WE’RE AT A CUSP—the coming of fall—and that is not a time to lament, but rather to take in what the new season and the one beyond it have to offer, each to its own. So says Margaret, and so says Tovah Martin in her latest book, “The Garden in Every Sense and Season.” We have timely advice for both to-do’s (and an attitude adjustment should you need one).
Tovah Martin gardens on 7 acres in Connecticut with some goats, a cat, and a whole lot of plants, both indoors and out. She’s the author of “Tasha Tudor’s Garden” and many other books. We talked about embracing the color brown (and also using blue at both ends of the growing season)–and she told me how to force hyacinths, which she highly recommends as an antidote to winter, and more.
Read along as you listen to the Sept. 17, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
every sense and season: a q&a with tovah martin
Q. In the book you say you woke up one day and kind of looked out at, this very familiar place. How long have you been at your garden?
A. Ooh, since 1996.
Q. So not a brand new place, but you kind of realized that you weren’t realizing your full sensory potential, you say. Tell us about how it came to be, like what that epiphany was.
A. I think this is universal; gardeners tend to be very chore-oriented. We just go around and we basically weed and water and do all the tasks of the gardening. And we forget this beautiful habitat that we created and everything it has to offer us that if you really plug into it, you can feel it on all levels. You can gain all sorts of stimuli from it.
Q. Yes. And so to that end, the book is kind of a series of essays, I guess I’d say, arranged by chapters that are like seasons, and then within each chapter there’s each sense. So there’s a set of essays within each chapter that is about each sense. Yes?
A. Yes. And I was thinking about how to present this, and the way I thought it would, the way it sort of came to me was if I plugged in each sense, and it very much changes throughout the season. I wanted it to be very immediate, because gardening is very immediate If you’re in summer you really need to think summer thoughts and you really need to think of the garden on all those levels, and let all those stimuli register in your mind. That’s what it’s all about. And again, how often do we really think about, about listening, how often do we really listened to our garden?
Q. To the sound, right? Exactly. It has a voice, doesn’t it? It has a voice.
A. Yes, exactly. And that changes all the time and noting the changes in the season: that here we are, as you said, on the cusp of autumn—so beautifully said—and there are different sounds that come into play. Maybe fewer thunderstorms sounds, and more of the sound of the crackle of the leaves under foot, that sort of sound that. You can almost hear the crispness of autumn, the crunch of the apple that you’re tasting.
Q. Yup. And so I find that, there’s sort of a musical accompaniment to each season outside. And so the one that’s just passed that I’ve been lamenting lately is the sort of dawn chorus, the birds that until July, August, were doing the morning sort of swell of song because they were all breeding and doing their things, raising families. And then that starts to dissipate and then it’s quiet. But then there’s those hot days, just before the sort of cusp we’re at now, and those hot nights sometimes. And you get all those sort of rattling, cricket-y or cicada noises. Do you know what I mean? [Laughter.]
A. Yes. And they sort of echo into the evening. It’s so wonderful because at night there’s this wonderful reverberation of it.
Q. It is.
A. And partly because it feels like of almost like a void, because it’s dark out.
Q. Yes. So you want us in this book, you want us to not just rush out to, “I’ve got to mow the lawn, I’ve got to weed the vegetables.” You don’t want us to do that. You want us to really engage each of the senses in each season.
As I said, there are these essays in each chapter arranged by the senses, and so let’s talk about some of those. One in “sight”—and it comes up in “sight” in both the spring and in the fall, is the color blue, which I have very little of it all in my garden. But I was struck that it comes up a few times in your book—with spring bulbs as well as some indoor things, and fall perennials. Let’s talk about the color blue.
A. The color blue, and you have said, you have very little of it in your garden.
Q. I do.
A. And that’s because there are so few true blue flowers when you think about it, they’re mostly purple. There’s very few true blues, but in spring you get the grape hyacinths [above], that wonderful blue of the grape hyacinths. And you also get many of the bulbs have tiny, what we call the minor bulbs.
Q. Right, the little squills and …
A. Or the Chionodoxa. They have this wonderful blue color that doesn’t happen at any other time of the year except for autumn. Autumn you get, of course the wonderful asters like ‘Raydon’s Favorite,’ that really see-it-from-a-distance, blue, some of the phlox or that color. And, you also get that wonderful color of not only the asters, but monkshoods.
Q. Aconitum, yes.
A. That real fervent blue, it makes you stop and look at it, because it’s such a rare color.
Q. And it’s a contrast, isn’t it against what the rest of nature is starting to do, which is sort of a lot of foliage is feeding to a lighter green or to yellow. It’s going to start to heat up, the foliage, to other colors. And blue looks, especially in contrast to that, I guess. Right?
A. Exactly. Blue is the complement of those colors. And what you just said, was the synthesis of making your own masterpiece.
A. You’re doing your own art work day by day, that changes day by day, and you’ve just captured exactly what I was trying to urge people to do, is think about who they are as an artist in a way. Because as the gardener, you are an artist.
