Thursday, December 9, 2010

What if John Grisham were a garden writer?

I just finished one of John Grisham's legal thrillers, The Appeal. Gripping, and a change from my steady diet of garden literature.

I wondered why Grisham so often called his novels "The noun" (The Firm, The Client, The Chamber) -- and I also wondered, would he ever set one of his books in the world of horticulture?

If he did, it might sound something like this:

The Greenhouse

Chapter 16

Sam ran down the dirt road, finding his way by the light of the half moon, clutching the seed tray to his chest. The sprouts were all that remained of his years of botanical research on corn.

Was it only two months since George Luger had first visited Sam's University of Mississippi greenhouse lab?

As his feet thudded along the packed dirt, Sam's thoughts went back to the day when he accepted the research grant Luger offered.

What he had not realized until this evening was that Luger was the central actor in a corporate conspiracy that reached from Wall Street to the corn fields of the Midwest. A conspiracy that sought to destroy the hybrid corn Sam had developed.

The sprouts Sam carried were the last survivors of his hybrid corn -- corn that could grow easily without pesticides. This robust hybrid would dramatically increase corn crops all over the world, alleviating mass hunger.

And the pesticide companies wanted his hybrid wiped off the map.

Sam ran on, hoping he was heading for the highway, where he would hitchike into Jackson and find the one man who could help him. He knew the senior Senator from Mississippi, Taylor Thomas, was in Jackson tonight, and as head of the Senate Agriculture Committee he had the power to crush the pesticide companies.

Suddenly Sam was blinded by headlights.

Stop, Sam, boomed a man's voice, Come over here and get in the car.

Sam ran into a ditch at the side of the road, trying to see past the lights and find out who was talking.

Sam, said the voice again, It's Senator Thomas. I've been looking for you. We have to get into town fast.

Sam walked slowly to the car, peering into the darkness.

Hurry Sam, we don't have much time.

As Sam reached the car someone pulled the seed tray away from him. Sam tried to hold on and several seed plugs came away in his hands. Then he felt a sudden pain in the back of his head, and as he fell to the ground he heard the car drive off.


And so, dear reader, what is your Grishamesque conclusion to this story?

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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Adventures in canning: Plum jam and pink grape juice

Yellow plum, blue plum, zinfandel jam...

A guest post from award-winning poet, essayist, and radio presenter, Molly Fisk. Molly gardens in Nevada City, California. Her beguiling radio essays are broadcast on KVMR-FM and collected on two CDs, Using Your Turn Signal Promotes World Peace and Blow-Drying a Chicken. Read her new poetry collection, The More Difficult Beauty, and see Molly on her West Coast book tour.

For the seventh year in a row, I did not enter my plum jam in the County Fair. I watched the deadline approach and then waved when it went past.

Partly this comes from being caught up in the usual hustle and bustle — who has time to fill out one more form? And partly it’s because not much was ready to pick in early August, when the Fair entries are due.

Everything ripened late this year because of a cold wet May, and now, of course, it seems to all be happening at once. There are still peaches in the farmer's markets, next to the pumpkins, and strawberries, of all things — even a few plums are still on the trees. A friend of mine who runs a restaurant went picking at a secret location with some of her staff and brought me back her overflow of an amazing pink seedless grape, to the tune of twenty pounds or so.

My kitchen, which was spotless for two days due to my procrastinating about something else, is now full of big plastic storage containers of grapes, colanders separating pulp from juice, the Cuisinart with which I pulverized the plum skins to an edible size, water baths on the stove boiling jars and lids, and some open bottles of zinfandel, which I add to everything.

My four now-teenaged kittens have learned to play soccer with strawberries bobbing in the sink as well as grapes that have leapt onto the floor, and there are sticky pawprints on every conceivable surface.

I can't tell you how happy this makes me.

One of the things I miss from my upbringing is the chaos we could get up to in my parent's kitchen cooking together. My friend Peggy and I would pick blackberries all over town and then make jam and pies, or we'd go after plums in our and our neighbors' yards and my mother would make Chinese plum sauce.

Just the idea of people doing huge messy kitchen projects that will result in something, whether it's temporary, like dinner, or lasting, like 30 jars of jam to give away for Xmas, makes me feel as though everything's right with the world.

