Mary Starnes

Mary Starnes is a reader.  I know nothing of her, her life, or her garden. We have never met, nor have we corresponded.  But her comment on my blog yesterday (or was it the day before or last week?) struck a chord.  Facing flats of flowers on her drive, in blistering heat, she had the time to write to me.  I do not know how you do it, she said.  My first reaction-I am not sure I know how I do it either. With the first three weeks of June-the busiest and most intense weeks of my year-looming large on the horizon, I am under siege.  I am adamant about the design and installation being of quality.  This is in diametric opposition to the need for speed. Our annual planting season is short, and every client has a good reason why they would want their plantings done sooner, rather than later.  I wake up in the middle of the night with a discussion of this planting or that already underway.  I worry my way through the three weeks to come.  No kidding. 

Planting during annual season is loads of work.  Just making sure the proper plant material is on site for a job is a full time job some air traffic controller might want to take on, in the interest of some marginally less stress. Contact me, if this seems like a good idea-please.   I dream about that person coming into my life,-but in fact, I select all the material.  I travel, review, order, and arrange for.  I work 7 days a week most weeks of the year-but these particular seven days a week threatens to knock me to the ground. Designing, locating, and getting plant material delivered, instructing a crew on the installation-this seems to me the full time job of three people.      

No matter how carefully I plan, everything out of my control holds all the cards. Weather, plant availability, a crew person out due to a car accident, a client who changes their mind-the list of what I do not have control over is long and extensive.   Though it may appear that all goes smoothly for me, usually nothing goes as planned.  I can count on this.  Rough around the edges does not show particularly well in photographs-thank God. 

My clients-I cannot count on what they signed up for.  There are invariably extenuating circumstances. Being asked to shift gears midstream-this is my life. I can count on a big fluid situation.  I cannot count on what I contracted to have grown being ready and available-crop failures, mistaken sales to others, disease, too much heat, too much cold-this list of what is not ready and available to me is long. My job involves switching gears on a dime.  My job part two-I assess the big picture, and make a plan for what will work.  It is not my idea that a client needs to know about any problems.  They need to be pleased-satisfied. 

My crew superintendent forgets to charge his phone.  Construction traffic makes me 20 minutes late.  A crew person blacks out, and forgets to load a flat of pink polka dot plants. The heat soars to ninety for two weeks in late May.  The maintenance/watering issues for plants in four inch pots-huge right now. Much of what I had counted on has gone south.  Should this writing read to you as all over the map, I am  pleased.  My life in late spring as best I can represent it-as usual.

No pictures today-I would not dream of touching my camera given the dirt stuck to my hands.  Please just imagine; thanks.

A Perfect Moment

Janet has called twice in the past two days to invite me to come around for a look.  As she doesn’t invite unless there is something splendid to see, I stopped on my way home from work-around 6pm.  The skies had finally clouded over and looked stormy. Her courtyard-redolent with the fragrance of roses.  Thousands of roses.  Anyone who loves roses believes, works, and hopes for a moment like this.   

I spent perhaps a half hour there.  The first view as I drove in shocked me- it was so stunning. A mild winter, an unusually mild and rainy spring had given way to a relentless spell of hot weather.  Her early summer garden burst forth with a spectacular show of hands.  My second trip around the garden, I took the time to see everything.  The Canadian Explorer rose John Davis-perfection. Who knows how many years ago I planted this pair of roses.

There was plenty to see.  The white clematis Montana rambling over the wall and into the roses-splendid. The peonies, mostly singles and Japanese types, are in all stages of bud and bloom.

Every plant looked perfectly happy, and beautifully tended.  Janet puts an incredible amount of time,thought and work to her garden-that was evident everywhere I looked.   

This kousa dogwood has been in her garden as long as I have known her-25 years.  I have never seen it bloom like this.  I am especially fond of Kousas, as they comes into bloom slowly enough to give you time to enjoy all of its stages.   

Roses and clematis are a heavenly combination. I spent a half hour in heaven at the end of a grueling day-thanks a million, Janet. I did spend some of that time thinking about all the work that has gone on in this garden over the years-at one point (when I was young) every square inch of this garden was double dug and loaded with all manner of compost.

The explorer rose John Cabot was representing just as beautifully as John Davis.  These roses are tough and hardy in my zone.  They are also amazingly long lived.  I have planted a number of them over the years; those that were planted in front yard gardens I see they are still going strong. When I managed the perennial department for Al Goldner, he indulged my passion for roses.  In addition to the tea roses he was so fond of, we carried many varieties of shrub roses and rose species.  I have a memory of being pulled over at the US-Canadian border; I had been to Hortico, and had five hundred bareroot roses on my truck-and no phytosanitary certificate.  I never tried that again.   

This June flush is the best and the brightest we will have in a season.  That alone makes a strong and splendid display all the more precious. Of course I went home wanting to grow more roses.  The few I have are beautiful in their own right at the moment, and I am greatly enjoying them. 

