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Garden discourse high and low

Vf

“We have come to see ourselves as being outside of nature,” says Prince Charles in this month’s Vanity Fair, and although I’m not a huge fan of his RH, I see plenty of signs of the alienation to which he refers. Not just when it comes to global warming, either, which is the context of this particular interview. I don’t have to peruse the glamorous pages of VF to find fear, confusion, ignorance, distaste, even hatred when it comes to the relationship between humans and growing things—often when many of these humans consider themselves gardeners.

If you really want to explore the last bastions of bad garden talk, you have to check out call-in radio shows. We have a couple of them in Western New York. Both hosts are fairly knowledgeable and have good credentials, but their advice can only be as interesting and/or useful as the questions they get. After listening to their shows over a few weekends, I can see where it might be possible for a veteran host of such a program to become utterly jaded. (Many of you may have local radio gardening shows—do you listen?)

On the Saturday show, most callers were adamant that they needed to dig up their tulips immediately after blooming and store them in the basement. One listener was told that her jasmine was an obscure plant and that she would never be able to get rid of the scales infesting it. Listening to the Sunday show, I heard one caller explaining that she had a dead—or at least she was almost sure it was dead—hydrangea plant that she wanted to give to her friend. I’m not sure what advice she thought would help with this.

Finally, at a live appearance at a bookstore I happened to catch, the Saturday host was answering the questions of people who felt they should cut back their ferns to the ground so the plants could survive a summer under a damaged shade canopy, or who wondered whether spraying mouthwash would get rid of aphids.

The sad part of all this is that these people are the ones who actually care enough to tune into a gardening show or attend a live event. These are the gardeners.

For many people attempting to deal with their exterior surroundings, there is a big disconnect. Their yard is something that is happening to them. The domestic landscape is not so much a friend as a really messy, obnoxious roommate you can’t kick out, so you just have to live with it and try to impose some modicum of control. (No wonder many who can afford it are simply paving everything over, roofing it, and turning the yard into an extension of the house.)

This is one of the functions of Garden Walk; we’re trying to demonstrate how enjoyable gardening can be, even in tiny urban yards. Most of us aren’t going to win any prizes; like the Rant manifesto above says, we’re gardening our asses off and having fun doing it. I guess we’re hoping our visitors during the Walk will too, but now that I’ve been listening to these shows, I wonder how many others are sitting home nursing grudges against dead plants.

How to bridge the gap, bring nature (and by implication) gardening closer? On both the micro (domestic gardening) and macro (fighting environmental catastrophe) levels, humans will need to feel a bit friendlier toward embryophytes. Sit down with them, spend some time, have a drink—maybe not kill them and then give them away to friends …

I have not yet read the VF green issue, but the table of contents looks interesting, perhaps worth the purchase of a mag I seldom peruse.

Posted by on April 18, 2007 at 4:47 am, in the category GardenRant Airwaves.
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30 Responses to “Garden discourse high and low”

  1. MJ Jean says:

    Try making your living by selling plants to people with questions like these. Their biggest concern is if the foliage on a particular plant will match the color of their front door. No concern for soil, no awareness at all about the amount of sunlight that reaches that space. In the current issue of American Nurseryman, there is a write up on a report about how targetingthe younger crowd is the key to the industry’s future. According to the survey one of the fist things a garden center can do is to “de-emphasizing gardening, which implies work and hobbist activities, and emphasizing exterior home improvement, home decor, landscaping, and outdoor living” Somewhere in the article it says I’m supposed to also provide excellent customer service. I think that means I should tell the customer that the dogwood with creamy vareigated leaves that their heart is set on may not be the best choice for the front steps of the blazing hot, treeless new subdivision they moved into. Did I mention heavy clay soil? Oh well, the answer I give them just went in one ear and out the other, they probably will go buy one at a big box store were they can afford to offer an idiot proof 2 year warranty.
    Jaded? You bet.