Q. Right. And maybe I’m thinking that way because I’ve been reading your book Tovah [laughter], so, but don’t give me too much credit. But the interesting thing is, so I was reading, you were talking about the asters and contrast against the evolving descent into fall foliage and so forth, and that contrast.
And I was thinking, yes, but I really like pink chrysanthemums and pink against it too because there’s something sort of body about like there’s that ‘Sheffield Pink’ pale one and there’s a ‘Will’s Wonderful,’ the really hot pink one. I love them against the red and orange and yellow. I love that pink thing too.
A. You’re thinking it through again. You’re thinking like an artist and that’s really, this is your canvas and you’re thinking about the foliage at this wonderful time of year. I’m not sure we think about foliage so much in spring and in summer, everybody’s fervent about flowers and that sort of thing. But in autumn, I think it’s that’s time that so many of us put the foliage into the dialogue there.
Q. Yes. A couple of those things we just talked about, like the spring bulbs, bulbs and it’s time right now to order bulbs or actually we probably all should have gotten our act together and ordered them already.
A. True. [Laughter.]
Q. Before they were sold out of the extra special little ones that we wanted.
A. Yes, right.
Q. But whatever.
A. There’s time.
Q. I’m getting to it Tovah. [Laughter.] But in the book you say “we should bombard our senses with bulbs,” and I think I under-do it here. I mean I have sort of a Narcissus spring moment, but I think I really under-do it. And you’re talking about indoors and out. So you do hyacinths indoors now I have to confess to you that I have never forced a hyacinth. I’ve gotten this far without ever doing it. Tell me about them. [Laughter.]
A. Well, once you start Margaret, you’re going to be,
A. Yes, you can’t not do it, every year I think, “I don’t need to do that.” [Laughter.] And then if I didn’t, suddenly there’s that moment in December when I think, “Oh my goodness, I’ve got to see if anybody has any hyacinths left because I’m going to be so bereft if I don’t do this.”
Here we are as gardeners, and it’s part of planning ahead. I think gardeners do that so much. We really think in the future. And that’s what autumn is partly about, is putting your assets in, and planting your assets. So, I am an ardent bulb forcer and hyacinths are the very, very easiest. I mean, they are-
Q. So, what do I do, do I order them now, and what do I do?
A. Well, Bulb 101, that’s what they are.
A. Start with hyacinths and you’ll feel so sort of liberated and that you’ll start doing the rest of them. So hyacinths; What you do is, what I do is, I just buy the bulbs. I always buy bulbs mail order, just because then I’m sure that they’ve gotten their proper chilling and they haven’t gotten too warm.
Q. They haven’t gotten dried out in the store in the box, in the store, yes.
A. Yes, so I order whatever, the color range is phenomenal on hyacinths, it really goes the full spectrum. We were talking about blue a few minutes ago. There’s every blue purple combo that you could ask for sometimes in the same flower. So you order what you like because it doesn’t really matter. There are not specific ones that need to be forcers. Some bloom earlier than others.
But what I do is when the package comes, I just put it, the bulbs right into the refrigerator. And I forget about them until I have time, which is usually sometime after Thanksgiving. And in fact, Thanksgiving weekend is a great time to do that if you have time.
So then I take them out of the refrigerator. And the thing about hyacinth is that you really need to wear gloves when you’re working with them. They have these little sort of crystals in the bulbs that can cause a rash in some people.
A. So always handle them with gloves, very important for the “touch” thing. Then you take them out of the refrigerator. You could do these two ways. The easiest thing: I love bulb forcers, you know those kind of Victorian wasp-waist vases?
Q. Yes. Like a jar.
A. Yes. They have those wonderful glass vases that you can get. And so I just fill them with water up where the bulb sits in a little cup, and balance the bulb in there. And then I put them on a cool window. Now here’s the real reveal here: My home is quite chilly.
Q. No, no, and this is true. Yes.
A. And by the windows, it’s even chillier.
Q. O.K., so they’re not cooking along right away.
A. No, they’re not.
Q. They’re waking up slowly.
A. There’s no point that my house… I would wish it would get 70, but it’s not going to happen. And when late fall and early winter, it’s just not going to happen. So, it’s a chilly house and I just put them on the windowsill and wait. And after the whole choreography of that, watching that happen, is like a drama. [Laughter.]
Q. So they send down roots into the water and then they send up growth.
A. They send down roots—and sometimes they don’t even send that many roots down. They just start to unfold a little. You just watch the little bulb erupt, which is fascinating. And at that time of year, it’s like, what else are you going to watch? [Laughter.]
Q. The snow.
A. And so it’s just that easy and if you really wanted to plant them, you could also plant them, but you don’t need to, either way-
Q. You mean outside or for inside forcing still?
A. Yes, you can put them in some soil.
Q. Like you might an amaryllis or something, or would you bury them completely?
A. I don’t leave the whole top up, but I don’t leave the top up on an amaryllis, either. I bury it to the neck.
Q. So did you bury these to the neck or you-
Q. So not like a Narcissus out in the garden where it’s under couple inches of soil.
A. You don’t have to be several inches down. And just put them in, and wait, and they don’t even need the chilling period.