Everything, of course, isn't really right with the world.

What might become of us is up in the air and I think that understanding permeates almost everyones' thoughts in some way, together with confusion about what to do about it.

A friend just wrote a poem about the BP Oil Spill and included a line referencing the day it started, April 10, 2010: “If it was the end of the world as we knew it, we didn't know it.” Maybe the end of the world has already started. I, for one, can't tell. And maybe my jam-making frenzy is a futile effort to try to be safe when there's no way to be safe. I might put up enough jam this week for two years worth of peanut butter sandwiches, but knowing how to preserve fruit isn't going to do me any good when we're out of water, much less jars, lids, sugar and Sure-Jell.

What's going to do me the most good regarding an uncertain future is curiosity, love of living, and a respect for my own capacity to change. Which is why I'm boiling an insane number of grapes on the stove this morning.

I've never made grape juice before. Have you?

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Autumnal Equinox 2010

The Harvest Moon, c. 1914
Sir Ernest Albert Waterlow (1850-1919)*

This year in North America the first full day of the Autumnal Equinox coincides with the Full Moon. September's Full Moon is traditionally called the Harvest Moon. Sending hope that it shines on a fruitful time for you and yours.

*Sir Waterlow was an English landscape painter and academician at the Royal Academy. He worked in oil and was also President of the Royal Society of Water-Colour Artists.

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sigmund Freud asked, "What do garden writers want?"

Sigmund Freud in the garden, with his daughter Anna.

Or am I getting my quotations mixed up? That's the hot topic tossed out by the new group, Garden Writers Today.

Dr. Freud had clients lie on a couch and free asssociate. As a garden writer I'll lie on a hammock and go through the same mental process.

Readers who want to charge $150 an hour to analyze my responses had better stop here.

I want more of the same great support that I'm getting from my online and local community of garden writers:
  • Debra Lee Baldwin sent me the rule for when to capitalize and italicize the name of a genus. I printed that out and taped it to the wall in my office. I know--I'm supposed to have it pinned with an adorable trowel tack to a charming cork board. Feel free to send either one.
  • Writers who shall remain anonymous have shared information on current rates for writing gigs.
  • Dee Nash took a dazzling photo of Chionodoxa forbesii 'Pink Giant' and let me use it as the illustration for a newspaper story.
  • Rebecca Sweet threw a party for garden bloggers and tweeters who were going to the 2010 San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, and Laura Livengood Schaub made sure we had an "alternative media" press room at the Show.
  • Retired Sacramento Bee garden writer Dick Tracy is my neighbor in Nevada County. He reached out as an encouraging mentor and introduced me to his circle of friends.
Let's keep the camaraderie and information flowing!

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Invasive plants on the lam

Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) is a Class B Noxious Weed in the State of Washington.
Notify the authorities if it approaches your garden.

I read up on invasive plants last week and enjoyed the lively descriptions of their behavior. My favorite--"escaping from cultivation."

Don't you love the prison-break-movie sound of that? Some invasives even have prison-style nicknames: Albizia julibrissin goes by "Silk Tree", Pueraria labata "Kudzu", and Perilla frutescens is leader of the chain gang as "Beefsteak".

These invasives deserve their own film about breaking out of a perennial border. Here's a preview of some plant-action-movie sequences:

Plants gathering at night under outdoor lighting to draw diagrams of the garden (with plant marker pencils filched from the potting bench).

Buddleias filing down metal tools when the gardener isn't looking. (That's what happened to your missing trowels).

Invasives coordinating their wristwatches.

Digging tunnels.

And then running wildly across the open land outside the garden fence.

The most exciting horticultural film since Avatar, coming to you in 2011 from Fox Searchlight. Title TBA but may be Cool Hand Loosestrife. Your suggestions?

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Garden boots of the rich (?) and famous

So, you've been gardening for a while. You've got your favorite shovel, found a dandy garden center, and settled the glove-or-not-to glove issue.

Had it with your soggy sneakers?

Time to get some real garden shoes.

Here's the scoop from garden writers who are famous for their garden boots.

Their signature footwear.

As the saying goes, by their boots ye shall know them.

*First up is Billy Goodnick, landscape architect, contributor to Fine Gardening magazine, author of the Garden Wise Guy blog, and former landscape architect for the City of Santa Barbara.