  2. I don’t have to peruse the glamorous pages of VF to find fear, confusion, ignorance, distaste, even hatred when it comes to the relationship between humans and growing things

    I don’t doubt that you know of what you speak… and are correct. But I want to say the opposite. If I can get someone talking about plants, INVARIABLY I see excitement and passion about the members of the Kingdom Plantae all around us.

    It is teasing spring here and I’ve been having seeds and pots and garden books and such shipped in TO MY OFFICE. I open the the boxes and leave the contents on my desk… a stack/deck of seed envelopes, a book on Tulips, any of Amy’s books, a column/stack of 3″ pots.

    You are correct. The first reaction (there is ALWAYS a reaction) is “so… you are into plants and gardening huh.” Fear, confusion, ignorance, distaste. Its all there. (And it just so happens that if anyone were in my office, they probably wouldn’t dare criticize – though they are welcome to do so.)

    But then, I start talking about ALL KINDS of plants, trying to find out which one’s touch them… because there is always SOMETHING. Do you know what a Delphinium is? Lilac? Geranium? (I don’t say Pelargonium in this context.) Tulip? Hydrangea? Tomato? Asparagus? Broccoli?

    Eventually I see a spark and follow it. I might hear: “Oh… yeah… well I like my Tomatoes (or grass or whatever).” And then INVARIABLY we talk about the joys of the dirt… but just withing THEIR context. And these people KNOW THINGS! They are passionate. I’ve bought and given away more copies of the little Tulipomania book in the last month. Every day someone comes up to me and tells me some tidbit from that book. “Thank’s Hank.” Tulips.

    My point is: you are almost certainly correct E. L., I’ve found that many people don’t connect growing ANYTHING with growing specific things. I don’t honestly care what’s on my bench, so long as something is. I know. Crazy. I’ll try to grow ANYTHING (I wish I could ACTUALLY do it). And I wish I had a sense of “design” like you all seem to have. Scale? Texture? Proportion? Color? I want to grow everything. (I put heirloom white corn in a peony bed last year… not so good… the corn created shade… massive shade… and brought pests.)

    I know – KNOW – that people get excited about specific things. Maybe “gardeners” are people who get excited about very general things too?

    I suppose one of our missions is to talk about it with non-gardeners… help them find that thing which excites them. If they want to grow tomatoes, get ‘em some seeds… and a little pot… a some good dirt. (I understand drug pushers give the first few fixes away too… to set the addiction.) Soon, they’ll be growing things and expanding their horizons.

    Whatdya think? Do I have rose colored glasses?

  3. -Their biggest concern is if the foliage on a particular plant will match the color of their front door.-

    If that’s the case, put together a long table of plants with different hues of foliage and then get some color cards of different color front doors.

    “SURE… the one will great with your door… but here’s what you have to do…”

    All of everyone’s money is tied up in their houses today. Mortgage payments are HUGE. We all know that the only way up is fixing our houses and making them more desirable (and not getting divorced – YIKES). There are whole channels devoted home improvement (I can’t watch that stuff though – it freals me out).

    If the world wants to by “remodel” – make plants a remodel item.

    That’s what I think.

    (I have to go to work. Sorry I’m so fired up this morning.)

  4. ginger says:

    Great comments! I was recently a co-host on a gardening show which featured a guest speaker whose expertise is edible wild plants. He was very articulate and interesting. His name is Russ Cohen and he has written a book, ‘Wild Plants I have Known and Eaten’. One caller wanted to know where she could go to buy fresh dandelion greens! The thought of digging or cutting them was too repulsive. I really have heard it all now but I am considering growing some organic dandelions for the local farm stand.

  5. ginger says:

    Oh, County Clerk, I like your glasses!

  6. Eliz says:

    I think some people get really traumatized when their plants die, and it puts them off. They think that means they have a “black thumb” or whatever.

    Whereas I am often the willful instrument of plant death, but still love gardening—don’t even connect the two things.

  7. Great post, Elizabeth. I listen to those same radio shows in the car occasionally and find them appalling. Not just because of the stupid questions, but also because of the bored manner of the gardening expert.

