the garden as refuge in a pandemic year, with adrian higgins of the washington post
THE WORLD IS SHIFTING focus again now, toward opening up this time, several months after much shutting down. But as we do, I for one hope we won’t go too fast–or turn too quickly away from awareness of the solace that the garden has provided and that it offers for us at all times, bad or good.
Adrian Higgins has been taking note of that in various ways in his columns for “The Washington Post” throughout the strangest and most chaotic of springs, exploring the garden as an anchor, a support. In his longtime role as gardening columnist there, Adrian always inspires readers to connect.
I was so pleased to speak with Adrian, whose thoughtful work has inspired me for years. He delves beyond just horticulture and great plants—though always serving up plenty of both—regularly exploring stewardship of the environment, and even matters of the spirit. That’s his mask on the fence post at his community garden plot above (photograph by Adrian Higgins).
Read along as you listen to the June 22, 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 adrian higgins
Adrian Higgins: Thank you very much for inviting me on.
Margaret: Yes. It’s way overdue. [Laughter.]
Adrian: It is.
Margaret: So “The Washington Post” was at the ready when everyone got sequestered at home, staring out the window at their yards, wondering what to do, because you’ve been there all these years with your loyal following. But what an assignment, huh? A little bit different from a normal spring of garden writing.
Adrian: Yeah, absolutely. But I was sort of worried as a journalist about what can I write about gardening and the pandemic? And I actually didn’t even have to think about it, because the garden is there for a pandemic. It’s there for when you have to isolate. I didn’t fully understand quite how nourishing the garden could be.
And it was just a sort of a situation where I had to state the obvious, which is that gardens are just so healing and nourishing to people.
Margaret: You emailed in an exchange, an email we had the other day, you mentioned that the great gardener and garden author David Culp had a sharp insight to that effect. Do you want to share that with everybody else, what he said about it?
Adrian: Yes. David has a new book of called “A Year at Brandywine Cottage,” and I’m sure your audience would love to hear directly from him. But he sort of shares in the book and with me that there were moments in his life where he had to recuperate from some serious illnesses. And the impulse for a passionate gardener, as we know, is for us to be the nurse of the garden, for us to keep looking after it and caring for it.
And he said what he had to sort of consciously do when he was recuperating in the garden was to allow the garden to give him some healing back. And it was ready, willing, and able to do so. So I think that in itself is an incredible lesson for all of us that we have to … sometimes we just have to stop fretting about the weeds, or the wilted leaves or whatever, the lack of mulch, and just sort of let the garden come back to us. [Below, rose and clematis buds in Adrian’s community garden plot.]
Margaret: It’s funny. When you just said that it reminded me of many years ago, Marco Stufano from Wave Hill, who started the gardens at Wave Hill in New York—I was moaning around this time of year when spring starts to turn to summer and everything looks like hell and there’s a lot of weeds and cut backs to be done. And I was like, “Oh, it’s horrible. My place looks horrible. And I can’t get off the hook. I’m just on the hook all the time with it.” And I was moaning and moaning and he said, “Margaret, you created the hook. Just exhale.” You know? [Laughter.]
So it made me think of what you just said. But you’re right. It can help us. We don’t just have to be the nursemaid, as you just explained.
Adrian: Yeah. I think it requires a mental shift because when you are a passionate gardener, you see it as a process. There’s something that you’re constantly doing. And we don’t sort of just sit down and stop, and sort of see objectively what we’ve created. We can’t see what we’ve created. We’re so close to it.
Margaret: Right. So before we get to more of the sort of soulful part, I wanted to … You’ve been of course, covering what’s going on, the impact this has had on the industry, on nurseries, seed companies, public gardens.
And the pandemic shutdowns happened just as the garden season was kind of rolling up, beginning to really roll up the country, from South to North. Nurseries and public spaces were going into the beginnings of high gear.
I read this a sentence or two the other day in “Grower Talks,” the trade publication. Chris Beytes, the editor wrote this–he said this assessment: “This season was a crazy, roaring, raging, once-in-a-lifetime anomaly. The pandemic destroyed the horticulture business in April and sent it soaring to record highs in May.” And I sort of thought, what’s your take on how it affected the business, Adrian?
