Martha, October, and the magic of Li Ziqi – A Letter to the Midwest

9

October 17, 2020

Lovettsville, VA

Dear Scott,

Well, August is well and truly behind us. 

I don’t remember September.  It had something to do with a copyediting deadline on the new book, but when I try to think on it, I just black out and find myself here in the glory and gorgeousness of October.  It is a month just as beautiful as I always tell myself it will be, and the woods have begun offering up mushrooms for pies. 

chicken of the woods
This was Wednesday’s find. A Chicken of the Woods about one day away from being too old. Harvested it. Cut it up. Ate it last night.

 

I do hope that our correspondence hasn’t, by association, poisoned your chances of getting your bottom into a comfortable and tasteful chair around one of Martha’s gracious tables in the future.  I apologize if my tone was characteristically harsh; but not to put too fine a point on it, I was pissed. 

I utilize the term in its American, not its British, sense. I can assure you that I was not drinking wine with lunch when I wrote it (contrary to your impertinent, if indirect, accusation). Sadly, there’s been far too little of that sort of beautiful nonsense going on around here lately.   

You term my review of Martha Knows Best a “hatchet job,” but I like to think of it as constructive criticism laced with a good dollop of shame.  I would have had no issue with the series simply run as a ‘Lifestyles of The Rich and Famous’ piece.

Is Martha Stuart Living?
In reaction to my review, a friend dug out this parody mag that was given to her twenty-five years ago. That’s a long time to be pissing people off. The best part of this photo is the face of the lady in yellow.

You and I have been around long enough to understand the difference between reality and fantasy when it comes to garden media in all its lovely incarnations; but one cannot discount the deleterious effect of flaunting The Unachievable on younger, less cynical minds with little resources at their disposal.

Particularly young, ambitious, female minds with adrenal systems on the brink of collapse and no staff in sight. It requires only one more bespoke garden project, a dinner party for ten, and a toddler with pink-eye to send them spiraling into madness. I speak from experience.

The review did however have a fantastic outcome in that I was inundated with emails suggesting other gardeners (many on Youtube) that I might like to watch to cleanse the palate.  One of them, sent to me by my good friend John Willis of MacGardens, has now become something of an addiction that I feel I must share, for this girl may be the answer to a world gone mad. Her name is Li Ziqi.

There are no words to be heard in these hypnotizing videos, or at least, no narrative words describing the practical, primitive stories that unfold within them. Indeed, I hardly have words to describe them myself. 

There is only this young, exquisitely beautiful, woodland sprite of a Chinese woman from the mountains of Sichuan going about her daily routine of gardening, cooking and tending the property on which she lives with her grandmother.  Building fences and pathways…walking the garden in the early hours of the morning…cooking something wonderful over a primitive cooktop with fresh ingredients. 

Scott, it is absolutely mesmerizing. Her movements are fluid and purposeful, and to see her bend and lift and cut and stack and pull and dig creates in me a visceral ache for my twenty-something body – a body that didn’t negotiate with my brain each time something needed doing at soil level.

My God that is therapy, just to watch her. One wakes up from a sweet, opiate haze at the end of each video with a new skill to try, and a re-commitment to finding and claiming pleasure in the simplest of tasks. And yoga. Yes.  More yoga.

It is of course fantasy. But it is thoroughly rooted in the quiet simple rhythms that make us human. It nourishes the soul. I hardly need add that she doesn’t discuss getting her seeds from Parisian seed markets, and refrains from Facetiming Snoop Dogg in between projects.

September is now coming back to me in snatches.  I visited my mother for a long overdue trip since my father’s memorial service last August.  California was on fire, state parks were closed, and we were informed somewhere in the middle of it all that electricity had never been codified in the Bill of Rights as a God-Given and would therefore be revoked at will.  Good times.

I returned three weeks later with smoker’s lung and a now, quite pronounced feeling that I desperately needed to get away again as soon as possible.  Michael was not amused.

Revisiting the garden after significant time away (which let’s face it, is about one week for gardeners), is a curious feeling.  In many ways I felt quite happy at the state of things.  There is now so much mature growth in cultivated areas, that weeds have a hard time finding their way. 

tropical trough
Coming back to this was a huge bonus. Tropical orgy in a trough, and it’s only gotten better as the months go by.
pumkins
The pumpkins were a huge come-home-to bonus, because I threw some seed in in July just because the soil was there and the hugelkultur needed covering. I harvested 18 beautiful squash.
winterberries and windflower
The winterberries are wonderful this year – I grow Winter Red and Winter Gold and one other yellow that I should have the journalistic integrity to go look up.

Mulberry weed and Japanese stilt grass are my worst weeds, and I immediately set to getting them out of beds (and Ye Gods! from between the thick tufts of carex and mondo grass along the pergola) before they could release fourteen further generations of fury.  The Japanese stilt grass yields easily to the slightest touch, but the mulberry weed snaps just as you feel it coming, and will send up new heads like a hydra.

mulberry weed
Mulberry weed growing over the Lycoris radiata. First thing I tackled in the pergola garden.

Some areas I have simply given up on until I can turn my full attention to them for a significant period of time; but I think that overall this is the right approach.  Otherwise one finds oneself dabbling here, dabbling there and never really getting a handle on the weed problem in any one bed.  There is only so much time.

Michael hadn’t collected chicken eggs for the entire three weeks – preferring to collect and eat the duck eggs when he let out what he terms ‘the quackers’ in the morning.  The chickens have an automatic door, an automatic feeder and an automatic waterer. 

