I Don't Have a Garden, but I Watch One on TV

Mrs. Greenthumbs: An Appreciation

Cassandra
My next-door neighbor recently said that she was stumped by design questions and that I should write a book about the subject. I laughed. If you want to know how to grow potatoes, I'm your woman. Design? No.

Since most garden design books strike me as abstract to the point of absurdity, with advice on the unhelpful order of "consider proportion," I went on Amazon and ordered my neighbor a copy of the out-of-print Mrs. Greenthumbs Plows Ahead: Five Steps to the Drop-Dead Garden of Your Dreams because its advice is simple and friendly and comprehensible. There's lots of sensible stuff about relating the garden to the surrounding architecture, such as using the golden section to calculate a visually pleasing depth for a bed in front of a fence, or finding the right stylistic vibe by making the garden about as formal as your house or slightly less formal.

Mrs. Greenthumbs, also known as Cassandra Danz, was a Brooklynite by birth, a comedian by trade, and a passionate gardener who ultimately made a career for herself planting pansies in handbags on the Live With Regis and Kathie Lee show.  Or so I've heard. I could never watch that show, always finding Regis and Kathie Lee's patter disturbingly similar to the spiel I used to hear from the crackheads in Morningside Heights when I lived there in the late 1980's.

Danz's first book, 1993's Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I turned a Boring Yard into a Glorious Garden and How You Can, Too, is one of my favorite of all gardening books for its snappy writing style. Yes, Mrs. Greenthumbs is a little tacky, with her dyed red hair and rayon dresses and relentless jokiness, but only in the smartest and best educated way: She is well aware of herself as a force for democracy in the snooty New York horticultural word.  Yes, she belongs to the bad old days before Jeff Gillman and Linda Chalker-Scott began subjecting gardening advice to the test of science, when most cultural recommendations were either mindless anglophilia, primitive superstition, or horseshit pure and simple. (Double digging anyone?)  But she did passionately recommend compost and mulch, good woman, and understood the cycles of life. 

I love her because she was fearless and funny and culturally clued-in, and a gust of enthusiasm comes off every word she ever put to paper.  She wrote about flower colors and giant lilacs and the experience of gardening itself the way they ought to be written about–as if she'd spent the most vivid moments of her life in the garden and the bedroom. Here's Mrs. Greenthumbs on the subject of ridding her yard of invasive bamboo:

My husband chopped the bamboo down using a machete he bought from Soldier of Fortune magazine.  I remember the sweat glistening on his torso.  I felt like Ava Gardner in Mogambo.  In a tropical frame of mind, I put on my muumuu and quickly mixed some Mai Tai cocktails.  We sat on the porch, looking at the bamboo stumps, waiting for the elephants to stampede.  Gardening is more fun than you think.

Then she has the nerve to continue the bamboo discussion this way: "After drinks and intercourse, we decided to do it the natural way."  They finished the bamboo with the lawnmower. 

Or how about this consideration of pollination, from a chapter titled, "A Petunia Named Desire":

Most people tend to assume that the bees have no knowledge of the plant's use of them and are only after the nectar.  In other words, they are a bunch of unwitting stooges, slavishly servicing the carnal appetites of the flowers and getting no fun out of the experience at all.  I don't think so.  I have observed bees going from flower to flower in the garden, and they seem to be enjoying themselves enormously.  I wouldn't presume to know the thoughts and feelings of bees, but if I saw a bunch of teenagers sipping nectar, rolling around with their feet up in the air, covered with fragrant pollen, and then racing off to do it again and again, I would assume they are having a wonderful time and would probably call the police.

Can you imagine, for example, The New York Times ever publishing any gardening piece with a fraction of that much personality?   Certainly, movie reviews and food writing and political commentary are allowed to have personality.  Gail Collins has so much personality, it barely fits within the confines of her column.  I frequently wonder which Olympian god decreed that garden writing alone should be so sterile.

