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. margaret says:

      He was a songwriter’s songwriter (and had a hit with a song called “Magnolia,” too, that is likewise beautiful). Glad to share it, Bonnie.

  1. dudleysmom says:

    12 years after I bought my house (not too far from you) and I still consider myself a gardening noob. But the landscaping is looking better all the time and I’m constantly learning. Mainly I spend my money wiser now that I understand my land better.

    I tend to listen to audiobooks while working outside.

    My lemon tree arrived safely and seems quite healthy. Thank you for that contest!!

  2. Carol says:

    Here’s to real gardens and real gardeners! From a fellow dinosaur, thanks for the rant with music. “There is always music amongst the trees in the Garden, but out hearts must be very quiet to hear it.” Minnie Aumonier

  3. From a pair of gardening dinosaurs in Wisconsin, you go girl! What I love about getting older is that I don’t have to be concerned that I look like a crazy old lady out in my garden because that’s pretty much what I am: A gardener of a certain age in love with the process of gardening and still enamored of my shelves and shelves of gardening books. I must add that I am getting a bit tired of all the garden talks about the latest plants hitting the market. If they are hardier, have fewer pest problems etc. that is fine. But I find myself sticking with what is tried and true and works for me more and more these days. And a shout out to a terrific collection of songs and artists that you put together.

  4. Love the photo of your retired boots. No need to cart off to the dump though! I have a collection of retired work boots arranged in part of the garden where they keep my peach tree and my garden gnomes company. Kind of like a shrine to my garden career/obsession.

  5. Rio Thomas says:

    Oh, kindred spirit! You echo so much of what I think, feel, and do in my day-to-day. Sometimes I worry that my love affair within my garden universe is too isolating, that I’m too obsessed. Well, THAT still may be true, but I’m at least amused, comforted, entertained, inspired and somewhat reassured that I am not the only one.
    Love following your writings.

  6. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    Margaret ! Please don’t toss your boots into the dump…. plant them out with Hens and Chicks, or some draping Sedums, leave the boots outside all year. Drill some drainage holes through the base, add some rocks in the toe zone, cut some of the upper parts away or slit them and fold them backwards so a cavity is open to the air and light and stick some plants in there. I can see the miles your boots gave you! Congratulations.

  7. Dawn Martin says:

    Margaret, I’m with you. I do try to keep my gardens at a level where I can manage to maintain them as an acknowledgment that balance is needed. At the age of 62 I can say I have had a garden wherever I’ve lived for 44 years. The real reward is the time spent with hands in and around the soil, the noticing that comes with time, the sense of connection with inevitable cycles, the evolution of the living canvas, and all the metaphors that come to mind – lessons taught by the garden. Grab and go has nothing to do with that – might as well buy a bouquet and a bag of veggies at a farmers’ market, enjoy them, and don’t pretend to be gardening. There is no shame in that! Either you love being a student of the soil and think it is a worthwhile way to spend your time, or you don’t. And btw, the garden is also the love of MY life! For me, the Berkshires have just the right balance of up and down-time. And absence makes the heart grow fonder!

  8. Teresa says:

    I have loved to dig in the dirt since I was s child. Though I currently grow 175+ roses and their companions, I know that even if all the fancy flowers went away, I’d still have to plant something, because it is just who I am. Thank you for your stories and sharing your garden with us! Signed, a real gardener!

  9. Dear Sister Dinosaur:
    Gardening/plant passion drove me to start a plant nursery under the delusion that it would pay for my compulsion. hahaha.
    Please don’t send your boots to the landfill. 10ish years ago Ellen, wonderful, sunny Ellen worked here. Her tennis shoes wore out. As a joke she buried them in one of the gardens. A few years later she died of breast cancer. A few years after that I was digging and came upon buried tennis shoes and thought “what the ____?” Other workers knew and laughed hysterically. Her shoes now hang on a nail in the metal shed and make me think of Ellen and smile. Bury your boots and someday, after you’re gone, you can still make someone smile.
    Thanks for your passion.

  10. Scott Griffin says:

    Yes Margaret!……right there with you!
    Gardening for me is all about the process!

