beth Chatto hovering over me and my watering cans as I slop warm rainwater over sandaled, gritty toes and give Anne at The Vedww something to strive for in graduate level Creative Swearing.

Hearkening back to our discussion of gardeners you do not care to read, but don’t mind slagging off, Chatto championed the idea of planting specifically for drought tolerance.  When I last visited the Beth Chatto Garden in East Anglia two years ago, they had received all of 13 inches of rain by the end of August, and the gravel garden (built over the remains of a car park) had not had a drop of supplemental water. It was a hot summer certainly, but that area of England is particularly dry in the best of years.

Beth Chatto Gravel Garden
Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden in August 2018

Chatto’s ghost chastises me for planting choices made in wetter years.  I’d offer her a coffee, but she has so many gardeners to chastise on her morning rounds there’s no time for a chat. Should she stay, I’m ashamed to say I would begin the discussion with an excuse — having been instructed throughout my gardening career not to.

“The difficulty with my garden,” I would say (How many sentences begin thus? I have heard hundreds myself.) “is that I live in a wooded stream valley.”

She would look at me blankly – in that way the British are so good at – in the way my militant (but beloved) godmother used to – politely waiting for the actual problem. And I would instantly feel ashamed of myself and get back to water slopping and some menial weeding.

Hypothetical one-sided discussion over.

Not that I wouldn’t continue to feel sorry for myself, chastised and muttering into the crabgrass.  For I am a gardener and that is what gardeners do. There is an enormous amount of energy spent feeling sorry for ourselves.  A dry season, a deer feast, a late spring freeze, a child on a mower. Poor Anne and Charles at The Veddw lost one massive yew in an established hedge to a dripping tap and I want to shake my fist at the Heavens for them – I can’t imagine how cosmically wronged they feel.

Ah! The glories we could achieve were it not for [X]!  The vegetables we could grow were it not for [Y]! The excuse-free year we would have were it not for [Z]!  I could go on, but I have an excuse to finish illustrating for you and demons compel me…

A wooded stream valley means free draining alluvial soils worthy of a Mediterranean garden…were it not for the 90 foot tulip poplars meting out sunlight like a miserly king. And then there’s the cold air that trips and tumbles down the hillsides to pool over my expensive zone-pushers.  Lavender without the sun. Ferns without the moisture. Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink…

A drone photo in May shows part of the lower garden, but more importantly, shows the surrounding woods lurking like Fangorn Forest. Minus the Ents.

It is a paradox that can only be solved by the time and effort needed to amend the soils and figure out what works and what won’t. Beyond the Japanese Stilt Grass, which couldn’t be happier.

During this dry year, it is tempting to allow the survivors to slip quietly into dormancy. With COVID bells sounding and everything off the calendar, including tours of my garden by highly opinionated gardeners tsking and tutting between mouthfuls of quiche and cheap plonk, I have questioned the need (for instance) to keep watering containerized color for my eyes only.  Further existential questions such as “What is it all for?” or “Is there a purpose to all this suffering?” or “Why the hell did I wait to put in that thuja hedge until THIS year?” have been springing from my lips just as often has Anne has been abusing her inanimate objects.

Now it is you who are no doubt looking for something more positive. Forgive me.  I am in an August state of mind and there is nothing like it. August will try the very soul of you. How many new, excited 20-something gardeners have met their Waterloo in August and fled back to more pleasurable ways of abusing their bodies and minds?

There I go again.  This is getting grim quickly.  You might as well be writing this letter.  Let me attempt to redeem myself with something profound: Adversity refocuses the lens of necessity.

This perhaps is the most positive lesson coming out of all this mess, by which I mean the COVID emergency, the dry summer, and the non-stop political wars:  The perspective it gives on the importance of the garden.  Not the garden in a particular moment in time mind you (glorious May, damnable August), but the garden in general. The necessity of the garden.

Space to breathe, a place to think, inanimate objects to abuse without recrimination.  I am very grateful for that.

Echinacea Granada Gold
I love the color and resilience of the Sombrero series of Echinacea too – Granada Gold is perhaps my favorite (though this is an early season photo), followed by ‘Baja Burgundy’
'Baja Burgundy' Echinacea
‘Baja Burgundy’ Echinacea

I have also been made more aware of the things I don’t need – like that containerized color in a far off part of the garden, extra pots of cuttings to water that will never find a home this season, clearance plants at deep discounts that will cost me dearly in sweat trying to revive them during a cruel summer.  It is a freeing state of mind.