The institutional tone ("plant for winter interest") may explain why I've been bearing the 2008/2009 collapse of the shelter media with relatively few tears.  Yet when I learned that Mrs. Greenthumbs died of cancer in 2002, I took it peculiarly hard, as if she were a good friend I hadn't yet met. In fact, I'm almost positive that's what she was.

Posted by on January 16, 2009 at 12:40 am, in the category I Don't Have a Garden, but I Watch One on TV.
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29 Responses to “Mrs. Greenthumbs: An Appreciation”

  1. kate says:

    I’m in total agreement with you. I’m done with the ‘look down your nose, pinky out’ kind of gardening. plant what you enjoy…just get out there! Great blog, by the way.

  2. Okay, that does it. I’m ordering a copy for myself right now!

  3. Lisa - St. Marys, Ontario says:

    I always admired that woman. She was someone you could look up to. Not worried about what people thought about her, garish, loud, hilarious, and brilliant.

    Thanks for bringing her back!

  4. Barry Prince says:

    Wonderful article. Dead on about most garden writing and how sterile it is. People forget this is an activity people do for fun, not a project in grad school.

    I wish we could seperate the trade school writing of the horticulural industry (loads of science and technobabble and dry as a bone – but necessary) from garden writing which is more about people and there individualistic stab at fun.

  5. Renee says:

    The first Mrs. Greenthumb book has the BEST discussion of color in the garden I’ve ever read. Unlike the usual numbing blahblah about the color wheel, Cassandra actually explains what it means, and how it translates to plants.

    My favorite essay, though, is about “saving” money in the garden (which goes from buying a plant and saving the equivalent of a fastfood meal to buying so much she saves the equivalent of week in Paris. I love how she thinks!) I really miss her.

  6. Renee says:

    Oh, almost forgot. Mrs Greenthumb was also very frugal. She gave great tips for saving money, often by dividing and propagating. She knew a garden takes time.

  7. Reminds me of the original Vegetarian Epicure cookbook when author Anna Thomas talked about going back to eat more after smoking pot as part of Thanksgiving dinner. She did it more elegantly but it was such a shot of reality (late 60s here) that you read it open-mouthed!

  8. susan harris says:

    Agree, and I’ll put Mrs. G on my reading list. And ditto to Gail Collins, whom I’d dearly love to meet.

  9. Vicki says:

    Oh goodness. I had not realized that she had died…having stopped watching those tv shows years ago. But every time I saw her I loved her Schtick…excellent info/advice/wisdom dished out with a massive dose of silliness that we need.

    She was a true original. One-of-a-kind. And I dare say, a genius.

  10. Nancy says:

    Thanks! This looks like my kind of gardening book.

  11. John Willis says:

    Thanks for the post. I am hereby reminded to stop covering up the sweat on my glistening torso with ratty T-shirts…

  12. Lovely Appreciation – Thanks, Michelle!

    MayDreams Carol never got around to assigning Mrs Greenthumbs for the Garden Bloggers Book Club, but perhaps it wasn’t necessary. Many of us bought the first book in the mid-90′s, read it, and immediately bought a copy to give a friend. Like you, I was a fan of the books – only caught her on TV once or twice, but enough to know that voice may have been an asset to her stint a Second City Comedy group.

    Cassandra Danz would have been 62 on New Years Day – and as we do with all of our favorite authors, we like to imagine she’d have a garden blog if she were alive today.

    Just typing ‘Helen Traubel’ makes me smile.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  13. Rosa says:

    I LOVED Mrs. Greenthumbs! She was such fun. I had never been able to find her first book but perhaps I’ll give Amazon a try.

  14. gardenmentor says:

    Now that’s some Botany of Desire!

  15. I never even heard of Mrs Greenthumbs, but she sounds like my kind of woman.
    I know what you mean about garden design books, I often do not understand the advice they give and I AM a garden designer (but I like the pretty pictures).

  16. Renee says:

    Try alibris.com — co-op of used-book sellers. They have a bigger inventory.

  17. Pam/Digging says:

    I’ve never heard of Mrs. Greenthumbs, but the quotes you included have sold me on her book, for the humor value alone.

