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.

Sunday Opinion: Oxygen

I  go to work really early; I like uninterrupted time to wake up, have coffee, plan the day, and play ball with the dogs. I often use this time to write-especially the Sunday opinion essay.  Of late I have been taking photographs with the tripod-in the dark.  I am curious what I cannot see, that the unblinking eye of the camera will catch. This routinely unscheduled time alone is my oxygen; I need to breath it in, to live. Later Steve will be in; we will sort out the day.  Later yet, I will need to pull materials, sketch plans, talk on the phone, handle the unexpected. My rush hour starts around 7:30. Some days it persists longer than you would think.  I would bet most other people’s days are just about like mine-but for the oxygen.  What any given person needs to breathe in such that their blood circulates briskly-individual.

I have written and written again about how the gardening season goes on for me, long after the killing frost turns the landscape quiet.  How much of this is either self defense, or just talk-probably more than I think.  I do so miss the plants and the dirt. I miss cruising the garden, eating outdoors; I miss all of it, and I will go on missing it another three months anyway.  Yesterday morning I woke up needing a little of that kind of oxygen.  I waited around impatiently for the clock to read 8:45; I was walking in the door of Bordine’s Nursery at 9:05.  The quality of the oxygen is what hits you first.  The air is enriched with water, and smells like life. This sort of oxygen I need to live.  Even though they are at the end of their holiday season, there was plenty of living going on.

Dec 21 009

Having been a gardener a long time, I know what a well-grown plant looks like.  Every place I looked, gorgeous plants grown by Rick Brinks. The greenhouse was filled with all manner of plants in warm colors; the chartreuse benching made all the color look even better.  I found myself not one, but two flatbed shopping carts-and shop I did. The red and white pointsettias were luscious. As were the cyclamen.  I like the mini-cyclamens better than the standard size.  They seem more like a garden plant, than a hothouse version of a plant.  Both will bloom a long time over the winter. The leaves are as beautiful as the flowers-although flowers were really what I needed yesterday.  I bought amaryllis bulbs to pot up.  These papery brown bulbs are programmed to speedily launch their stout stalks topped with three or four giant flowers practically while you watch.  I found some tropical ferns and yellow variegated dracaenas-their shades of green were a sight for my sore eyes. 

Dec 21 011

Last night I was potting plants on the kitchen counter.  Buck was standing right next to me, armed with the roaring hose of the shop vac. The dirt crumbs and wet blobs and other detritus didn’t stand a chance.  I was in my own kitchen, watching a live time episode of  ”Cooking with Miss Dirtiness”.  It was pretty funny.  Yesterday-all I did all day was breathe.

Sunday Opinion: Holiday Spirit

I do believe that gardening is a beneficial activity; I highly recommend it.  The walking, weeding, bending, hauling and digging it requires can provide all the exercise you need, and then some.  While weeding, I can hear the birds, feel the sun on my neck , taste my own sweat and put my hands in the dirt; my senses get their exercise too. I am entertained watching the corgi races while I prune. There is the element of satisfaction that comes with making physical progress on a project.    Riding a stationary bike or lifting barbells has no appeal to me whatsoever.  What’s to see?  I am sure there are circumstance under which I would run, but none of them are pleasant.  Gardening is hard work, but you get more back than an admirable physique-just my opinion. 

Exposure to nature teaches a thing or two. There are no end of events in my garden that make clear I am neither the president nor chairman of the board of said enterprise-nor will I ever be up for either position.  This is a grown up experience-realizing you are not in charge, nor are you the center of anything.  I am the sole depositor to the garden bank account.  As nature doesn’t fix what she wrecks, you learn what stewardship is all about.  I’ve not met the gardener that does not respect the sanctity of life.  I’ve heard tell of toad families rescued from window wells,  goslings trapped in the swimming pool netted out to safety-in spite of the flapping fury of the goose Mom. My gardening clients talk to and play with my dogs when they are here, and I know the names of their dogs.  No one bothers the insects in my garden-although I do throw my Japanese beetles in the trash.  The arborvitae hedge that will take three years to recover from ice damage taught me more than I ever wanted to know about patience.  Maintaining a garden is a daily lesson in what is meant by committment.  Learning to garden is a process with no end and no diploma; the only person likely to be clapping and dancing about your hellebores would be you.  Anyone who has trouble identifying what constitutes a reality check would be set straight with a little gardening. 

The gardeners I know by and large have good manners.  They don’t mow on Saturday morning at 8am-only non-gardening people do that.  They don’t keep boats, bikes and trash cans within view of neighboring gardens. They clean up after their dogs and kids.  They do not burn garbage in their fireplaces. What the world sees of them is neat and orderly. The neighbor behind me-I have spent untold amounts in trees and fencing, the sole purpose of which is to obliterate my view of his 2007 and 2008 Christmas tree skeletons, his decaying canoe, his broken pots, dead bushes, and unmowed grass.  He is most definitely not a gardener, nor is he a serviceable housekeeper. Gardeners are happy to share their gardens.  This extends to offering cuttings or a start, or some useful advice.  I see this willingness to share evident no matter the size, circumstance or scope of their garden. 

Gardeners do seem to have values.  Only once in fourteen years have I have something stolen from the store-an old and spectacularly beautiful lavender topiary.  What made me so mad about it was knowing the person who stole it could not have been a gardener; I am sure it was dead within a month. I do not guarantee any plant sold at my shop.  I would not want to suggest to anyone that I have control over what they do not do, or do too much of.  Gardeners know that ignorance of the horticulture is no excuse. They do not demand restitution-they own their own trouble.  They are an honest lot; a nickel in the driveway gets taken to the counter. They don’t envy the gardens of others-they appreciate them.  I can be thoughtless and act poorly the same as the next person-but my garden reminds me that the heat of the moment pales in comparison with the big picture.