Adrian: Well, I know, as you know, that with seed companies, they were completely overwhelmed with demand. We can talk about that. But I hadn’t heard that, and I’m glad to hear actually that there was a rebounding, because as you know, the spring season from March to now is the key time for retail nurseries and gardens centers, and it’s their make-or-break period.
So the idea of everyone being in quarantine in sort of late March into April must’ve been just horrific for these business people. So I’m glad that it has bounded back. A lot of nurseries have offered sort of curbside pickup or social distancing. Most of them remained open during the pandemic, but obviously in very constrained circumstances. So I’m glad to hear that. I haven’t heard.
Margaret: Yes. Every week, he takes a pulse. He asks for everyone to send in from 1 to 10 an assessment of the week, so to speak, all over the country and Canada, and then he publishes it in each edition of his “Acres Online” newsletter each week. And, so yes, it came roaring back.
Now, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t much suffering and that many perishables were not tossed in the compost heap. Right? I mean, the early sales stuff, probably some of it went by and no one bought it. So …
Adrian: Yeah, all those bedding annuals and spring annuals and herbs and things, I’m sure they were just written off, unfortunately.
Margaret: Yeah. In certain areas, I would imagine, yes, if places were closed. And as you said, the seed company, some of them, like Tom Stearns at High Mowing in Vermont, he said some weeks they were up as much as 300 percent year over year from mid-March onward. And then they had to, as many places, that they had just take a hiatus because they couldn’t … They had to pack more seeds. I mean, they had to put more seeds in packets, you know? It was just too much.
Adrian: Yeah, no, I was talking to seed companies at the height of this, and they had to, as you say, literally shut down so that they could catch up with the orders and recognizing, too, that their own staffing was diminished for their own safety. And a lot of vegetables, like beans and lettuce and lots of different things, they just, they sold out quickly. So, you know, fortunately, in many parts of the country, especially in the mid-Atlantic, to me, I’ve always said that the autumn garden, the vegetable garden, is perhaps the best season of the year. So we still have lots and lots of time to get more seed and have a successful growing year.
Margaret: Yes. The public gardens, as you said in a recent column—and this has been one of the real heartbreaking things for me to watch, because I, as you have over the years, interviewed so many people at them, visited so many of them, spoken at them, whatever, and have a tenderness for them. You wrote in a recent column: “Of at least 600 public gardens across the U.S., large and small all, but a handful have been closed since mid-March.”
And it’s sort of, now what? How do they reopen? How do they prepare to reopen? So what about some of that, your thoughts about some of that?
Adrian: Well, some of them are preparing to reopen, but it will be in a diminished way. I mean, the Denver Botanic Gardens recently reopened, but it’s on a timed ticket. They seem to be going to like a timed ticket. So they meter the number of people who enter. And I know, it might be … It’s probably only 25 percent of their capacity. So if you’ve got a ticket, it’s great because you’ve got the place to yourself. But obviously, they’re doing the best they can and trying to be safe about it. So things are opening up a little bit.
Margaret: The problem being that the money in a big public garden, especially you just mentioned Denver or New York Botanical Garden, a place that has shows, an orchid show, the whatever show—seasonal shows that go on for a couple or few months and a premium ticket purchase—that’s a big part of their income. That’s what keeps the lights on. And making those happen in a tighter space, then the timed tickets for the outdoor use of the grounds that you were just speaking of: much harder to figure out. It’s almost like reopening Broadway shows. Do you know what I mean? Much harder thing than letting people walk on Broadway again, down the street. [Laughter.] Tricky. Yeah.
Adrian: Yeah, no, I think that the public gardens, and they’re not that much different from other cultural institutions in that they rely on ticket sales heavily for their operations. And there’s no question they’ve taken a huge hit now.