"Since I left the 8-5 sludge behind a year ago, I pretty much live in my Crocs. They really CAN go anywhere: Got the solid black for state dinners, khaki when I disappear from the paparazzi, 6” heel-snake-print-platform-sandal-Jimmy-Choo knock-offs for garden openings, and my steel-toed orange Doc Martins for manly activities. My shoes love me as much as I love them. Look how they flock around when daddy comes home!"

*Angela Davis has flowers, vegetables and Silkie chickens in her garden near Seattle. She's so obsessed with garden footwear that she named her blog Gardening in My Rubber Boots. Angela likes classic Wellington boots (a.k.a. Wellies) and her favorites are the Hunter brand worn by Queen Elizabeth.

"I have two pairs of black rubber boots. I wear my Hunter boots to plant sales, garden shows, Little League games, the grocery store, etc. Then I have my "stunt double" basic black rubber boots that get all the hard jobs around the house. When my Hunters are no longer new, I'm sure I'll start using them for the harder jobs too.”

*Shawna Coronado is all about getting green and getting happy. Author of the hit book Gardening Nude, she's everywhere, communicating her message of how to heal yourself and heal the world. Find out more about this dynamo at her site The Casual Gardener.

“Due to a tight budget, I was unable to buy garden boots. I used my old tennis shoes when working in the mucky areas of my gardens and promised myself if I ever saw a pair of taller boots that were priced right I would get them. Happily, I found a pair for under $25 this season at Target and they look great. Turns out they are a stylish and inexpensive solution to keeping your ankles and pants clean when gardening and I love them with a passion!”

*Dianne Benson is the style maven of the gardening world. A former fashion designer and retailer, she famously turned to gardening and wrote the classic book Dirt: The Lowdown on Growing a Garden with Style. Dianne has created stunning gardens in the Hamptons and recently opened an online store offering her top picks of garden tools and accessories. Find them all at The Best@DianneB. and read her blog Dirtier. She's wearing some boots from her shop:

“These boots are as good in town as they are in the garden...they are not heavy...they are not ugly and they have that fabulous see-through heel that is not too flat. I, personally, cannot make mad dashes around the garden in Wellies -- they make me trip over my own feet."

"A tasty and young garden writer from The Wall Street Journal, Anne Marie Chaker, recently introduced me to the Chasseur boot from Le Chameau -- they are as sturdy as but much sleeker than could be because they're French or it could be because they're $400...either way they are very chic in a more rugged way; but still not as quirky as the Panther Boots from Dianne B. via Sarazienne in France.”

A close-up of those Dianne B. boots:

Which brings us to our First Gardener. Hmm. Those Converse sneakers are not good for more than one hour in the garden.

Ma'am, with the greatest respect--don't you think, as a role model for gardeners all over the world, you need to kick it up a notch in the footwear department?

Lots of great choices for you here. I look forward to seeing some serious garden boots in the White House garden soon!

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

The future of upside-down gardening

Topsy Turvy in action. Photo: Topsy Turvy.

As The New York Times points out, the Topsy Turvy tomato planter is a hot ticket in the big-box stores. Thousands of American houses will be festooned with dirt-filled plastic cylinders and dangling tomatoes this summer.

Tomatoes are the number one crop in U.S. gardens, and more power to anyone who makes them easier to grow.

But as I always say, "The best way to earn money in the garden is to invent a gadget for growing tomatoes."

I'm not convinced by this upside-downing yet. For one thing, that fast-draining soil would need to be watered twice a day in my hot climate.

The upside-down gardening fans are full of zeal. What if they decide other plants could benefit from this growing technique? I fear for American gardens.

Come spring we could see:

And who knows if dedicated fans will seek their own health benefits with:

How about you? Will your tomatoes be doing a headstand this summer?

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Episode 2: Love blooms in Asheville, North Carolina

One of many fine 1920s buildings in downtown Asheville;
note the green tile roof.

Last time on Love Blooms in Asheville we eavesdropped on the love-struck gardeners, George and Alice, who had just met and were discovering all they had in common. Let's catch up on their conversation that afternoon in a downtown Asheville bistro:

And George, I grow a lot of shade plants--

I do too, Alice!

Especially rhododendrons.