These queen bees of the garden are worth the trouble, as when they are good, they are very very good.  They have a beauty and charm missing from the newer varieties of “landscape roses”-I cannot exactly explain why.  The knockout series of roses have their place-they are tough and disease resistant.  They lack a little of the romance I associate with roses.  I will plant them in places where no other rose will do-but what I saw here was everything I would ever want in a rose, and some years do not get.

Thanks for this, Janet.


The History Channel is just about the sum total of my willing experience with television.  Their series “Modern Marvels” covers everything from the history and production of chocolate, to catching and processing fish in the waters off Alaska, to the design and production of lenses for cameras.  It is my channel of choice.   I would go so far as to say the series I am watching now-“The History of Us”-about the history of the formation of this country-is so incredibly well done I barely blink my eyes for fear of missing something.  Given that this time of year I can barely stay awake for my dinner at eight, this is saying a lot. I am glued to the edge of my seat; last night I learned more about the American revolution in one hour than all the days I spent in history class spanning many years.  Riveting.  Whomever wrote, filmed, and produced this series has a compassionate eye, a ruthless genius for editing, and an incomparable eye for matching words with images.  Paul Revere-they made much of the man, running up to his midnight ride. The dumping of 1,000,000,000 dollars worth of tea into Boston Harbor-this program conveyed the enormity of this rebellion. The big idea here-I learned so much.  I learned more about what has been part of my history and experience for going on 60 years.  Learning can come anytime, yes?  I have a new notion about the formation of our country-via the history channel.   In my opinion, should you be able to set aside the worries and frustrations of the day, this series will make it easy for you to understand why our country is indisputably unique. A population that is astonishingly volatile, bright, verbal, energetic, unpredictable,-forward thinking.  There are so many stories-would that I could hear each and every one of them. 

 There are those who would perennially focus on what goes awry-this is easy to do.  Hindsight is dead to right, is it not?  To act with vision and courage-not so ordinary.  Those for whom criticism pays the mortgage, or drives the blood pressure up to dangerous heights-better you than me. Though I spent lots of time sorting out what is not working well,  I like to focus on what goes right, what is thoughtful, the satisfaction I see people get from making things grow.  No doubt I have had more than my share of challenges this spring.  A  new knee not  up to speed.  A landscape project I thought would be finished last fall is still going on-the building contractor whose supervision of his building project is hit and miss has forced me into a spring position I regret.  All the spring construction on the roads-my crew is spending better than three hours a day travelling-in lieu of getting the work done. It has been ninety degrees every day for a week. I have a lot of work ahead of me. Frustrating, but not earth shattering.

Would I have been an American at the time of the American Revolution, would I have stepped up to the plate?  Could I have been a committed member of the American Revolution?  This History Channel program made me ask this question of myself. No matter how difficult and stressful my issues are, pay no mind.  I plant flowers this time of year-this is not about freedom, and representation. It’s about flowers, trees, beauty, design-nothing more.  The revolution that formed this country was enormous.  Driving that revolution, a  belief that everyone is entitled to access to knowledge. The program made much of this. 

I teach, and coach. It is my instinct to do this-I was raised to believe that the transmission of knowledge was the most important requirement for a life properly lived.  I would explain anything about the plants, my process, my take on design.  I have been speaking to groups for the better part of 20 years, mostly at no charge.  I am able to teach, so I should.  Reaching is taking the time to articulate why and how I dod what I do.  I have certain obligations to the community, beyond paying taxes. Everyone does.  That is what community means.   Even those requests that have nothing to do with my business-fine.  I usually say yes.  Give and take-simple.

I insist that everyone who works for me do the same. My entire staff is willing and able to coach.  This is how I would have it.  Should you need help with plants, or a scheme for a pot-Christine or Rob are more than able to help.  Seeking to outfit a terrace with pots and furniture-Catherine or Rob.  Ask for them. Rob’s patience and persistence getting something to work is something of a legend.   We are a business that believes that everyone is entitled to knowledge.  We have some knowledge;  it is yours for the asking.  Should we not have something, we can tell you where else to try. My crews get more teaching from me than they would ask for.  This notwithstanding, they listen to me, and they act upon what I say.  They respect me.  We have had a very long, and good relationship.  My work-the success of it depends on the passing along of knowledge from one generation to the next, one group to the next-from us-to you.  

I write this blog, from the firm conviction that every person in my gardening group is entitled to the body of my knowledge.  Where there is no firm knowledge, I have my opinion.  Why would I not make the effort to pass along what I have learned, or believe to be true?  The first Americans believed that everyone, equally, were entitled to access to the existing body of knowledge-a new country was in the process of becoming.  Many may reject my ideas about how to plant this, or where to place that.  I have no problem with this. Look at the body of knowledge, and draft a point of view all your own.  I would encourage any gardener sizing up the merits of organic food, the vintage vegetable seed mania, the new perennial offerings, this design versus that-whatever is new to you, I would advise you to accept what you want, and leave the rest.  In question?  There are so many places to get information-no one lacks access to knowledge.  

I would explain as best I can, every move I make designing a landscape or garden. Am I worried I am giving away something precious to me?  Nonsense.  What crosses my mind belongs to me, and no one else. What gets shared is a good thing. That said, I am more likely to coach than not.

At A Glance: Warming Up The Water