    People simply don’t understand that there is joy in gardening. And nothing in mainstream culture tells them that.

  8. Yesterday I drove over an hour to meet with an old client who thought she needed a horticultural consultation.
    What I found was a fairly well tended large residential garden being cared for by a professional landscaping company.

    There was a moderatley young healthy Burmese Honeysuckle vine lying on the ground.
    The owner wanted to know if it was dead because it was not growing up the trellis.

    I said that all it required was to be reattached to the trellis post.

    She looked like I was from Mars.
    ” You mean I have to touch the plants ? ”

    I just love clients like this.
    An hour and $ 125 dollars later I tied up the honeysuckle and all was perfect in her world again.

    As I drove out the driveway I noticed that the fruit trees were in full bloom and I wondered why she bought a piece of property with a modest size orchard.
    You know that fruit will never reach the her lips yet I bet she has a refrigerator filled with “grapples’.

    sigh.

  9. Kim says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the fact that there is a divide in the world between people and their environment. The problem probably started with air conditioning (why adapt to the heat of the summer when you can go inside, flip a switch, and keep it at bay?) but television, video games, and a host of other things have contributed.

    Frankly, I believe that a lot of the lawn & garden companies have helped it along, too. After all, if just having an unassuming lawn requires crabgrass preventer, a fertilizer schedule, grub control, etc., why would you want to even buy plants like shrubs that seem to be even more demanding? Pesticide companies have waged a multi-decade campaign to convince people that having ants in their house simply cannot be tolerated and they need to use the latest, greatest, harshest chemical possible to get rid of them. It’s a war, don’t you know… man vs. nature.

    That said, like Hank I’m an optimist. I’ve been working part-time this spring at a local garden center, and I have already seen a decent number of young couples and young singles who are coming in to learn about plants. When I strike up conversations with them, I like to tell them things that will really help them along–things I wish that someone had told me when I first started out.

    Do I spend more time talking to them than I do to the people who come in hell-bent on buying a Japanese maple even if they don’t have a good spot for it? Absolutely. But luckily my bosses encourage that behavior. They know that the people who have enough interest to ask these questions will be the people who come back–and not in 8 months to return the aforementioned Japanese maple, now dead.

    I wish that there were more ways that those of us who are passionate about nature, gardening and the environment could encourage and interact with those who really WANT to be enthusiastic but just feel a little intimidated… because they’ve grown up in an air-conditioned, bug-free, hermetically sealed bubble. With a perfectly manicured lawn.

  10. Colleen says:

    I like what Hank said about finding out what plant makes a non-gardener tick, and building from there. It worked with my mother-in-law, whose idea of gardening up to the past few years had been to mow the lawn and shear every shrub into a sphere with her electric hedge shears. She liked poppies. So, I started giving her stuff from my garden that would accent the poppies, and hide that awful foliage after the flowers faded. Now she has a garden full of poppies, siberian iris, phlox, shasta daisies, oriental lilies, and some hydrangea. It’s all about meeting someone where they are. The hard part is usually figuring out what that one plant is that they actually like…that can be like pulling teeth.

    We can open some…maybe even most people..up to gardening—to the sheer exultation that comes from spending time on your knees with dirt and worms. Others will never see their yards as more than just another obligation, something to check off of the “to-do” list before they go off to do whatever it is that non-gardeners do. I’m with Kim…spend our time with those of them that can be converted. It’s a much better, and more enjoyable, use of our time.

  11. Martha says:

    We have great gardening call-in shows here in Austin, but I must admit that one of my favorite pasttimes is listening for local host/guru John Dromgoole to put the smackdown on some poor, unsuspecting listener. He’s an amazing leader in the organic/natives world, but he can be a wee bit uptight and pedantic…

  12. My profession has been aquarium and pond maintenance for the last 29+ years. I have to admit to not often listening to gardening shows, however I read a lot of forums and what often passes for proper advice (especially in Yahoo answers) is laughable. Anecdotal faddish advice is king for garden ponds or aquariums, rather than sound often boring advice based on experience and scientific research. Much of what works (even if not the current fad) is often less expensive (such as pond veggie filters, pressurized filters or sponge filters) which leads many to think these are junk (The veggie filter is a great DIY filter).