Native rhododendrons?

Oh, all kinds. You know George, there are so many pretty hybrids and I--

This won't work Alice.

What?! What do you mean?

I can't possibly have a relationship with someone who grows non-native plants.

George rises abruptly, knocking over his glass of organic red wine.

Alice gasps as the wine splashes on her white Patagonia Synchilla fleece vest.

Oh no!

Alice, what have I done?

Never mind George. Just go.

Alice, are you crying?

Well George, you didn't let me finish my sentence. I was about to tell you--the rhododendron hybrids were already in the garden when I bought the house. But that probably doesn't matter to you. You probably think I should have dug them all up. Now please, leave me alone.

George sits down.

Alice, I'm sorry. I was just so surprised. It seemed like we were on the same wavelength in every way, and then, when you said you grew hybrids--well, it made me wonder if I really knew you.

But George, we've only been talking for an hour. You said you thought I was your soul mate but you don't know me yet. You probably don't even know that you ruined my vest.

Alice, give me a little credit. I understand about red wine stains. And I even know your vest is made from recycled plastic bottles. It's one of the things that drew me to you.


Yes. I thought, "There's a woman who cares about the environment." Won't you give me another chance Alice? At least let me buy you a new vest?

Oh, you don't have to do that.

Well, could I buy you a plant then?

Oh George, you're sweet. You know, I actually do need some organic vegetable starts for the sunny spot in my garden. You could get me some of those?

Sounds good. Let me take you to my favorite nursery.

They stand and walk to the door.

This will be fun, George. I wonder if we have the same favorite nursery? I'm really looking forward to growing my own vegetables in the front yard this year.

Vegetables in the FRONT yard, Alice?

They stop and stare at each other. Alice sighs.

George, haven't you heard of edible landscaping?

Well, no.

Did your mother tell you it was tacky to grow vegetables in the front yard?

Well, yes.

Alice heads out the door.

Come on, George. Before your nursery, let's go around the corner to Malaprop's. I want to show you some books by Rosalind Creasy....

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In the zone

USDA Hardiness Zone Map

The U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] is about to release a new version of the
weather map that divides the country into climate zones.

Just as a pick-up artist identifies himself, I'm an Aries, a gardener shares the salient information, I'm Zone 7b.

At least I do--don't you?

Are we in for a mass identity crisis? In an interview with the USDA, blogger Graham Rice was told the zones would not be changed but instead shown in more detail.

That's as may be. The USDA is, after all, a federal agency, and political pressure could be brought to bear on its good workers.

The temptations are great. Think of the massive population shift if Michigan were suddenly reclassified as warm Zone 9. Droves of naive gardeners yearning to grow tender plants could be fooled into buying Detroit real estate.

What if a Senator wanted to contradict global warming theory by giving his state a colder zone number?

Perhaps it's time to take this zoning power out of the hands of the federal government and give it to an expert, apolitical body.

Yes, I mean the garden editors at Sunset in Menlo Park, California. They developed their own Western states zones with detailed gradations, and expanded that system to cover the whole country.

I'd be fine with introducing myself as Sunset Zone 7.

The Sunset staff would have to watch their backs though. Lobbyists would be lurking in the Sunset test garden, leaping out from behind buddleias to harass editors.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Narcissus 'Misty Glen' takes home the Wister Award

Narcissus 'Misty Glen'
Photo courtesy of DaffSeek and Colorblends Flowerbulbs.

The what award?

We all watched the Academy Awards two weeks ago. The Wister Award is the daffodil version of the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. Misty Glen is pictured above--she's wearing white, which was not as big as silver on the red carpet this year, but elegant nevertheless. Misty Glen is still clutching her Wister, presented to her last weekend by the American Daffodil Society at their National Convention.

To earn this honor Misty Glen was required to be a "good grower" with a "floriferous habit", "showy at a distance" and "resistant to basal rot".

In her acceptance speech she thanked her parents, Easter Moon and Pigeon; her hybridizer, Frederick Board; the bulb sellers who promoted her in the horticultural community; and the many home gardeners who gave her the opportunity to perform in their front yards.

I'm going to offer her a starring role in my garden next year. If you live in USDA Zones 4-8 you could do the same. Industry sources say she's not a prima donna.

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