more music, and a rant on why i keep on gardening

old garden bootsTHIS AS YOU probably know is not Garden Rant dot com–that’s another website altogether, one run by a whole group of talented garden writers. Here, you only get me. But whatever the name on the masthead, I did rant a little, and also celebrate, on a particular December edition of my weekly public-radio show and podcast, and yes, there was music.

I hadn’t done a music show since the previous June, when I threw myself an on-air birthday party, and brought along some of my crazy collection of tunes. It’s wasn’t another birthday yet, but an anniversary I wanted to note:

Almost precisely seven years before the radio taping (specifically in December 2007) I began to live fulltime in my now nearly 30-year-old garden—a place that before that was home to me only on weekends, for more than 20 years, as many of you know.

When I lecture to garden clubs, I often begin by saying that I am going to tell the audience a love story, and how the garden is my beloved, my life partner–but how at first we had a long-distance love affair. Eventually, the time came that we had to either break up, or one of us had to move. Guess who refused to budge?

So here I am, thankfully, having uprooted from the city and corporate life and re-rooted in the garden. I’m still in love with it, maybe more all the time as we grow older together.

Read along as you listen to the Dec. 1, 2014 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). Want even more music for gardeners? Browse all the shows at this link.

my music for gardeners, part 2



SINCE IT’S A GARDEN in the country, I started the music portion of the program with an obscure version of a country song that pretty much describes my feelings about the place: It’s called “Big Big Love,” and was recorded by Wynn Stewart in 1961.

A footnote: I’m not even sure how I ever came upon that recording, except perhaps it was in the late 80s or early 90s, when K.D. Lang used to sing a cover of it, and I probably traced back then to the original.

MOVING ON to the first rant of the day: Since my voluntary fall—or should I say “escape”?—from corporate “success” at the end of 2007 that landed me in rural splendor in a town of 300 people, I admit I am decidedly out of fashion. And not just because I seem to come up with outfits that are a little bit past their sell-by date (because frankly, who cares around here)?

It has been confirmed to me that when I am outdoors in the act of gardening, I am also totally out of style, no matter what I’m wearing. I am a positive dinosaur, armed with a long-handled shovel and a hori hori knife, who actually weeds between the cracks and pushes wheelbarrows of mulch around instead of using products like that hideous “landscape fabric.”

I learned of my dinosaur status from nursery-industry publications, which report that apparently nobody wants to actually garden any more, as in the verb “to garden.” True.

I browse the garden-center trade publications to try to keep up on trends and innovations, and this unwelcome sentiment keeps coming up lately (specifically in late 2014). The columnists in magazines like Ball Publishing’s “Green Profit” quote industry consultants–the experts who give the keynote speeches to nursery owners at trade shows—who say this:

People want gardens, but not gardening. They want the product, not the process.

Instant is good, it seems. Chores? Not so much. No surprise then I suppose that what’s been trending at garden centers was what one industry insider called “grab and go containers,” pre-planted pots that deliver a little bit of instant garden.

Even in the fastest-trending category of all, edibles, one nursery told “Greenhouse Grower” magazine that they’d missed an opportunity to capitalize on the demand for more ready-to-go edibles for condominium owners—meaning pre-planted pots of vegetables and herbs.

I’m happy about the demand for those products, or anything that gets people connecting with plants who might not do so otherwise. But I fear that when you simply “grab and go,” you miss out on some of the best parts that are hidden in the process. I’m all about digging in, not just grabbing and going.

TO CONTINUE my rant, I must shout out “The New York Times,” where I once worked and which I rely on daily and love, but sometimes publishes stories it says are about gardening that aren’t very helpful to gardeners. Example: a story not long ago about watering cans that didn’t include one real watering can I could imagine using for anything productive…such as to water a plant.

Admittedly, they were all very pretty…like those grab-and-go pre-planted containers probably are. I’m going to hold out hope that a segment of the population will continue to get their hands dirty, however, and even marvel at what comes of that effort.

Trendy or not, I love the process, and I’ve been at it too long to stop now. Just like Etta James.

Like she says: My love is growing stronger as our affair grows old. That about sums up how I feel about the garden and gardening. (And yes – this is also an example of the “woo-woo” part of my A Way to Garden website’s motto: “horticultural how-to and woo-woo.”)

NEXT UP: an in memorium: The first pair of garden boots I ever purchased has finally died (see photographic proof at the top of the page).

Actually, they probably died a few years back, when the rubber started to decay after more than 20 years, but there they stood in my boot rack in the mudroom anyhow, even if they stopped enjoying outings into the soil. I was just so attached to them, and all that we have been through together, all that we have accomplished.

I’ve been cleaning lately, paring down, tossing and recycling, and I am afraid the beat-up old boots will finally have to go.

Though they have no label or logo on them, they are old-style Wellington-type boots in olivey-brown and green, similar but not exactly like the Hunter brand boots that are so popular now.

Having to de-accession them reminded me that a painting of modest Gertrude Jekyll’s well-worn gardening boots is in the collection of the upper-crusty Tate Gallery in London. Somehow I doubt that my sorry English-made specials will ever make their way to anywhere but the local dump.

Gertrude Jekyll was the person regarded as most responsible for the renaissance of classic garden design in the last century, a prolific garden maker, with more than 400 designs to her credit, and an even more prolific garden writer. I could read her work again and again, another testament, I suppose, to my dinosaur status, because judging from her legacy and the look of her boots, she was into gardening not just the idea of gardens.

