Sunday Opinion: Little Miss Heartburn

I regularly read the garden blog Garden Rant (www.gardenrant.com); there is always something stewing, brewing, or cooking over there.  Their essays are very well-written,  passionately sincere, and more often than not, provocative. They even manage to make vegetable gardening sound fascinating-see what I mean? I am likely to read every word of their discussion of tomato varieties though hell would likely freeze over before I would grow any myself.  They shift from funny to genuinely outraged in a startling flash; have you noticed this?  One of my favorite posts?  Michele’s essay last July on invasive plants is really about something else altogether. Midway through she says, “If it’s invasive in your yard, get rid of it.  If it’s not invasive in mine, be quiet.” How well said is this? Though I don’t always agree with what I read-what does that matter?  Garden Rant is a first rate read.

This morning’s post- “Martha Stewart gets fact checked by hort professor”-by Susan Harris.   Having read the current issue of Martha Stewart Living, I could not agree more with Susan that Martha’s  case for the superiority of organically grown food has no basis in any decent science whatsoever.  I never gave Martha’s half-baked hoticultural blather another thought after reading it, nor would I take her to task over it-why would I?  She writes pop tunes, not symphonies.  She publishes a lifestyle magazine; she has not had scholarly works published in Scientific American. She parlayed her interest in cooking, gardening and graceful living into an empire of her own making, not undeserved. Make no mistake, I have the highest respect for her, and what she has accomplished.  She has made good design, good cooking, good crafting, good housekeeping – the proverbial good life –  accessible to many, many people-me included. She persuaded me to try to make a gingerbread house (I did a decent job) and a croquembouche.  I moved away from that house years later-that glittering spun sugar syrup still stuck tight to the kitchen ceiling.  But I would not know the words profiterole and croquembouche, but for her.  I learned how to fold towels from her;  my linen closet is a paean to serenity, not a mess that agitates me first thing in the morning.  I am a professional mess maker-I do not want that when I go home.  I grew my first Parma violets, dried my first hydrangeas, and made my first rose cuttings with instruction from her. I made my own invitations, picture frames, painted garden pots-all with encouragement from her. That Martha still talks me into trying things. When you say the name Martha, who doesn’t know the person under discussion?  You might be interested to know that my scientist Mom taught me none of the afore-mentioned skills.  Though my understanding of the science of nutrient absorption by plants is pretty darn good, I still couldn’t make a Pavlova if my life depended on it-unless Martha had coached me.  If you think one kind of knowledge is superior to another-you got me there.  In my opinion, I like a balance.  Though the dirt under my nails is permanent, one never knows when a manicure might appeal to me.  Better yet, I would have no problem going ahead.  Martha is first rate at encouraging people to go ahead, and try. 

No doubt she is a lightening rod for all of us who take our passions seriously, and abhor a quick fix, a sloppy premise, a mispelled word, or an idea too glossy to believe.  I choose to believe this comes from our expectation that she be be perfect, and our disappointment when she is not-not from any failing on her part.  I could make a long list of all the things Martha Stewart is not-besides not being a horticulturalist.  Somehow this does not seem useful.  When she is talking from who she is, I listen in. When she is talking pop trash, I tune out.  This is my choice, and it probably is my responsibility.  I do not think Martha is guilty of faulty thinking, nor do I she should watch out for any impending scientific gaffe. The magazine is named Martha Stewart Living-not Martha Stewart Eminent Scientist. I need to be thoughtful about where I go for information.  Everything in print does not imply the truth-people know this.  If I want information backed up by scientific research on the merits and pitfalls of growing or eating organically, I would read Dr. Chalker Scott-as would any number of thousands of intelligent gardeners all over this country.  I give people credit for being able to sort out the kernel from the chaff. Gardeners are by and large a rough and ready lot; they rarely need protection.

The most compelling reason I have to let Martha’s voodoo horticulture slide is Lewis Thomas.  I have read his books of essays over and over again. I would encourage any gardener to read him-he is better than the best steak you ever ate. He makes the point that the sum total of all of our scientific knowledge has yet to enable us to define or fully explain the miracle that is life; he doubts there ever will be perfect knowledge. I see evidence of this every day.  Three weeks ago I bought four pointsettias. Tented in kraft paper sleeves, I rushed them out of the nursery to my car-everyone knows pointsettias despise cold temperatures. In anticipation of holiday company, I planted two of them in pots on my unheated front porch-a room 5 x 11 feet.  The entire front wall is glass; the pots are inches from that glass.  I felt so guilty sentencing them to an early death with my thoughtless treatment-but they looked so great through the windows. OK, I used two pointsettias as party props. As our temperatures are in the low twenties now, I expected to have to pitch them within 2 days.Three weeks later, I cannot tell the difference between these points, and the ones in my 70 degree house. They look perfectly happy.  I am perfectly surprised.