You’re a man. You know where this is going. A hen went broody over four dozen eggs and a few days after I arrived home I had six fall chicks running after their mother on cold mornings.

baby chicks and mama

This is, I think, a testament to the failure of modern philosophies of parenting.  Back in May I carefully isolated a broody hen with ten fertile eggs so the other hens would not lay eggs on top of her (as they do); and so the rooster would not ravish her (as he will); and after she meticulously ate nine of those eggs over the next three weeks, I had one single chick to show for all my helicopter parenting.  Michael goes full redneck and we’ve practically got a soccer team.

So there you go, neglect is the answer.  I know you’ll appreciate that.

In other garden news, I am thrilled with the progress of so many of my trees planted over the last few years.  Most, not all, are small trees – I have enough towering tulip poplars and sycamores as it is.  The witch hazels are the most exciting – so far ‘Wisley Supreme’, ‘Jelena’, ‘Rochester’ and ‘Pallida’ are putting on strong growth and flowering vigorously from late December on.  

I just bought a Japanese umbrella pine and was given a Styrax obassia earlier in the summer, so I have spent most mornings over the last two weeks walking around with both in hand fruitlessly looking for the right spot.  After ten minutes, I put them down and the dance begins again the next morning.

A guilty pleasure – Susanna Farms in Boyds, MD – for all those hard to find trees.

 

The real difficulty at this time of year, beyond siting plants, are the rutting deer, who, unfathomably, survey a massive woods filled with all sizes and shapes of sapling and stately, and instead choose my coralbark Japanese maple as a scratching post.  How many precious trees have I lost to such injustice?!?!? 

Wire cages are the answer of course, but ugly.  Your photo illustrates that point beautifully, though I think the point is to cage living trees, in case you weren’t sure. I have taken to limbing up most saplings so I can either slip a tree shield over the trunk, or construct a less obtrusive sheath of chicken wire around them.

Still, hunting season begins soon.    

Those that do not garden with deer, or indeed, do not garden, cannot understand the spitting, blinding rage experienced by less masochistic folks when they find the weeping spruce they had forgotten to sheathe for the season broken in half.  I assure you, hunting season is too good for these criminals.

But enough about things that vex us.  On to things that guilt us. After I finish writing these words to you, I must go out, find a dolly and get my big houseplants indoors, before a possible frost tonight – nearly three weeks after they should have enjoyed a smoother temperature transition.  Having just written extensively on this very topic in the new book using words of recrimination, and perhaps even a matriarchal, imperious tone, it is only just and right that I should find myself on the opposite end of my own tongue. 

This schefflera is easily twice this size since this photo was taken two years ago. That’ll be fun.

 

Well, some years I pull it all off perfectly, and some years everything goes to hell.  I think I mentioned that in the book too.

fall veetables
Last night’s vegetable haul – including some fresh young ginger! I didn’t clean the wheelbarrow in the spirit of Journalistic Integrity…etc..

But before I sign off, two things:  First: Beth Chatto.  Must you really be schooled again?  The entire point of her Gravel Garden was to discover what could and couldn’t grow in a dry East Anglian climate in a prepared bed without supplemental irrigation.  They didn’t just throw down a bit of stone dust on top of a compacted parking lot and start charging £8.95 for the privilege of seeing withered gaura.  It’s a teaching garden first, a pretty one second. I trust we will not have to revisit this topic in the future.

Second: I’m quite fond of you too, so please avoid the countless ways of stressing yourself out that you seem to revel in.  Michael happened to read your last letter and paid particular attention to its warm sentiments. “Is he a threat?” he asked with one eyebrow cocked, hand on holster. (This is Virginia.)

“Well, he’s in Ohio.” I said. “And there’s COVID.” 

He seemed satisfied.

Yours,

Marianne

P.S. I do hope that my admission of the houseplants being outside well past their bedtime continues to uphold our lofty ideals of journalistic integrity.  If I’m really being honest, I’d rather just let them go at this point, buy exciting replacements in the spring, and spend that saved time watching another episode of Li Ziqi, lithesome and supple amongst the cabbages.  Sadly, my frugal nature will win out.  It always does.

 

 

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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]

9 COMMENTS

  1. Li Ziqi’s videos are indeed mesmerizing. And humbling. I’ve been eyeing the huge bamboo stand near the high school wondering how to cut and drag them home to build garden furniture.

  2. Simply as a little nudge to further your pursuit of journalistic integrity, I would like to point out that it was I who (perhaps first? It was September 10) suggested you watch Li Ziqi and, incidentally, used the phrase palate cleanser in that regard. Not that I doubt that John Willis recommended her also, as she is indescribably delightful, but just wondering what the odds are that he also used that phrase. An independently certified copy of his email by a disinterested third party would be all it would take to reinstate my trust in your otherwise always excellent rants.

    • Joe – You have John by three days and one phrase, and you have my humblest apologies. The services of a disinterested party will not required. As I mentioned, I’ve forgotten a great deal of September, including the inconvenient truth that my fabulous phrasing is not my own. The horror! The horror! And there I go again. Twice. Many thanks. MW

  3. By the way, while the dialog is sparse in most of Li Ziqi’s videos, she does play the guitar and prophetically sing a long lyrical drinking song in her first video of 2020, the refrain 清醒的人最荒唐 loosely translated as …those of us still sober are the ones that are weird. As we move into our first winter with Covid-19, such scenes with friends and family around an outdoor garden fire will become family legends of the future.

  4. Thanks for recommending Li Ziqi. I wasted away the afternoon enjoying her unbelievable activities. Fortunately it was a dark and rainy day here in the Pacific Northwest, so no harm done.

  5. Thanks for the tip about Li Ziqi videos. I love the way she handles a cleaver..and the serving and dinnerware..wow. Have only watched one episode…looking forward to more and any other suggestions of good shows…K

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