Monthly Archives: July 2009
Gardening on the Planet

To help promote urban gardening, sponsor a blogger

Urban greenThink of this not as a request for money, but as an experiment in new media (okay, and a request for money).  Oh, and as an investment in the future of our cities!

Lewis Ginter Garden in Richmond VA is holding an awesome conference on Urban Gardening and I'm looking for sponsors – nonprofits, companies, or individuals – to chip in to pay my expenses to attend and then report thoroughly via GardenRant and elsewhere.  All the individual reports, by topic, will list and link to the sponsors and will be available for republication by the sponsors. 

The awesome conference with the compelling focus of urban gardening for health and  wholeness includes:


  • Chicago's famous urban gardeners
  • Three leaders from Philadelphia Green to report on their decades of greening through gardening
  • The top guy at the New York Restoration Foundation (no, not Bette Midler herself but someone more in the trenches)
  • What's happening in Richmond
  • An African-American research historian from Monticello
  • Tim Beatley, the professor of sustainable communities at U.Va.  I heard him speak at a green building conference once and he's a genius, I swear.


  • Basics of Sustainable Gardening
  • Urban Greening for a Robust Economy
  • Creating Greener, More Resilient Communities
  • Sustainable Land Use and Water Quality Management
  • Food Security, Access, Nutrition, and Health

BUS TOUR OF:  Some of Richmond's best examples of urban gardening.

AT A GREAT PRICE:  $75 for the kind of event that usually costs three times that, or more, so my main expense is the hotel room.

Just drop me a line ( to pledge an amount.  Then if and when a total of $250 is pledged, I'll respond and we'll take it from there.

It'll be interesting to see if soliciting donations to writing projects might actually work, and why not?  Bloggers know how to write for online readers and then get the results noticed, and that's a valuable service to a lot of folks.

Another way bloggers are earning money is by writing for someone else as a named columnist or sole author.  Seems the retail world is jumping on the blogging bandwagon and that's great, but lots (most?) of them aren't very good – usually because the perennial buyer or the marketing person is suddenly asked to perform in this new and different medium. 

Posted by on July 18, 2009 at 4:44 am.   This post has 6 responses.
Who's Ranting About Us

Wicked Plants and Amy on “CBS Sunday Morning”

This Sunday at 9 a.m. Eastern – unless some really big news breaks between now and then, of course. 

Notice a couple of on-topic stories on their website right now – one about the legalization of medical marijuana and another about Project Laundry List, the outdoor-laundry-drying campaign.  

Posted by on July 17, 2009 at 12:39 pm.   This post has 4 responses.
It's the Plants, Darling

No Legitimate Use

Oh, those crazy kids and their fascination with certain members of Lamiaceae. For some reason, the media has gotten all worked up again over Salvia divinorium, a tender little sage that, when chewed or smoked, delivers a short-lived and sometimes unpleasant hallucination. It's cheap, legal, and widely discussed on the Internet, making it better-known to teenagers than their parents.

The DEA itself will tell you that under a million people a year use the plant, and their own information suggests that the effects are hallucinatory and short-lived but not much more.  (I've read some accounts of hospitalization after S. divinorium use, but those may have been frightened kids who really did not enjoy the trip.)

On a federal level, the plant is legal but listed by the DEA as a "plant of concern."  Some states have banned it, most haven't but stories continue to bubble up about the possibility of a nationwide ban, and this USA Today piece quotes a state legislator as saying that "There was no legitimate purpose for that herb, and the things it was being used for were potentially harmful."

So.  There's the test.  If a plant has no legitimate use–whatever that means–and if it could potentially be used to harm one's self or someone else, as any one of thousands of plants could, it should be outlawed.

So what's next?


Poison ivy?


Just wondering.

Posted by on July 17, 2009 at 2:58 am.   This post has 14 responses.
Ministry of Controversy

What’s Invasive? Telling People What They Can’t Plant In Their Yards

IMG_2398 My country yard.  So arrest me.

I have very strong ideas about how a civilized society behaves.  A civilized society behaves like Paris, where the mangiest dogs are allowed on the banquettes in finest restaurants on the assumption that everyone, including the pooch, understands how to conduct him- or herself properly.

A civilized society behaves like my urban neighborhood in Saratoga Springs, NY, where the neighbors don’t entirely understand why I have hens, but put up with the squawking and even give me a friendly hello in the morning anyway out of a general spirit of tolerance. 

A civilized society makes the fewest rules possible. If it’s not hurting you, it’s fine for me to do it.  A civilized society is dubious of authority, humorous, and unafraid.

The world of plants is not civilized. I was shocked a few weeks ago, when I wrote about one of the most beautiful moments of my year–the blooming of the flag iris around my pond in the country–only to be called irresponsible for celebrating an invasive plant. Never mind that there is no sign of a problem on my property, though the flag iris have probably been there for 80 years. Never mind that almost all pond plants are potentially invasive, including waterlilies. Is somebody proposing that we do without waterlilies? Because if that is the case, I think I resign.

The Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health at the University of Georgia even includes hemerocallis fulva, the orange roadside daylily, on its list of problems. Hemerocallis fulva is just so graceful, with its long stems and small, cheerful upfacing trumpets, that it makes driving around my part of the world in July a total joy, and I hate driving. 

One of the great delights of a country landscape is the naturalized plants
like these that thrive by themselves and form a piquant bridge between
the wild and the cultivated. But nothing that is not at least a little thuggish naturalizes.  Should our world therefore be nothing but weeds and overbred, super-fussy garden plants?