Now my other bulbs—and this is my part of my winter’s entertainment, and part of my winters entertainment is my houseplants. And just looking out and watching the bark of the trees and all those things that are laid bare suddenly.
But with Narcissus, you have to do a chilling period. What I do, while they put down roots… so I know, I know this is nuts. It’s absolutely crazy, but I actually put them in pots in the refrigerator.
Q. Right. And I know people who have an old fridge maybe in their cellar or whatever, the kind of backup fringe kind of thing, and they do that. And it’s funny if you go in the fall, early winter, that’s what’s in their extra fridge. [Laughter.]
A. Can I give you a little tip on that?
A. When you put the plant in the pot, put tin foil over the container because it confuses the thermostat. The humidity of the potted plant confuses the thermostat sometimes on the refrigerator. So I just put a little tin foil over it and I check them periodically.
It’s going to take, depending upon what variety you use and that sort of thing it takes between, usually between four to eight weeks, sometimes 12 on the tulips.
I do tulips too, and I love the little species tulips. They’re so fast, they’re really fast. I mean, in a month they start making growth. So it’s almost, it’s closest that you’re going to come to instant gratification. Very fulfilling.
Q. Of course. I’ve never done any of those things. I mean, I’ve just done things like amaryllis, the easy, easy, easy but good. So the hyacinths and some of these other things are possible. I want to leave some time to talk about fall and the cleanup because that was another part of the book I was just really enjoying.
You say, “Brown is not a tragedy. Brown is a happy ending.” [Laughter.] [Above, a faded hydrangea goes tan and brown.]
And I really laughed out loud. Because I saw the phrase also that you recommend “spot cleaning” in your fall section about cleanup, about garden cleanup. Because I always say that to people, I say, “This is spot cleaning. You pick it apart, a spot at a time.” You don’t do it like you’re cleaning the whole living room and vacuuming from corner to corner, you spot clean, to take the garden apart.” So tell us a little bit about your sort of approach to fall cleanup.
A. Well, you captured it because there’s so much that every plant can give you. So why not let it play itself out to the end? And it makes for a garden that changes so much day to day if you do it that way. You’re not cutting it, you’re not just going out there and let laying it bare; you’re just going out and saying, “Well, this is looking pretty tired.” Or, “This plant is not looking great right now. So I’m going to take that out.” And then all of a sudden you notice that other things are stepping out.
And so it gives you this, Margaret is this wonderful, I know you know this, but I just have to talk about it one second to readers and the listeners, is that it’s this wonderful sense of being a part of it. That you are helping to orchestrate this and it’s partly, it’s this collaboration you’ve got, so it’s you working, not even being the conductor, but you’re being a co-conspirator in the whole thing.
Q. [Laughter.] Right, and sort of gardening by reduction during fall cleanup.
A. Yes, like you’re helping to change the scene. You’re working with the scene and you’re … Again, it’s everything because we were just talking too much about sight, but it’s also just the feel of doing this, and the of the clip, clip, clip, and listening to the clip, clip, clip. And the listening of the rake, rake, rake, of the crunch, crunch, crunch. I would say that, nobody is ever going to sneak up on my house in autumn.
A. Because it’ll be crunchy. [Laughter.]
Q. No, no true. The footsteps. You’re absolutely right. You’re right. So what follows fall of course, is the “W” word, winter, and you’ve mentioned some of the things about that. And you mentioned like looking out at the bark and things like that. Are there things you might leave standing? I have some few some Cimicifuga that I can see from my … that’s probably not even what they’re called anymore, but you know what I mean … I think it’s just racemosa or something.
Q. Yes. And they have those long wands and right now there’s those sort of like little dots where the flowers were, they have these beautiful sort of seedhead kind of things. And so I never take those down even though parts of them look ratty because I love looking at them through the winter. And certain grasses I leave up. What are some of the things you’re looking forward to seeing out your windows? Do you know what I mean? Examples that you’re leave?
A. Well, here you go, because just, let’s use the Cimicifuga or Actaea, whatever you want to call it, as an example. Through this process I was like shoveling my way down to my goat barn one morning, and I heard this racket going on, and I also heard sort of swishing going . I looked over and noticed that all these birds were landing on those stems, the Cimicifuga stems that I left, and yes they were ratty, and some of them were falling over. But a lot of them were still standing strong and the birds were landing on them, pecking at them, really pulling out the seeds. And it was so fulfilling for me as again, as a co-conspirator or as a host.
Q. [Laughter.] Well, that’s one more thing we have in common then, is looking out the window at that particular plant.
(All photos by Kindra Clineff, used with permission.)
enter to win tovah martin’s latest book
I’LL BUY A COPY of “The Garden in Every Sense and Season” by Tovah Martin for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:
What plant or plants do you “spot clean” around and leave standing in fall for extra enjoyment by you and perhaps the birds, the way Tovah and I leave up the Cimicifuga and more?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer’s even better.
I’ll draw a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, September 25. Good luck to all; US and Canada only.
more about embracing fall
- A saner approach to fall cleanup, and “messiness,” from Habitat Network
- A proactive approach to fall vegetable-garden cleanup, from Chanticleer
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play Sept. 17, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).