  18. katie says:

    Cool! I want one. Better get it before they are all gone!

    I agree re: the boring gardening stuff. I love my current blog writing because I get to inject personality and personal failure. (Just what I like to share with the world!) It is more authentic. I am sick to death of writing the same old boring thing all of the time. Why I stick mostly to online content and not print. I don’t like my posts to sound like a Treasury Department memo. (Though we have something in common: neither of us have any money right now.)

  19. Genie in Idaho says:

    My favorite Mrs. Greenthumbs quote, from her first book: “The difference between gardening and housework is that when you dust, the furniture doesn’t grow and the kitchen floor doesn’t bloom.” It’s posted on my fridge so when people come over they know why the house isn’t spotless. Priorities, people.

  20. Rosella says:

    I loved Mrs. Greenthumbs, and I was devastated when I heard a couple of years ago that she had died. I never watch TV so I knew her only through her books, and loved her casually sensible advice and her humour. It was from her that I learned to use the lasagne method of clearing a patch of ground, and I remember her saying that if you lay down the newspaper and mulch and wait a couple of months, you will find the ground beneath “as rich and smooth as Rockefeller’s baby” — tickled me a lot, and it’s true too.

  21. Cindy says:

    I was just thinking about Mrs. Greenthumbs the other day,I remember I cried when she died, and here you have honoured her unique and passionate contribution. She made me feel okay gardening in my skirt and workboots, love that look!

  22. It was a happy day when I saw the first Mrs. Greenthumbs book on an end cap at the bookstore and bought it on impulse. It is an good read, and re-read. I should have made it a selection of the Garden Bloggers’ Book Club!

  23. Heather says:

    I love Mrs. Greenthumbs! I like to loan my copies of her books to friends who don’t know much about gardening but want to start, because she makes gardening sound like fun instead of a chore, and her instructions are easy to understand. And I read them myself every winter when I’m dreaming of summer and want something to smile about.

  24. I am ordering this book! This woman is a gal with my own quirky mindset. Totally love it!

    Gardening is something to embrace, not because of the plants, not because of the clear blue sky, and not because of the worms between my toes – - it’s about the people you meet which build the best experiences in life. Gardening has brought those to me for sure!

    Best wishes Rant!

    Shawna Coronado
    http://www.thecasualgardener.com

  25. gail says:

    I loved Mrs Greenthumbs and miss her irreverence and garden passion! I loved watching her befuddle Regis and Kathi Lee! She was quick witted and way ahead of them!

    gail

  26. Laurie says:

    I love the Mrs. Greenthumbs books. I found her books the year I was discovering enormously talented people who had just died.

    I’ve loaned (and gotten back) her books many times, and my friends have annoyed their husbands the same way I’ve annoyed mine by saying, “But wait. You’ve got to hear this part….” Her books make great out-loud reading material.

  27. I have tears in my eyes reading this. Mrs. Greenthumbs was my hero forever. I, too, was crushed when she died. I never met her, but her humor blended with gardening smarts made her work the most wonderful gardening books on my shelf.

    Her humor and joy is timeless.

  28. Germi says:

    Mrs. Greenthumbs is the reason I became a gardener! I wanted to be her… I still do!

  29. Caroline Fawcett says:

    Cassandra was such a fun person to be around. She was my dad’s neighbor for a few years when I was a teenager. I remember such fun times with her whenever I would go to visit my dad.
    She came up to Calgary for thee garden show about 13 years ago and my friend and I went to see her. We tracked her down in an office. I asked her if she knew who I was. It had been close to 20 years since she last saw me and that was in NYC, so who on earth was this strange woman in Calgary Alberta Canada, who was asking her if she knew who I was. I then mentioned the address that she had lived at 23 years earlier. She said “the address is right but who are you?” Then I told her that I was Michael’s daughter and of course she threw her arms around my neck and gave me a huge hug. Thoroughly enjoyed the show. Love reading her book and whenever I do I can hear her thick Brooklyn accent as I read it.

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