Margaret: So the soul. I feel like I should have like music, and I should queue up my favorite saxophone player ever, Coleman Hawkins, performing his … I think it was 1939, it was very radical at the time, this rendition of the song, “Body and Soul.” Because the garden–and you’ve written this recently–does sustain both body and soul. Doesn’t it?
Adrian: It does. I think perhaps I’m stating the obvious. But in terms of the body, we talk about the vegetable gardens and how everyone suddenly wants a victory garden. And you see it. And you can walk through any neighborhood and see makeshift new growing beds, I think.
And so people are obviously, perhaps earlier in the pandemic, when we didn’t know about the food supply, people were going out and scrambling to buy beans. And I got a load of seed potatoes. I went to this sort of feed store way out in the country. I got wind of the lockdown and got, I think, 12 pounds of seed potatoes [laughter], which are now growing fabulously. They’re really happy. And I’m looking forward to getting those in a month or so. [Below, a corner of Adrian’s community garden plot, with his potatoes, cardoon and fading chives. Photo by Adrian Higgins.]
Margaret: [Laughter.] You said beans, and I think you’re right, didn’t you write a column that was something like “Beans, the Pandemic Vegetable” or something?
Adrian: Yeah, I did. I thought beans were just fabulous for a number of reasons. One, the seeds are really big, so kids can plant them. They sprout quickly once the soil has warmed. They don’t get too many pests and diseases. They’re harvestable quite quickly. And then you can also let them go to seed for your own seed source.
So they have everything going for them, really. I’ve always joked, you know the fairytale about Jack and the Beanstalk, and he sold this cow for five beans? Well, I’d much rather have the five beans than the cow.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Yeah. Because they’re self-perpetuating. From five beans, you can have beans for the rest of your lifetime, right?
Adrian: Exactly. Yeah.
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I love dry beans. So of course, even if they go too far in the pods, like my ‘Scarlet Runner’ beans and so forth, you can always cook them up afterward because they’re delicious.
Adrian: Exactly. And they’re so pretty.
Margaret: They’re beautiful. They’re beautiful. And a lot of the … Like with some of them, the hummingbirds love the flowers, and you know what I mean? They make me happy. It’s one of my favorite things to grow. So I was glad when I saw that headline; that made me smile.
Adrian: Yes. Thank you. And shifting to sort of the soulful aspect: My own feeling is this moment with your garden and in isolation, if you tune out all the leaf blowers, it sort of instills in you, I think, the value of this quiet moment, and quite how rare and extraordinary it is.
It sort of forces a certain sense of stillness upon you. And that’s what you need to sort of be able to fully take in and perceive your plants and your garden, and just to sort of fully realize the richness that it gives to our lives.
Margaret: Yeah. You kind of, in another recent column, you kind of … I’m going to say “free-associated.” I don’t know how you thought of the idea. But from what you just said, quiet moments, you kind of free-associated and wrote about a garden that’s set in kind of a monastery setting, a place that the headline was, “In Medieval Monastery Gardens, an Uplifting Model for Something We Could All Use: Refuge.”
So tell us a little bit about that assignment. [Above: The Bonnefont Cloister at the Cloisters contains plants with origins in medieval herb gardens. Photo by Marc Montefusco/The Met Cloisters.]
Adrian: Yeah. Well, if you study landscape history, as I’m sure you have, there was a plan, a sort of a model plan, of a monastery garden that was discovered in an abbey library in Switzerland called Saint Gall. And in it was sort of the Charlemagne’s blueprint for a monastery garden. And that actually became sort of the prototype for all our sort of four-square gardens that sort of flowed from that—not just the monasteries of the Middle Ages, but the sort of more formal gardens of the Renaissance and the French 18th, 17th centuries, and then sort of our own sort of formal gardens.
So it was an extremely important document that preserves something that otherwise might have been lost. And it occurred to me that these monks were keeping this garden alive, again, sort of a world that was forcing them to self-quarantine, if you will. And I think what must it be like to have been a monk in a garden back then?