    Form a neighbor in Northern Dutchess, I love it all:
    Starting seeds indoors in Feb and March, that first warm day in spring
    when you can get out and rake, nursing same forlorn plants back to life,
    pinching my dahlias in July and August, pruning, mulching, etc.

    Just getting out in the garden and rooting around!
    I still start plants that I have little room for, just because I love planting
    and caring for them so much! Just seeing what works and what does not work
    is part of the enjoyment. It is all good!

    Scott G.

  11. Wonderful post! I think one reason we’re “dinosaurs” is that we’re not educating the younger generations about the joys of gardening as well as we could be. Somebody who pays to climb an artificial rock wall three times a week for exercise can’t see the joys of carting wheelbarrow loads of soil, or digging out a stump, or hauling rocks?

    (Love the Nina Simone btw!)

  12. Diane Denny says:

    Your music was so much fun Margaret!! Thanks for the big chuckle- almost as big as your
    Big Love!! by the way, I agree that your boots should become a permanent part of your “gardenscape”!
    Diane :)

  13. Dorothy Swift says:

    There’s an old hymn with the words, “How can I keep from singing?”
    I think some of us, despite various physical limitations, have a variation going through our heads, “How can I keep from gardening?”

  14. Margit Van Schaick says:

    For me, the absolute joy of gardening comes I Think, from the fact that in its very essence, it is undeniably creative.

  15. Karen says:

    Well any gardening blog that has JJ Cale as part of the song list is now even dearer to me than before! Love love love your insights and thoughts. I don’t think results and not process is limited to gardening or any field. Read an interview a while ago with Jack White (singer) and he commented that people no longer have hobbies – I think he said something like, “Who builds model airplanes anymore?”.

    So I see nothing wrong with thinking of gardening as a hobby and enjoy the whole mess of it! Of course when one of the benefits is home made rose jelly from my roses, well that is a touch of paradise.

  16. polly says:

    Don’t bury the boots. Cut the tops off right at the transition and have a nice low pair of booties – perfect for walking through wet grass.

    1. margaret says:

      Totally agree, Meg — weeding is so meditative, and as a bonus you can see instant results (unlike in most of life’s activities).

  17. Sharon says:

    Right there with ya, sister. When my garden helper stopped by to pick up something, he looked startled: he had never seen me with my hair washed and dried and with a little makeup on….

    But more important: At a conference on sustainable landscape design, I asked the panelists whether anyone has approached the big box stores about the decreasing number of tables of plants and the increasing tables of “grab and go.” Since that’s where so many people buy their plants, it’s a shame the big stores can’t do more education.

  18. Kim Richards says:

    Like you, I’m seeing the gardening world change like so much else around us and at times it distresses me but I also remember my “green” days thirty five years ago when I had to have so many plants–and bought them. A journal from that time shows a tremendous slaughter; I had no idea what I was doing and many plants died in the process. Now I see the tradition, the wisdom that I was emulating seeming to disappear and that pains me but this has happened before in times of change. A few gardens and gardeners like yourself kept and nurtured the wisdom then and waited for a rebirth, much like the monks in a dark ages monastery. What has been lost, in my estimation, is the diversity of available plant material but a lack of demand and corporate practices are the reasons for that. Don’t despair, Margaret, not that you’re despairing. Just put on that second pair of boots and go into the garden. It always heals, no matter what.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks for the anecdote about the “slaughter,” Kim. Here, too. :) And onward I shall trod, in whichever boots. Promise.

  19. Rocky says:

    Margaret, love those songs. And I do love a good rant!
    Gardening articles that are really only shopping and the gardening magazines that are all cooking and pillows, Ugh!

  20. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I am a big fan of JJ Cale and I’m enjoying Cherry right now – thank you. I, like you, dread the wind. In Clayton NY we have wind off the St. Lawrence River and it has done a bit of damage over the years in my garden. I have to stake everything and anything down. I have taken to calling her the Wicked Wind of the West. I am not missing her now at my new Florida retreat where only gentle breezes blow and butterflies flutter. I worry so in the Winter for the garden and I am thankful not to see the brutality! Though I do admit, miss my connection to the garden and feeding the birds. I have quite a bit of native plants to hopefully sustain. There is so much to see here, however, that I can’t help but enjoy.

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