IT’S THURSDAY, March 19th, 2020, as Ken Druse and I are taping this show from our respective homes via Skype. In my weekly newsletter last Sunday, I said I didn’t know just what to say, or how to begin, since nothing seemed the same as it had a mere seven days prior to that.
All I came up with was this thought, and it’s how we’ll start today’s show, too:
Maybe more than ever before in my life, I’m grateful today to have a garden. What a blessing it feels like. I can’t imagine the weeks and months ahead without the refuge it will provide. Perhaps you all feel the same way.
So Ken and I wanted to talk about what our gardens mean to us, and especially what they can mean to all of us gardeners in this unusual year.
Fellow garden author Ken Druse and I have known each other through many gardening seasons, like about 30. And we’ve each been gardening longer than that. But this year already feels different, of course, and we wanted to talk about that, and what plans we have to take full advantage of the refuge aspect of our own backyards—and also of our indoor companions, our longtime houseplants, like Ken’s beloved hoyas (like Hoya kerrii with its heart-shaped leaves, above at Ken’s) and more.
Important: We hope you will chime in after listening, or reading the transcript (or both), to share your own strategies with fellow gardeners. Use the comments box at the very bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the March 23, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
the garden as refuge, with ken druse
Margaret: Hi, Ken. We could tell everybody we’ve been talking virtually every day, haven’t we lately?
Ken: Yes, and we’re talking about what everyone’s talking about, which is the virus.
Margaret: And as you and I have talked about everything in our lives for the 30 years-ish that we’ve known each other, we’re talking about it through the filter of the garden. So it’s kind of an eerie juxtaposition out the window and on fair days outside, when we can go outside right now of sort of unfolding beauty and innocence, tiny bulbs, plump little buds, and the headlines hourly and daily. So I wanted to backtrack about what gardening means to us and sort of what brought us to it. How long have you been gardening? [A high-season view across Ken’s garden, above.]
Ken: [Laughter.] O.K., since I was very young. How’s that?
Margaret: Yes, a little boy?
Ken: Since I was a teenager. And I started with indoor plants and got really turned on. And then when I went to college in Rhode Island, I was kind of close to Danielson, Connecticut, which is where Logee’s is. And I was thinking about all this stuff, and I think that shopping has a lot to do with my acquisitiveness. And my interest in seeing a new plant, finding a new plant, thinking, well, they’re all so incredible. And shopping online is something you can do now solo really well.
Margaret: Uh-oh. So you’re going to be spending some money. You said you were a teenager and so forth. Besides the sort of amassing a collection, that sort of instinct that you apparently had, was there some other escapism or something else that brought you to it? I don’t know. I don’t want to project onto you. I mean, I can tell you mine, but I don’t know.
Ken: I know I have a need to nurture, and I just love, it’s so exciting to see… It seems like slow-motion in most cases, but to see a plant grow and thrive or something from a seed, sometimes that’s pretty fast. And then from a seed to, in your case, edibles, it’s a miracle. And to participate in that, I’m thinking how heartwarming it is. It’s a boost, and it makes you think about tomorrow.
Margaret: Yes, yes. I mean, for me, I was in my 20s, and I mean, you know this story; most of my listeners know the story. I was in my 20s. My father had died. The next year, my mother, who was 49, was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t even think they called it that at that time, but that was the idea. And so there I was called home to care for my widowed mother, and that unfolded this strange time in my young life. And I was close to home. I had to stay close to home during the days. I had a job at night. Someone else came and cared for her at night. And what are you going to do? I mean, as I always say, you can only watch so much daytime TV when you’re 24 or 25 years old.
And so I got a garden book. Someone gave me “Crockett’s Victory Garden,” and that expression, “victory garden,” seems appropriate right now. And I just started doing the stuff in it. I started going to the local garden center, and whatever it said, I just bought those seeds or that plant and just did these crazy experiments and obviously killed most of the things in the early going. I didn’t know what I was doing. But that was my entree, was during a very dark time in my younger life. So it’s been a refuge for me, a number of times it’s seen me through. I have often said my garden has saved me many times.
So I find I’m thinking of spending more time outside because I can’t go anywhere at the moment. And all of my events, I’m sure like yours, have been postponed at least through May and I’m sure through June and whatever as well. Are you thinking of doing more? I’m trying to assign myself some projects, things I’ve put off because usually I have garden visitors, and I can’t make a mess, and leave the mess there for weeks, while I do a big renovation or something. And I’m thinking, “Well, this is the time, Margaret. Nobody’s coming.”