My take is that very little of the science is finished.  You may fact check someone-but what are you fact checking them against?  I give my clients advice all the time about how to garden; how I garden is based on my 25 years experience and knowledge I have otherwise acquired or choose to believe. If I am speaking to an experienced gardener, I tell them this is my way-which they may or may not wish to try.  If it is a new gardener, I tell them what to do; I think it is more important to help insure their early success, so they keep gardening, than to qualify what I say with disclaimers. I have had clients insist that I give them the botanical names of plants, even when I know they will not remember.  They are interested in believing in my expertise, not tripping me up. 

I have had many a moment when I have wanted to wallop someone up side their head with a blistering fact check.  Clients, suppliers, service people, friends, enemies-a recalcitrant plant.   I can rant with the best of them-the details of which are best left unknown.  When I get to going on too long, Buck knows how to turn the tide.  When he calls me Little Miss Heartburn, I cannot help but laugh. How lucky I am to have him.

As for you, Susan Harris, I hope I have not irritated you beyond all belief-this is just a little good natured back talk. I read everything you write-and better yet, I am provoked to think about it long and hard; the length of this essay, and the late publishing date on my Sunday opinion is data that should survive a fact check. Truly, many thanks for what you and yours contribute to my gardening life.

At A Glance: Home For The Holiday

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Happy Holidays

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I finished the last of my holiday work early this afternoon; my holiday is on its way.  Dressing up my own landscape and home for the holidays has gone on over a period of weeks-but it is all done now.  I have the tree up, the packages wrapped, the wreath done, and the outside lighted.  It’s Buck’s turn now-as the chef de cuisine. Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays to all of you…  

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…from all of us.

Snow Load

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 Fierce, even deadly winter weather both here and abroad has been the garden news this week.  I feel terrible for everyone whose efforts to travel at the holiday have landed them indefinitely in an airport lobby or train terminal.  We have only a light dusting of snow now, although the temperature at 6am today was 14 degrees. Very cold.  New Years day, 2008, was a different story.      

2008 store front 1-1-08 (21)I go to work on the holidays too, as MCat lives at the store. I need to make sure he is ok; he gets pets, and holiday treats-daily attention.  I have a greenhouse roof, modine heaters, and plants; any of the above could fail on any day-including a holiday.  I only live 1.5 miles from work-this makes a quick trip easy.  I figure I can handle any weather for that distance.  But for a storm some ten years ago which had me holed up at the shop for 2 days, I am free, and lucky to be able to get to work, and just appreciate my snow.

2008 store front 1-1-08 (3)Though I am a person delighted by color, in the past few years I have become interested in Belgian design. Rob has persistently bought Belgian garden ornament; the Belgian landscape reminds him of Michigan.  Long before Cote de Texas featured Belgian design (www.cotedetexas/belgian design) and Restoration Hardware got the notion to organize an entire collection with a Belgian flavor, he was out there, shopping in a country much like our midwest. Those interiors built around natural materials-the  raw wood floors, linen drapes, the whitewashed antiques-the unexpected crystal chandelier-I love this understated look. This particular New Years Day looked like a Belgian day to me. The white, chocolate, taupe and cream-  fresh, and not over wrought.  Just how Rob would have it.

2008 store front 1-1-08 (6)This heavy snow wiped out all the extraneous details.  This copper pergola only suggested that aged copper color. Brown,white, and taupe-a limited color palette. There is such great beauty from just a few quiet details. 

2008 store front 1-1-08 (4)The snow added volume to what was already massive, and form to what had only been slightly suggested.  The snow caught on the wall-an entire but silent discussion about surface. The irregular surface of the wall-I had never really seen this before.  The snow detailed this for me.

2008 store front 1-1-08 (5)The Belgian hazelwood fence panels-if you thought you could live without them, you might reconsider. Do they not look beautiful outlined in snow? The squared boxwood planted in natural concrete pots, the black iron benches, the trunks of the willows outlined in snow, the cream metal doors on the building beyond and next door-I am thinking this looks great.

2008 store front 1-1-08 (1)My old Scotch pines on standard, planted in these incredibly beautiful Belgian oak barrels, withstood the storm with equanimity.  The white, the chocolate, and the bright light-what a gorgeous view I had out my office window. The old fashioned clear white c9 lights in the window box-my garden’s chandelier.

2008 store front 1-1-08 (10)In truth, I could spend one year planning a single project-and it could never keep up with what nature whips up overnight.  My 2008 New Years day-extraordinary.  

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The lighting in these trees is anything but restrained.  But whether it be 5am, or 5pm, I can still see the garden.