I was so very thankful recently to a professional gardener on a social media page who took an honest picture of plants heading to the compost pile in the back of a truck because he hadn’t the staff to plant them, much less water them after the COVID mess.  He also had zero time to find homes for them all and arrange pick up etc… (yes, this takes time!).  He was saddened, but realistic.

I submit such honesty as “something more positive.” We all know we’re going to keep working with plants.  We all live, breathe and sleep it.  But to pretend the difficulties don’t get us down? That creates unrealistic expectations for others (particularly beginners) that may result in them chucking it all before they have had a chance to thoroughly swallow the hook.

Should we wallow? I do not believe this to be helpful either.  But a well balanced mix of good with bad is better I think than broad August smiles proclaiming truths one knows to be lies.

Now for “something more [overtly] positive”…

With August’s arrival, the tropicals are coming into their own, which is why I adore them and have spent the first half of this year slouched in front of my laptop trying to communicate why we should all have a tropical love affair or two.  They are heavy drinkers of course (you’d get on splendidly), but sometimes I am amazed by what I can get away with wielding only a watering can.

tropicals in garden
Ensete and ‘Bengal Tiger’ canna against a burgeoning ‘Baby Lace’ hydrangea.

In the early evening when I walk the garden in a better frame of mind, they magically transfer their enthusiasm for heat and humidity to the temperate shrubs and perennials who are flagging. A bit like that guest at the party who comes late, mixes up a new cocktail, commandeers the playlist and gets everybody moving again.  We’ll all have a hell of a hangover digging rhizomes in the fall, but damn, it will be worth it.

tropical pond
You simply can’t beat the instant effect of tropical foliage. This little pond area is five weeks old and looked like hell in June.

Thank you by the way for your last letter which elicited a belly laugh of the best kind. You are too rich in your praise – I can assure you it is undeserved.  I am merely an extrovert who enjoys the natural introversion of academics – and would happily sign my life away to sitting in a common room discussing Zingiberaceae over a subsidized beer if I didn’t have to literally sign my life away to another round of crippling student loans.

Been there. Done that.  If I had a rich uncle I’d be doing it again. So I read. And I study. And I tour. My garden is my lab. Minus the subsidized beer.  And the piercings.

However. Do not think for one minute I am not on to you and your cleverly-chosen avatar of Underdog. That is a strategic place to lurk, and you pull it off well.  I can only come off as harsh and unsympathetic in comparison.  I will remind you that I did once sit through one of your interminable lectures (the one where you weren’t attacking me), and you are fooling no one with the “I’m just an average, at best, student” shtick.

The Pity-The-Poor-Midwesterner routine is also particularly shrewd (esp. as anti-coastal bias is popular and I am creature of not one, but two); but I’ve seen the black, beautiful soils out there. You could throw a pack of cigarettes on the ground and sprout tobacco. Who needs mountains and oceans with fertility like that?

Yes. You are good at what you do. But do seek therapy at once.

Yours,

Marianne

P.S.  My version of too much gin at age 15 and the dirty asphalt of a drive-in right off the Mosteller Road exit in Sharonville, Ohio, is tequilla in a little town in Norway at 18. No asphalt.  Cannot touch the stuff now…double-vision fjords come flooding back. Thank God social media didn’t exist when we were young & supple, eh?

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Marianne Willburn

Marianne Willburn is a gardening columnist, speaker and author of Big Dreams, Small Garden. After years of occasional guest rants, she began an on-going digital correspondence with Scott Beuerlein in 2019, and officially joined GardenRant in 2020.

A weekly newspaper columnist for over a decade, she frequently contributes to print and digital magazines and has won several national awards for her popular column and blog, Small Town Gardener.  Marianne also guides European garden tours with CarexTours, a D.C. based tour company dedicated to exploring public and private gardens in a small group experience.