Ken: [Laughter.] Well, we already talked about me shopping, and I haven’t really gotten that into that, but I probably will. Usually I shop for something because I see something, and then I track it down online, and then that leads me to “Oh, they have the minimum order.” Oh, and then there’s five plants, and you only wanted one. And then there’s the shipping savings if you buy $149 worth of plants, not that I’ve ever done that.
But it’s almost time for me to spruce up the houseplants, and that’s something I can do, and it’s something I should do, do a houseplant rehab. Every day I run to the light cart to see who’s changed or what seed has sprouted, that miracle. I’m never tired of that miracle. So there’s that. I planted some perennials yesterday that came in the mail, and they were dormant. So that’s happening already, and that’s going to continue. I got a bare-root cherry tree that I’m growing in a pot. I don’t know why. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Right. Well, but whatever gets you through, I mean, I think, right? I love that you said “who’s” changed? You went to the light cart to look at all your little babies. You said “who.” You didn’t say “what,” you said “who.” And I think of them the same way. To me, plants are not some inanimate object, some “it,” right?
Margaret: I think of them as who, not what.
So you said houseplant rehab. So this is a time for that, and we have time because we’re home, and we have time to notice. And that’s a good suggestion for me, because a lot of years I get so hectic trying to get ready for the open gardens-
Margaret: ...that I don’t do my re-potting of those houseplants on their way out the door for the summer. Do you know what I mean? I skip it. So that’s a really good one.
Ken: Well, I kind of do it when they’re on their way out, which is late, usually mid-May. And wouldn’t it be great for me to clean the leaves with a sponge and a couple of drops of dish soap and a quart of warm water and just clean off the dust?
But also some of them get a little sooty mold [above], and there’s all sorts of insects that can actually be removed with a sponge and a tiny bit of soap and water. So the things that are evergreen, which is most of the houseplants, and things that have from leaves like citrus and camellia, if you grow things like that, and philodendron, which you can grow almost anywhere, some of the philodendron. I put my hand under the leaf and just rub the top, just brush the sponge over it, and almost everything comes right off. And the plants look so much better, and then they say “thank you.”
Margaret: Yes, because, I mean, spending a winter indoors is not really their thing, and there’s all that unseen dust that moves around in the air with the heating system, when the heating system’s on in any house. And you find that fine dust. Like my clivias all have that by this time of year, and they need a nice tending. So you have a camellia. You grow hoyas, don’t you?
Ken: I do. There’s one at the kitchen window, and luckily that’s very close to the kitchen sink because if the plant’s small enough, it will go right in the kitchen sink and get washed off there. Or you have your clivias, and you probably take them to the shower.
Margaret: Yes, I do. I do, yes. But the hoyas, I’ve never grown them.
Ken: Some hoyas need a greenhouse, and well, we can talk about what they are. They used to be part of the milkweed family, but I think they’ve separated them now. But they’re semi-succulent. They have thick leaves. They’re pretty slow-growing, except in the spring when they kind of shoot. I have one wonderful one called Hoya kerrii, and I started with one leaf in a pot, and it stayed that way for about five years, one leaf in a pot, many years ago. [Laughter.] And then all of a sudden it just exploded, and now it’s a very big, vine-y plant. I have it on a wreath circle, stuck in this… Well, it’s a long story. But I’ve wound it round and round, and it has beautiful flowers when it blooms in the summer, and it has heart-shaped leaves. [Ken’s Hoya kerrii detail above, and trained as wreath at top of page.]
I have another one that has purple flowers. They don’t flower very often, and it’s important not to trim where the flowers come, because it blooms on spurs, kind of like an apple tree, and it’ll bloom over and over again on the same spurs. So you have to not cut those back.
Margaret: Oh, so don’t deadhead, so to speak? Oh.
Ken: Exactly. The flowers fall off. And they’re fragrant, almost all of them. And if you do cut it or trim it, it will bleed white latex, like a lot of succulents and milkweeds.
Margaret: Milkweeds, right, right. I mean, if a person wanted to think about adopting a hoya, where would they look? I mean, did you get yours from friends or what?
Ken: Well, I got the kerrii with the one single leaf at a flower show in Virginia, probably 17 years ago-
Ken: Maybe more. And it was like $2.50. It was expensive for one leaf. [Laughter.]
Ken: But Logee’s Greenhouses, as I mentioned before, they have some, and Gardino Nursery, I think it’s called. But if you look online, there are people who specialize in hoyas, and when you read about them, some of them make really good houseplants because they can take low humidity. And some of them want lots of humidity. The leaves are different on every single one, as are the flowers. They bloom in clusters. It’s kind of hard to describe. They’re like stars in these fireworks clusters, and some of them smell like cinnamon. And Hoya kerrii smells kind of like clove and tomato. In other words, it smells kind of like ketchup.
