Category Archives: gardening


Flamboyant flower



I make too much of houses, I know that. I always have. So on a recent visit to the Virgin Islands to try to locate four homes I had lived in nearly forty years ago, I ran into a wall. Four walls, to be precise.

We hired a driver for a couple hours to help scout out the homes. But what I remembered were the names of the bays, not the roads. The views, not the directions. Mostly what I remembered was every little detail about the homes.

Well none of them were there, or none of them could be found. Hurricanes, developers, or my faulty memory had conspired to remove them all. We were free to pursue other interests. Such as the flora.

And for the first time—mind you, I had lived there for two full years—I took note of the tropical plants and trees. I can say that while I had always appreciated the natural beauty around me, I’d never studied the vegetation or learned many names. And as every gardener knows, knowledge of plants only increases one’s pleasure in the garden.

Years later in moving east to Philadelphia from California, I brought with me a comprehensive knowledge of Mediterranean plants. I could walk through the conservatories at Longwood Gardens identifying, and feeling at home with, my Mediterranean friends. I carried nothing like this back with me from The Virgin Islands.

The fact is, I hadn’t started gardening yet. I was in my twenties in St. Thomas, starting a shop, running a shop, and had nothing in common with Tilly-hatted, kahki-clad women kneeling on kneepads with tool bags by their side. In my free time I was literally and figuratively at the beach.

Interest in gardening is an age thing perhaps. I took it up when I had children so they might inherit it, and I took it up with fever. Later still, I wrote a manuscript around it. A couple weeks ago in Boston I found a literary agent for that gardening memoir at GrubStreet’s The Muse and the Marketplace writer’s conference. From Boston I flew directly to the Caribbean. I thought a fresh take on the houses would refreshen my book, but it’s the flora and foliage that did it.

Nature is what survives somehow, I should have known that. Nature is all that matters.







Filed under gardening, tropical plants and trees

A Dirty Word No More

Two images have struck me of late. One, a sign at the entrance to a children’s playgarden at The Northwest Flower and Garden Show which read “Go Play Outside.” I can’t remember whether it was punctuated with an exclamation point, but it very well may have been. That age-old admonition to go outside and play being almost extraordinary in our day.

The second image was a recurring scene in the film “The Cure” which I recently viewed in which two neighboring boys in the small town of Stillwater, Minnesota play imaginatively in a garden. Despite the fact that their play was bent on violence utilizing action figures and staging mock attacks and wars, I found it remarkably reassuring and I knew just why. Hey, it wasn’t a computer game.

One boy in “The Cure” was infected with the AIDS virus. The mother of the other boy forbid her son to associate with him. But by being engaged in the natural world the boys forged a remarkable relationship. They worked with what they had: dirt, rocks, water and plants. Digging, sculpting, imagining and creating they found that they could forget all their troubles. There isn’t a gardener on earth who hasn’t had that experience.

“I started to understand something about plants by handling them,” noted landscape designer Russell Banks in his memoir, The Education of a Gardener. “It was on one summer holiday when I was perhaps fourteen that, bored with the riding and jumping competitions at a local agricultural show, I wandered off to the flower-tent…  (Thereafter) all my pocket money went on rock plants. All my holidays were given to my own personal corner of the garden. I would bicycle for miles to get a basket of leaf-soil, I would steal grit, sand or gravel from roadside heaps and I would borrow a horse and cart to collect stones which were hard to come by in our stoneless countryside… I was seventeen when I was given a grass slope, a few cartloads of the local ironstone, a few bags of cement, some plants and a piped water supply with which to make a small rock and stream garden. For three months I really lived in and with this miniature world as I struggled with my pocket landscape. Each stone represented the possibilities of a cliff or a mountain top, my dribble of water could be a lake or river or cascade and three pigmy junipers were a forest. A few moist and shady inches on the north side of a stone were a Himalayan bog… a handful of grit on the sunny side of the same stone stood for a hot stony hillside… a six inch fall of water was a Niagara and my friends who came to visit me at work I saw only as giant feet and legs, so immersed was I with my Lilliputian problems.”

It is interesting to note that the boys in “The Cure” were approximately the age of Russell Banks when he began shaping his surroundings. The important point here is that for all of them the contact was physical, the experience was real, and they all saw themselves as part of the natural world.  It is in going outside to play that we first bond with our environment, and this is essential. Children who are taught first that the rainforests are endangered, global warming is upon us, and the environment disastrous before they have had a chance to engage with it and enjoy it can hardly be expected to become the earth’s stewards. My guess is these children will stay firmly wired to the television and computer. We are far more inclined to love and protect what we know to be ours.


Filed under environment, gardening, playing outside

Musings from the Yard Guy

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”  Margaret Atwood

Next winter, should we start to complain about the gray season in Seattle, remind us that spring comes early. Chances are that as soon as some of us start to wonder if we can take it anymore, the season will turn a page. Already it seems to be upon us.

We have been enjoying a string of beautiful days in Seattle. The sun is clearing the sky of cloud. I do not have to imagine blue, it is blue. Crocuses are pushing up everywhere. Look up, and some trees are in bud. My neighbor’s hellebores are in full, outrageous bloom. It’s here!

With nature you just have to be there, be very, very present. So I dropped everything and ran outside to “spruce up” (I love that phrase) our little city lot. The Pacific Northwest is populated with cedars, redwoods and pines. The earth glows green, the light is green, and naturally, it smells green. In Southern California and the desert, the color green goes gray. Here, even the most mature and ancient trees shine with spring green. Each new leaf is a beginning, and each year I feel I’m being born. If I were a bird I’d fly to this part of the country. Whatever kind of creature, I’d fly, crawl, burrow, hop, swim or walk. I have found a sense of place here that I consider sacred, especially in the spring.

The Seattle Flower and Garden Show opens its doors this week. That is what I’m working toward, like a penance. I’m trimming and pruning and weeding and raking and mulching all around the house. Trimming incessant ivy and tying climbing hydrangea to the back fence. My husband is traveling and I am signing my emails to him each evening, “the yard guy.” By week’s end I intend to get to the show, that’s the goal. I just don’t want to go until I have my house, er grounds, in order. I want to go knowing that I can hold my head high, that my particular plot of earth is cleaned up and ready to receive any plants or bulbs I might carry home from this moment on.

The best is all ahead. When I am tending a garden, the plants’ well-being and my own become inexorably linked. And it works for writing as well. The door from my writing room will be thrown open to the terrace and I will start every day out there puttering around in the garden, finding my thoughts, and watering—which is like prayer or meditation, and then slip back in and write. The days will be longer. No more growing tired and ready for a nap at 4 pm.

I know I am getting ahead of myself, but I did the most significant thing this week: I opened a window. Imagine, after all this winter huddled up with rugs and throws and fireplaces. Such a simple gesture: open a window! It hits me like an epiphany every year.


Filed under epiphany, gardening, spring, Uncategorized