For my boots’ funeral, then, let’s play the boot song of all boot songs, from Nancy Sinatra.

PROBABLY BY NOW you’re saying, “These aren’t garden songs,” and you’re right. But they make me smile, and that counts for something in life. As I’ve confessed on previous music shows we’ve done, I hear a connection to gardening in most everything…and have a stash of whole playlists in my iTunes library themed to topics like trees and weather and roses and sunshine and so on.

I have just one song for the genus Prunus, or cherry, however, and also one for pruning, as in managing a cherry or other tree or shrub with a shears and saw. My Prunus song is by J.J. Cale, and let’s hear it:

So what about pruning–which by the way I had to do a lot of after a particularly nasty 10 or so inches of very heavy wet snow fell the day before Thanksgiving 2014, just before I recorded this show, bowing most every woody plant in the garden to the ground, splaying them all open, with many snapping in the process.

It was goodbye not just to my old boots but also to many limbs of the beautiful Kousa dogwood by the front door, I could see for certain, and who knows what else is a goner. Good thing I like the process of gardening, huh? Nature keeps presenting opportunities to engage in, and I keep engaging.

So what’s my go-to pruning song in my funny “garden” music collection? Of course it has to be the much-covered Cat Stevens one about “The First Cut is the Deepest.” I like the soul version from the 60s that P. P. Arnold had a hit with:

THERE WAS no wind in the storm that downed hunks of my Kousa, but I want to mention the wind because especially in winter, it’s very windy where I garden, and I’ll confess: it’s the element I fear the most. But it’s also a helper in various ways.

Wind—the motion of air molecules—is a powerful pollinator, through a process called anemophily, which translates as love of wind, from the Greek. Perhaps 12 percent of the world’s flowering plants, notably grasses and cereal crops, and as much as 20 percent of all plants are pollinated by wind, including most conifers and many other trees.

Since wind-pollinated crops don’t need to attract pollinators, their flowers have no need to come in flashy colors or smell good or provide nectar or even to have petals to land on. Imagine beets and chard and spinach—also wind-pollinated—when they come into flower. Not much to look at, are they? Think about it. This is just another example of the ancient, secret deals brokered between plants and animals that keep drawing me to gardening in a deeper way than just the mere aesthetic of “grab-and-go” containers.

But I’d have to count wind—not cold, despite my Zone 5Bish climate—as the most destructive force, bringing down or splitting apart woody plants; desiccating evergreens; generally making plants thirstier faster, in a world where water is in ever-shorter supply. Sometimes, all wind means is a few stray leaves, but normally it has nastier tricks in mind.

I am not the wind’s lover, no anemophiliac, if that’s even a word; not me. It’s time to batten down the hatches for the next outburst, and as ever I am watching, and listening. But I’m staying put, right here, unlike Nina Simone in our last song:

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. 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 Dec. 1, 2014 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Mimi Kibler says:

    Dang! That’s good music. You are what my neighbors here call an “all-around woman.” Gardener! Cook! Writer! Deejay! And even more, surely. Good post.

  2. Joan Thomas says:

    Great post! Reminds me of my gardening mentor, who takes such delight in my humming as I work along side her in our Club’s Display Garden. I don’t hum any particular song; I’m just humming as I’m working. Stevie has inspired me to learn the Latin name of a plant, not just the common one.

  3. Arthur Gillett says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I love your blog, and I’m appreciative of all of the knowledge you offer for those of us trying to move beyond Grab and Go gardening. But there is a catch. Gardening is such a long term relationship that depends on all sorts of knowledge and understanding that takes ages to cultivate, but it’s also sometimes very unforgiving of failure compared to most activities. That combination means that at least for me, “I guess I’ll try again next year” has become a painful mantra.

    Where are those of us wanting to level up, but without the network to do so, to go to build that knowledge base? I’ve been to workshops over the years, but they are always one offs, and as much as I gain from each one, it’s not what I’m looking for. Just like the planters at Lowes, they are Grab and Go knowledge building, and in addition work off a baseline capability without which it is difficult to implement whatever is gained. Given all the generational gardening knowledge lost in the past 50 years, there is going to have to be easy to plug into education in place if we’re ever going to get more than a few trailblazers to actively move beyond the Grab and Go.

    My girlfriend and I have been trying to organize a mentorship program for this year. Something that is a greater level of commitment than a workshop and less than quitting your job and working as a farm intern for a year or ten. We want to replicate the knowledge transfer that comes from an ongoing relationship. Something like a check in and planning session every two weeks for an entire season. Like your blog, but in person and responsive to the conditions that affect everyone that little bit differently. It’s been an interesting process. Lot’s of student interest but no teacher wants to commit.

    Do you think this lack of interest is the fierce individualism born of gardening, or just a lack of a simple, not too taxing model?

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Arthur, for the thoughtful comment, and welcome. I guess I’m OK with the reality of failure (endless ones!) and the patience-building practice that gardening represents, but you are correct that many people are not. I learned from books and seed and plant catalogs, and from other people, and mostly just stuck at it. I am learning every day, always seeking more information, asking questions, trying things. Probably a good nature to have if you plan to be a gardener!

      As for a mentorship program, I suppose like everything it comes down to economics–both finances and also time on everyone’s part. I suppose that’s why I get so frustrated at the garden center industry in general: that it isn’t taking the lead and emphasizing real how-to. They have the financial incentive to do so, they have the foot traffic/marketing already under way…it’s just not sexy to tell people plants will die and that you have to weed all the time or else. :)

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