Margaret: That’s funny. And you’re the guy who just wrote a book about fragrance, “The Scentual Garden,” so I guess you’d have thought this through about what things smell like. Yes.
Ken: And this is a wonderful situation we’re in. It’s a terrible situation, but it’s a wonderful time to think about dreaming about fragrance, to feel a little better.
Margaret: Yes, get a whiff of something wonderful, yes?
Margaret: Yes. It’s hard to describe something like a hoya, and we’ll show the pictures with the transcript and also give the links to some of the places that do sell them. Because, as you just said, one of them you got 17 years ago as a leaf. I mean, speaking of using personal pronouns, this who, this creature is still with you 17 years later, a faithful companion, yes? So I mean, I think there’s something really positive about that. And as I’ve said many times before, my Clivia, my many giant pots of clivias are my grandmother’s. So I don’t even know if these plants are 60 years old or 70 years. I don’t even know when she got them. I’ve had them for more than 40. [Three pots of Margaret’s clivia in the back mudroom, above.]
Ken: Have you ever re-potted them?
Margaret: Yes, but it gets to the point where, I mean, where am I going to put all the… [Laughter.] You know what I mean. They’re in like 18-inch plus pots. And anyway, but yes, and that’s one of the things I think that I’m not going to put off this spring because I do have the time and I’m here. And I think that assigning myself little tasks like that in this very distracting and very difficult time is really important, to break up that refreshing your browser to see what the headlines… You know what? I want to get lost in re-potting the clivias, I think, right? I mean, I think that’s what we’re talking about, right?
Margaret: Right, right, right. And another thing I was thinking about is, and I mentioned victory garden before or whatever, and that was my first book, and I was thinking victory garden now. It’s not a time of war, but it is a time that feels like that. And I thought I have these big, big bowls. They’re like 2-1/2, or 3 feet across, these low terracotta bowls [above, with coleus, alternanthera and phormium one summer], and I have them on the patio and near the house. And they’re sort of these where I put my “annuals” so that it looks showy during the garden tours.
Well, there won’t be any garden tours probably at all this year. And I thought well, maybe I’m just going to do all kinds of colors and textures of lettuces and greens in those, and it’ll just be my little… I’ll pinch a few here and there and make a salad or a saute, a stir fry every day. Do you know what I mean? I’m sort of rethinking since I’m going to be here mostly alone and doing my-
Ken: Well, and you don’t want to go to the market.
Ken: You don’t want to be near people if you can help it. And especially with greens, you can buy canned food and things like that. But you really can’t buy fresh vegetables until the winter of things that will last, although speaking of winter, I will be growing some butternut squash in one of the few places I have a little bit of sun because I’ve had some success with ‘Butternut’ squash in bright shade and a little bit of sun.
Margaret: Yes. That’s my favorite. And I have a few more from last year’s garden that are still with me because I grow the variety from Turtle Tree Seed. It’s just ‘Butternut,’ but it’s been selected for 25 years or something at Turtle Tree Seed—neighbors of mine, that seed company’s right near me—for lastingness. Every year they see which fruits last the longest and replant from those. I’m oversimplifying, but they’ve been selecting for two decades-plus for lastingness. And I’m telling you, I have these massive fabulous ‘Butternut’ sitting in the kitchen with me right now looking for their time in the soup pot or whatever. And they’re perfect in late March. [Above: Two fruits from Turtle Tree’s ‘Butternut’ stil in prime shape the next spring after fall harvest.]
Ken: Well, you got sun, so you might think about things that you can put up. I know you freeze a lot of stuff. But in the old days and during World War II, victory gardens as you said, a lot of people grew stuff that they could can. And people don’t can as much. Well, if you got a big freezer, that’s great. But growing things that you can can, so to speak.
Margaret: Yes. So I think for me, the garden’s going to look different. It’s going to be more about my connecting to it and right around the house and feeding me. Things that when the garden’s usually open to the public, certain days it’s not always the same focus, so that’s going to shift for me. The birds are super important to me now. I don’t know if you enjoy them there at your place. But I’m super-excited because a pair of Carolina wrens that has been with me all winter… They’re tiny birds and they have a lot of personality, like all the wrens, and this pair has been right around the house all winter and talking and making all kinds of fun sounds.