Marianne believes strongly that you should never wait for the ‘perfect space’ to create a restful garden oasis for yourself and your family; and she has spent much of her gardening life in small city and suburban gardens in places as diverse as California, England and the Mid-Atlantic. In 2013, she began gardening intensively and exhaustively on ten acres in a rural corner of Northern Virginia, and occasionally longs for the days of city window boxes, houseplants, and a great Indian restaurant within walking distance.

Contact Marianne by email: [email protected]

22 COMMENTS

  1. Brilliant!

    As a gardener in the Northeast — which has seen just about zilch, nada, zero rain for the past three months, a stinging insult to the injury of these crazy times — I can tell you that a stiff gin and tonic is the necessary remedy for the pain. Or at least is a liquid version of the pith helmet or the towel or the blinders that help you to not see the carnage.

    I resolved, given the environmentalist’s guilt over water woes around the world, to Stop the Madness of daily watering of my four acres of ornamental gardens and just let the death chips fall where they may. But then I find myself standing over a winsome Japanese fern in its last gasps and I just can’t help myself: out comes the hose for a wee little sprinkle. It’s terrible.

    So, something more positive?? I would rather laugh about the utter horribleness of the gardener’s lot this year. Thanks for this post that definitely delivered the laughs.

    • I agree Linda. Better to laugh than cry. With that rain we have had, plants have perked up, rain barrels are filled and the tropicals are getting on with it. But there is a long way to go yet – let’s hope our sense of humor remains. – MW

  2. Enjoyed this essay immensely except for one word that I cannot define, nor find on the net. What, pray tell, is The Vedww. An acronym? For what? Help please. I feel so uninformed.

    • Barbara – it’s because I spelled it wrong! It’s a beautiful garden in Wales and all those consonants threw me. The Veddw – just one W. No matter how many times you look at something…. In any case, there is a link to the garden in the first mention. Thanks for the correction. – MW

  3. Just found you – Glad you joined the Rant. I have a severely overfarmed suburban backyard in Oak Park, Illinois just outside of Chicago. Clay soil. Clay. Even after gardening in this space for…34 years, I still have to deal with the clay. One gone pine, to make way for a new garage, brought a newly sunny patch, now filling out with natives. Query: what has been your experience with those new coneflowers? I grow the species, mostly, having found the new ones both garish and not hardy after a year or two.

    • Thanks Sandy! I too had stuck with the species, but have been very happy with the strength of the Sombrero series in general. A nursery friend here in Z6b is equally pleased and grows more cultivars than I do. I’ve grown Granada Gold, Sangrita, Tres Amigos and Baja Burgundy all as trial plants – the two pictured above are definitely my favorites. GG blooms so hard all throughout the season that it’s hard to believe it can prepare itself for winter – a creamy gold color. Plus, they are getting 7 hours tops of sunlight (I wasn’t kidding about the stream valley). – MW

  4. Had a good chuckle over your essay as it is so true. By the time August and the hot weather rolls around i am tired and have to kick myself to go out and water. Any annuals unplanted get thrown on the compost pile and surprisingly feels quite freeing. The best thing about August is the garden is as good as it gets as there not much growing season left so I just get to enjoy it.

  5. Thank you! Since writing this letter, we continue to have rain, which has a remarkable effect on the way I view my August garden. The tulip poplars were beginning to shed leaves (and will continue to do so), but still not cool enough for thoughts of bonfires and cider. I’m thankful for a reprieve and after a monumental day weeding in soft, moist soil, feel less like swearing at everything. – MW

  6. Hi Marianne

    I agree completely, a gardener should work with the site, and be realistic.

    I sent Scott an email about my new book, but apparently he deleted it immediately as I was English! His loss.
    In it, I say “Natural, self-sustaining plantings will always have variety and variation, seasonal flowering, self-seedlings, and senescence. Why not demonstrate and celebrate reality, rather than unachievable aspirations?”.

    I enjoyed reading your latest piece, I agree with the sentiment.
    Best wishes
    Kelly Baldry

    • Thanks Kelly. Celebrating reality is not what our culture is about these days, for all of the many reality shows out there. For which, by the way, I blame the British. I was in England for House Doctor and The Cruise and Pleasure Beach and thought “how is this television?” Imagine my surprise when we moved back to the US and Survivor ruled the channels. I can still remember how angry featured homeowners were at the uppity Californian ‘real estate stylist’ Anne Marie something or other on House Doctor. She told them their netted curtains were offensive, told them when their houses smelled of dogs, and generally set their teeth on edge for a dose of weekly drama…but she did sell their houses. Dear Lord I digress. Back to topic: Yes, Scott is very cruel. Very very cruel.