  13. Carl, could you send me a link for these filters?

    And is there an easy way to deal with ammonia in a small artificial pond if you have fish? I killed my poor koi last summer while on vacation. I’d been regularly replacing some of the the water in my little plastic pond–but didn’t want to burden the 12 year-old I paid to feed the fish with that job. Needless to say, I got a horrified call from the boy 5 days into the trip.

    Now, I’d like to put a few goldfish(smaller)in there, but am afraid of turning into a serial killer.

  14. Martha got in faster with her take on John Dromgoole, who helped me so much when I was a new Austinite. You can hear a big difference in his level of enthusiasm, depending on the varying levels of sincerity, interest in gardening, or downright lunkheadedness of his caller.

    On the same station, Tom Spencer of the Green Thumb Hour is kinder, but what else would you expect from the Mousie-nominated writer of Soul of the Garden?

    Annie

  15. Firefly says:

    “For many people attempting to deal with their exterior surroundings, there is a big disconnect. Their yard is something that is happening to them. The domestic landscape is not so much a friend as a really messy, obnoxious roommate you can’t kick out, so you just have to live with it and try to impose some modicum of control.”

    So true. Most of the neighborhood where I live is like this. I think there are three houses on the whole street that have gardens, not including mine.

    However, like the County Clerk, I’m ready to do my bit. When my neighbor (who grew tomatoes in containers) came over to ask my advice about plants for the yard, I talked him into getting a dogwood to go under a Norway maple and tried to talk him into heucheras for the front of the house.

    Well, he wound up with hostas instead (nothing like overkill), but at least they’ll survive, and maybe that’ll lead him to other things.

  16. There was the lady who came into the nursery one day with a measuring tape. She liked the look of some Heliconia that had escaped their pot and were growing half in the ground.

    I have this blank space I am trying to fill she said.

    I explained the procedure of transplanting heliconia bareroot, and mentioned that plants are alive and actually continue to grow and enlarge in size.

    She determined that these heliconia would not do for her blank space and left.

    I could write a book on people’s often pathological relationships with nature. I have been fortunate to have encountered and worked with avid, knowledgable and real, dirty gardeners too. They offer some balance to the plant blind and the crazies.

  17. Lisa says:

    I actually converted one person in my office, just because he couldn’t stand how the front of his house looked. I gave him a list of shrubs that would go well in his soil/sun situation and told him to group them in 3′s to 5′s or else it would look silly. He is now really impressed with how they look, and also has a list of “little” plants that he can tuck in now that he has the bones set of his garden. But I really think that fear holds alot of people back. They don’t know where to start, and I know that I can scare them quite badly (my husband told me that).

  18. Pam says:

    When people come to my place, I generally get two types of reactions: wow, your trees are gorgeous or wow, you must have alot of leaves to get up each spring. I think there are two camps, unfortunately – and I know that I’m in one camp because my parents when I was young had me actively involved in their gardening endeavors. Like most things – education, and early education – is the main way to get some interested. Many others find their way happily into a garden when they are older – but can you imagine how beautiful our world would be if all of us gardeners worked with young children and imparted a love of growing things to them at an early age?

  19. Martha says:

    I do think it’s interesting to talk about this estrangement from nature in our modern world… I remember reading an article in NY TImes a while ago about kids’ “nature deficit.” And I think it also ties back to our more fear-based society, the disappearance of the front porch and the turning-inward of families.