And they’ve been eyeing and clinging to the back porch post that has vines surrounding it all winter, sort of staring at the house, like staring from the edge of the porch posts at the house. And I’m thinking, “What are you doing? Why are you always here all winter?” Well, it turns out they’re planning on using one of the old phoebe nests that was left behind last year sort of on the porch posts, tucked in the corner by the roof of the porch. They’re now building a nest on top of the phoebe’s nest from last year. [Laughter.] [Carolina wren, below, from Wikipedia.]
Ken: I have Carolina wrens too, and they think this is their house. They yell at me, or they yell at the dogs even more, every time I go out, it’s [Ken makes their chatter sound]…
Margaret: Yes, chitter-chatter. Yes. Yes, yes. And again, this is a time to be happy for these treats. I mean, I’m looking forward to when all the insects, the bees start buzzing. I mean, I have honey bees collecting some nectar or pollen, whatever, from some of the early bulbs and the pussy willows and things. But I’m looking forward to the awakenings, because we need a counterpoint. Yes, so those are some of the things that are changing here.
Are you doing any other sort of projects? Because I said I can make a mess now this year, so I am going to do a few areas that I’ve put off rehabbing. Anything there like that?
Ken: Well, we took down a really big spruce tree, and now there’s a little more sun, and I want to figure that out. Well, usually the way I garden and plan and design is whoever comes in the mail, it’s an emergency, and they get plugged in, and that’s a garden-
Ken: …in many cases. But I’ve got an opportunity to design and plan, so I’m going to take a good long look at that.
Ken: I might develop another couple of areas. Certainly rehab, that’s definitely a big one. Every year I think I’m going to take all of the perennials out of the border, clean the whole thing up, and put them back. I did it once on big tarps and everything. And I’ve been putting that off for about three years, so maybe this is the year for that.
Margaret: Yes, it’s a good time right now. I was outside yesterday doing some pruning, and it was very satisfying. I mean, it’s not like I did anything epic-level or anything. No one else would probably notice the difference, but it just felt good. Do you know what I mean? And this is the thing I love about some of these simple tasks. There are tangible instant rewards, and you feel better, like you’ve accomplished something. And sometimes when all this other stuff is so big and we can’t control it, it feels good to take all the suckers off a branch of an old magnolia, right?
Ken: I think almost everything that we do feels good, and it feels good while you’re doing it. And then to my surprise, I take a few steps back and realize, “Oh, I’ve cleaned that whole space up.” I didn’t even realize I was doing it. You just get started, and before you know, you’ve weeded a whole area.
Margaret: Yes. I lucked out the leaves and fallen debris in one of my two in-ground water gardens yesterday. And I turned it on, and I’ll tell you the sound of the running water is also extremely welcome right now.
Margaret: It’s a soothing sound, yes. So tomorrow I think it’ll be a little warmer, and I think I’ll do the other one. So that kind of starts the season for me. Yes, yes. In the last minute or two— this is a trick question, a surprise question—but I was thinking we all need reading lists also. And I was going to re-read… I’m pulling out of the shelf, and I was thinking of re-reading some of the earliest garden books I read, some of the Gertrude Jekyll, the old English stuff, or I don’t know what. But anything that you would recommend to people that helped you when you got started gardening?
Ken: Well, you talked about the “Victory Garden” book. And I mentioned Logee’s, and it was the Logee’s catalog. It was before the internet, and I don’t think it had very many pictures, but just reading that catalog. So we both got started on paper.
Margaret: Yes, yes, yes. I find the seed catalogs can be really distracting and a great adventure, also.
Ken: And some of them go right to recycling, Ken [laughter]. Some of them, like Annie’s Annuals, gets looked at and looked at and looked at. And I think, “I can’t grow that. I really want it. It’s mouthwatering.” So the catalogs have arrived, and I’ll be looking at those, and I’d have to give it a little thought on what book I might look at.
Margaret: Yes, well, you’ll tell me. But Christopher Lloyd is another. I have all his books, the late Christopher Lloyd, who did Great Dixter garden in England. And I’m thinking I’m going to re-read… I forget which one, but I’m going to re-read some Christopher Lloyd, too, for inspiration. So anyway, it’s good talking to you as ever, and we’ll be chatting on the phone and everything. But thank you for sharing, as they say.
Ken: [Laughter.] My pleasure, Margaret.
Margaret: All right. Take good care. Be safe.
Important: We hope you will chime in after listening to the show, or reading the transcript (or both), to share your own strategies with fellow gardeners. Use the comments box at the very bottom of the page. Thank you all!
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. 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 the March 23, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).