And of course your New York listeners will know that The Cloisters in northern Manhattan are exactly that. They’re replications or embellished replications of these ancient monastic gardens. And so I was talking to the gardener there, who for the last few weeks has been in there alone eight hours a day, just toiling with these beautiful plants, and trying to get a sense of how he feels about that. And the idea that it’s sort of going back to their origins of these monks basically in isolation, gardening.
Margaret: Hmm. I loved it. It didn’t occur to me. And when I saw that, I thought, oh, of course. Of course, that’s exactly… and we each have, those of us … I mean, I’m in a rural place, so for me, it’s quiet and there’s a lot of solitude; you’re distant from other people here. And, and so, oh, it just spoke to me. That one really spoke to me.
Adrian: I mean, the other aspect, I think is we’re programmed, obviously, to think that the world revolves around us.
Adrian: If not us individually, then the human species. But we’re just one part of nature. And I think a lot of our missteps with nature have stemmed from the fact that we’ve forgotten that. We’ve forgotten that we are one animal on this planet. And this stillness, this now moment in the garden, I think gives us an opportunity to make that connection again.
And the point I make is, sadly, this virus is using our bodies as a way to propagate. And we’re so smart, and we know everything, but here we are. We’re all stuck at home because we don’t want to be preyed upon by this thing, which I think does actually bring home the fact that we are part of nature. And we can’t sort of think that we’re not, to our detriment if we do.
Margaret: I wanted to talk about what have you been gardening this year, what have sort of been your personal adventures? And I want to remind people, I mean, I’ll give links to all the columns I’ve been referring to so people can read them for themselves, and you also sometimes do chats, I think, for “The Washington Post.” You do live chats and so forth, so there’s lots for them to dig into.
But what have you been doing in your own gardening adventures? Because I assume you haven’t been going out to visit places as much.
Adrian: No, I haven’t really been visiting at all. From my work perspective, I’ve been doing everything basically on the phone. Thankfully, I’m able to do that. I think I have enough perspective and knowledge to be able to make that work. But from a personal standpoint, I do very much miss going to see gardens. And I have felt that loss.
I do have a fairly elaborate community garden that has kept me busy. This year, I’m doing something … I had a beautiful old rose bower on one fence. It’s fenced, this thing. And anyway, it was in decline and I finally took it down, but I wanted to sort of return some sense of screening. So this year, I picked a very tall dent corn, it grows to about 9 feet. And I planted a whole row, two rows of it against the side of the garden. My plan is to create this hedge of corn. We’ll see if that works. [Adrian’s photo of the corn getting established in his community garden plot, above.]
Margaret: I know people do that also with, I think, sorghum. Yeah? I mean, among the taller kind of grain-like crops. Yeah?
Adrian: Yeah. Sorghum doesn’t get as high.
Margaret: Not as high, yeah.
Adrian: But I’m counting on this corn getting, as they say in the song, as high as an elephant’s eye. So-
Margaret: I know.
Adrian: I’ll be hiding behind the corn. And I’m also planning to grow some beans up, one row of them. That’s the way the Native Americans did.
Margaret: Well, and you have your 12 pounds of seed potatoes in the ground. And so the beans will be good with that, I think. [Laughter.]
Adrian: Exactly. Yeah, I’ll be well plumped-up by September.
Margaret: [Laughter.] No ornamental endeavors this year? Mostly food? You’re a victory garden guy this year?
Adrian: Yeah. I’m also growing some tomatoes. I’ve actually cooled to tomatoes in recent years, because in the mid-Atlantic, the summer seemed to be getting hotter. And they actually don’t like it when it’s so hot, and just get sort of ragged and diseased, however careful you are with them. And I wouldn’t want to spray any. So I’ve sort of moved away from tomatoes in recent years.
Margaret: Well, Adrian Higgins, kindred spirit [laughter], I’m glad to always hear your voice, and read your voice. And so I appreciate what you’ve been writing about being out there on your phone on the beat this year, during this very strangest of springs. I’m really glad to have you on the program. And I hope we’ll talk again soon. Thank you.
Adrian: Yes. Thanks very much, Margaret. I really enjoyed it.
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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 June 22, 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).