    I speculate that it’s the unexpected negative consequence of air conditioning, suburban sprawl, TV, computers, etc. I think it’s a spiritual malady, and it’s one reason I plan to teach my daughter about gardening and nature aned where her food comes from…

  20. I’d rather talk about estrangement from the natural world than estrangement from a natural wife. But that’s just me.

  21. Kim says:

    Oh, Martha, the front porch! I can’t believe I forgot the front porch in my ranting comment… but I agree with you there. My old house had a tiny little stoop (subdivision built in the 1970s) and if anyone in that neighborhood actually went out into the yard, it was their backyard. And they were hardpressed to even wave hello, save a lovely Russian lady who lived next door to me. I would recognize more cars than people from that neighborhood.

    When I got divorced, I determined that was NOT going to buy a house that was lacking a front porch, even if I was the only person who sits on it. Happily, I’m not–it’s a great gathering place. :)

  22. Gloria says:

    I have manned plant booths and phonelines for the extention service. Most questions are not off the wall. I think whoever screens those calls for radio like to get something of interest even if only to scorn the uninformed.

    Information booths ‘live’ is way more fun. I don’t wait for them to ask me a question, I hail passers by with questions about what they grow. Mostly I don’t give advise I let them talk. They can be so excited about what they do know…

  23. Gloria says:

    Who ever said fear may have something. It is hard to believe how upset people get about weeds and bees and a poor old fox running through the garden.
    We need hands on demonstration gardens. Tell people its for the kids and let parents play with them.
    Big containers and beds of dirt, seeds and seedlings , watering cans and hoses, let them dig in.
    In season they can eat what they pick.
    The organic demonstration garden at the Garfield conservatory here in Chicago does just that and has great success.

  24. Ellis Hollow says:

    I now realize that I live in heaven. (Aerial views here: http://www.remarc.com/craig/?p=117) All five neighbors I can see from our house garden mostly in major ways. My plant eccentricities don’t stand out at all.

    I work in the Department of Horticulture. Everybody there is a plant person in one way or the other. Most are gardeners. Others are into woodlots or orchards or berries or lawn — all with passion. The ‘kids’ at the office — mostly 20-something grad students — know and love plants, often down to the molecular level. Virtually all of my family and in-laws garden in some way. My kids are stuck in apartment or condos, but I’m confident when their time comes, they’ll be into it.

    Now I realize that this is a sheltered existence. I actually knew before that there are many who neither know or care about plants. But now I feel sorrier for them, and I count my blessings.

  25. eliz says:

    I think we’re all in heaven, garden-wise, because we all love it and–for the most part–mainly hang out with others who do. I’m getting a huge kick just out of seeing miniscule bud development on my hydrangeas these April mornings.

    Another thing I’ve learned from these comments: Austin seems to be closer to gardening heaven than a lot of other spots. I must check it out sometime!

  26. Austin is closer to a lot of kinds of heaven… not just for gardeners.

    You have to be strong because there is heat coming. But we all have to be strong anywhere… right?

  27. Martha says:

    Well, I’m not sure we’re in gardening heaven per se — no peonies, for one thing. But also, check with me in August. Nobody should have to deal with August in Texas. It’s criminal.

  28. Eliz says:

    I was not referring to weather. I meant the community and the fact that you seem to have some interesting garden pundits there.

  29. Martha says:

    Well then you should come for the O Henry Pun-Off, then! And stay for wildflower season, of course.

  30. >Carl, could you send me a link >for these filters?

    >And is there an easy way to deal >with ammonia in a small >artificial pond if you have >fish? I killed my poor koi last >summer while on vacation. I’d >been regularly replacing some of >the the water in my little >plastic pond–but didn’t want to >burden the 12 year-old I paid to >feed the fish with that job. >Needless to say, I got a >horrified call from the boy 5 >days into the trip.

    I am not sure where my orginal comment went but I will try and answer your question.

    Filtration including a Veggie filter will help with ammonia. A simple Hydro Pond Filter (which costs less than $20) will help with small ponds (under 500 gal.)
    Here is a link:
    http://americanaquariumproducts.com/Hydropondfilter.html

    Also check out my link under my name for a lot more information and links to yet more.

    Please feel free to email, the address is at my Pond Info page under my signature (Contact Us at the top)

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