  7. Thanks for brightening my morning with several chuckles. I have reached the stage of life and gardens when I’ve finally accepted that it’s time to gently downsize and stop struggling against the weather, wildlife, and weeds. Have visited no nurseries, bought nothing online and didn’t plant the containers. My only new plants came from annuals the Boy Scouts sold as a fund-raiser and delivered right to my home. Despite my resolve to eliminate garden areas, I still have trouble pulling out plants and tossing them. Covid restrictions have made it more difficult to give away day lilies and hostas savaged by the deer. But I will persevere in cutting back knowing that the reward will be getting to start cocktail hour earlier.

  8. It is a relief to read a genuine rant on Garden Rant. I didn’t subscribe for pablum. One important point – and you knew this was coming, right? – you have the towel thing all wrong. It is not to be wrapped around the for protection, although one could. But just having the towel with one at all times is key, for its many uses. But you can find your own corrective HHGTTG references. But your reference is, indeed, rather a glux on Douglas Adams’ intentions, and the.. never mind. One more thing – we are so very not “all in this together.” Oh – and don’t knock hederaceae too much. The bumbles adore it. But bottom line: I hope Garden Rant continues to deliver the rants.

    A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

    More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

    Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.”

    • I had half expected to be pulled up on the reference, as I cruelly subverted it for obvious reasons. To explain to Scott that a towel over one’s head means the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Trall will assume that it can’t see you if you can’t see it, seemed to lose the point of the letter somehow, but I thank you for restoring Douglas Adams fine text for those who want to relive a moment in those brilliantly insane books. I often have the radio scripts blaring out of my potting shed to keep me company while I weed on cloudy days. I trust this (and my Rant) assures my status as a once hoopy frood. – MW

  9. Thank you for the kind mention – and I confess i am still telling inanimate objects to do the unmentionable several times a day. We too currently have a drought and a heatwave. It’s all very well planting and preparing for a lack of rain but it’s plain bonkers to do that when you live as we do in a country characterised by its usually wet climate. And the newly planted? = will always need extra help.

    I hate the relentless demand to be positive. It’s kept me sidelined in the UK where cheerfulness in gardening is mandatory. It possibly makes a majority of garden makers feel lonely and churlish when things inevitably go cruelly wrong and everyone else appears to be singing and dancing as they survey their immaculate plots.

    It would actually be a happier state of affairs, it seems to me, to share our bad times and offer one another some comfort. And in that vein, here were my spring disasters: https://veddw.com/general/what-else-could-possibly-go-wrong/.

    In the spirit of great minds with colliding thoughts, I hope you’ve also read mine on who is the garden for? It must be a big question for many other garden openers too. One of the things mine s for is definitely your visit. Xxxx Anne

    • I did read it Anne – and thought about it as I was writing this letter – an excellent, thought-provoking post. I wonder if you’ve had gardeners taking you up on your offer of bed, breakfast and garden? Here’s to a spring traveling season! (or would you rather I spelled that with two Ls?) – MW

      • No Bespoke garden visits booked yet – but the fact that we’re closed this year can’t be helpful. Happy if we only ever have one or two – they should be rewarding. I do hope next spring is virus free and open travel is back on – however you spell it! You may have the Bespoke visit for free should you wish. XXXX

  10. Marianne, I loved reading this post! Thank you for your honesty and humor. I was delighted to find out via your bio that you have written a book so I could hear more of what you have to say as it were. I’m thoroughly uninterested in writers who are patently positive (and usually lacking in personality because of it). I have also been swearing at inanimate objects in the garden. Bring on the gin and tonics!

  11. On another not positive note, here in Maine we have serious drought. Could you possibly spare some of that rainfall and send it our way? Keep ranting! If it’s all positive it’s not a rant. Thanks. And don’t forget the rain, please…

  12. Considering climate change could potentially cause more human suffering than Covid-19; should any gardener be travelling by plane, anywhere, ever?
    Discuss.

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