I like the holidays for these same reasons.  They bring out the best in people.  The holidays remind us that if we are able, we should help others in whatever way we can.  This may be volunteering, or contributing or instructing-something my garden does routinely for me.  Decorating for the holidays makes people feel good and act better.  I have seen lots of smiles, and been treated to an equally large number of “happy holidays” and “Merry Christmas” greetings.  Rob, whose optimism, patience and good manners rarely desert him, helps people plan to decorate, or entertain in a garden-like fashion. It’s nice to see adult faces lighting up once a sense of holiday spirit takes hold; I see him make this happen all the time. Last year an outspoken client came to the register with a wreath she wanted-in the next breath she is telling me her work hours had been cut and changed, and she really had no business buying it .  I told her I would take whatever she had in her wallet in settlement of the debt.  I took her twelve dollars, and she left smiling.  Two days later she was back-a platter heaping with her homemade baklava in tow. Good spirit-there’s nothing quite like it.     

 I have never seen so many gardens lit for the season as I have this year. Some are beautiful, some are dramatic-some are out there-but what they share in common is the gesture of light against the dark. I can attribute some of this to our warm November weather; Janet thinks the reason has to do with an instinct and the good will to provide light in a dark time.  A spirited gesture. I think she may be right.

Sunday Opinion: The Search For Solutions

For the better part of a year I have been searching my memory for the title of a book my scientist Mom gave to me when I was in my thirties.  Why is this forgotten book on my mind?  I am an old and fairly good gardener; I barely blink over new plant introductions, gardening trends, or horticulture portayed as fashion. I like to wait and see what shakes out once new things are exposed to the force of nature. However, the global controversy over “climate change” has gotten my attention.   I wrote a Sunday opinion essay late this past July entitled “Righteous Food”.  Though no scientific evidence exists to suggest eating organically grown food makes people measureably healthier, organic food is fashionable food.  I have no real objection to this; people are entitled to think and live how they choose.  I only object to a point of view that passes over the achievements of American farmers who feed the many, at reasonable prices. Equally impressive is how lots of that food gets quickly distributed; good food is first and foremost fresh food. At my local farmers market on any given Saturday morning, 150 vendors with small farms bring their produce to market in 150 individual trucks-many coming from great distances. I have no idea how many people purchase food here on a given day, and how much gets trucked home unsold. What would the data suggest? It is one thing to detail the advantages of buying locally grown food-it is quite another to conclude this way of growing and distributing fresh food makes for a better planet. 

I finally did remember the name of the book.  ”The Seach for Solutions” was written by Horace Freeland Judson, and published in 1980.  The book is about how the human mind organizes to solve problems via a discussion of some of the most important scientific discoveries of the past 400 years (This I have paraphrased from the dust jacket).  What I remember vividly from the book had everything to do with what my Mom wanted me to remember.  In the foreward, Lewis Thomas states that “the most wrenching of all the transformations that science has imposed on human consciousness…(is that) we have learned that we really do not understand nature at all, and the more information we receive, the more strange and mystifying is the picture before us…Science is itself a kind of reassurance that we have the capacity to mature.”.  And finally, “Science then is a model system for collective human behavior, and has value because of this for all of us…”  In reading Judson’s description and analysis of the process of scientific discovery,  I learned that a hypothesis needs to be subjected to rigorous testing via experiments designed to account for all the variables.  The data collected has to independently and clearly support the idea. Scientists make models from the theories the information supports. Proven theories might be useful in predicting the future.  I recently read somewhere (I cannot remember where-sorry) that the accuracy of our collective models dealing with whether our climate is changing , the source of that change, and any resultant predictions about the future of our planet have little scientific impact.  The big impact of all this research is economic.  Should we as a planet invest untold trillions of dollars and unprecedented internationally cooperative efforts to mitigate the harm humans do to the environment, the science suggesting such an effort be made needs to be compellingly solid.  Any statement that the planet is on track to self distruct as a result of human activity that could be changed-the good science that needs to come ahead of such a claim is staggering.

Whatever opinions I might have about climate change are irrelevant.  Though I have as much access to the opinions of others as anyone else, I am skeptical that what information we do have points in any definitive direction.  Understanding the climate of a planet which existed billions of years before any technology existed to measure it suggests to me that current climate models might wait many lifetimes before the data could be collected to prove or disprove any theory. I like to think that as a gardener, my committment to making things grow also implies my good stewardship of my environment.  I would go on to say that all my years of gardening has only pointed me towards an apppreciation of the miracle of nature-and not so much to an understanding of nature that would allow me to draw conclusions.  I have always been interested in the fact that in all my years of gardening I have seen many methods of growing roses that work admirably, and no overall model which successfully accounts for this, and goes on to definitively suggest guidelines to which gardeners planet wide should subscribe.   A theory of climate change seems astronomically more complicated than this, and surely the purvue of formidably educated and stubbornly passionate scientists. Judson interviewed the experimental siesmologist Karen McNally, and I quote: “Predicting an earthquake in somebody else’s country…is something you do with great trepidation.” . 

I see lots of climactic conclusions lacking trepidation.  I do not find this particularly discouraging-after all we are all people first-whether we engage in science or horticulture, journalism, art or politics.  All of our pursuits are sociably noisy and equally imperfect-this goes without saying.  However I do find the distruction of original climate data collected by the Climate Research Unit in Britain disturbing.  I learned about the value and the necessity of primary source material in 10th grade.  So how is it that an internationally funded and respected climate study agency chose to destroy original data in favor of their “adjusted” data? What other scientist could take their data, repeat their experiments, and corroborate their findings? The only opinion I would stand behind-we all need to keep digging.