Naturalized daylilies are easily controlled by mowing if they get out of bounds. I’ve got them everywhere in my yard, and have noticed no spreading whatsoever. This is not purple loosestrife, which when established, simply cannot be pried out of the ground–not in my part of the world, at least. 

Take a look at this list of herbaceous plants reported to be invasive. It includes all kinds of old-fashioned garden plants like hollyhocks, geraniums, several veronicas, lilies of the valley, even several clovers. I don’t know how aruncus dioicus escaped censure, since it’s seeding itself everywhere in my yard. Isn’t every plant that grows easily from seed potentially invasive? 

Maybe you consider this list informative.  To me, it suggests a profound paranoia and lack of trust. It is the product of a culture I don’t want to join.

My feeling is, if it’s invasive in your yard, get rid of it. If it’s not invasive in mine, be quiet.

Here is how the Center for Invasive Species And Ecosystem Health defines the problem: “Invasive species, if left uncontrolled, can and will limit land use now and into the future.”

Exactly right. That control is called gardening. So the problem is not the plants, it’s people who neglect their land. But nobody who is reading this site is neglecting his or her piece of property.

So can’t we just be adult and admit that, as Michael Pollan pointed out in his brilliant first book Second Nature, the battle for an ungardened landscape has already been lost?

We’re not going to restore our pre-Columbian ecosystems, no matter what, for myriad reasons, including the size of our population and all that carbon we’ve been spewing into the air since the Industrial Revolution. The plants that are native to your area may well be struggling because of all the things we’ve already done to our environment, so planting “natives” may well mean planting something native to another ecosystem anyway.

Can’t we instead be as civilized as your average Parisian mutt and stop barking at each other?  Let’s face it, unless you have a staff of half a dozen taking care of your yard, every garden needs at least a few thugs just to take up room and do what they do best, which is add a brutal vitality to the scene.

Posted by on July 16, 2009 at 6:17 am.   This post has 95 responses.
Drink This

Behind the Scenes at the White House Kitchen Garden

DGardenshotWaPo Don't miss Jane Black's great story about the strategy and laser-like focus behind Michelle Obama's kitchen garden and how it fits into her whole health and nutrition campaign.

Black mentions some competing demands/requests on our First Lady to expand her focus – to promote localism and farm-to-school programs – but doesn't mention my own guilt in pestering her to expand the kitchen garden mission to include making sure the care of those 18 acres is helping, not hurting, our beloved Chesapeake Bay, among other environmental concerns.

But DO read it to get a glimpse of what's in store, including something I (along with many others, I'm sure) have suggested – putting some of their garden-to-table recipes online (not necessarily in a blog as I suggested, but why not?)  All this exciting stuff is just what you get when you hire an experienced food and nutrition activist to move to DC and head this thing up.

WaPo reporter Black is also the best source for what's happening with the new People's Garden at the Ag Department Headquarters.  This story filled in lots of details for this blogger.

Posted by on July 15, 2009 at 12:31 pm.   This post has Comments Off on Behind the Scenes at the White House Kitchen Garden.

Nowhere But Here

What's blooming? In upstate New York, the more relevant question is, what isn't?

Oh yeah, the roses and peonies are done and so are the tulips, but who remembers those things, now that the dahlias and lilies are taking off in earnest?
Above, in my front bed are crocosmias, a butterfly bush, an ineffably cool almost black Asiatic lily and on the lower left, a helenium.
Also worth a mention is this clematis viticella 'Purpurea Plena Elegans.' (Please focus on the plant and ignore the peeling paint. We bought my super-athletic daughter a show pony two years ago and decided to let the house fall down in order to pay for it.) This is reportedly an ancient variety rediscovered by one of those mid-century Brits. I love its weird purple-grey color and eagerness to climb. It's doing much better for me in my sandy soil than any of the large-flowered clematis. 
I am also loving my front-of-border campanula carpatica 'White Clips." After five years of being petite and discreet, in this rainy summer, they are turning into giant marshmallows of bloom.
Here, behind a low-growing single dahlia, is something new to me: a stachys with unhairy leaves and purple drumsticks of flowers that I don't instantly want to cut off, the way I do with stachys byzantina flowers.

We've also got coneflowers going, daylilies galore, liatris, phlox, a weird unnamed perennial-behaving allium that I bought at a plant sale, an icy-blue spiderwort that I love, and white hydrangea arborescens, a weedy native shrub that suckers and seeds itself everywhere, but that is so beautiful– if you cut it back in early spring, it will give you giant flat white flower clusters–that it's impossible to argue with.

Okay, I'll stop after one last photo:IMG_2545
This Asiatic lily 'Pink Giant' is reliably tall and spectacular, even if it does need to be staked–and given the way it's reproducing in my yard, staked and staked and staked.

Ask me about upstate New York in November, when I'm facing five months of winter, and I'll growl something about "anywhere but here." But July 15? I wouldn't rather be anywhere but here.

Posted by on July 15, 2009 at 6:50 am.   This post has 6 responses.
Bloom Day

On views


The author of that frightful bit of doggerel that has
somewhere in it “a poem as lovely as a tree,” did touch on one of the truths of
nature. The view of the skies above or the water ahead is as simple and
satisfying in terms of beauty as one could wish. Certainly nothing in my carefully
contrived if not consciously poetic garden comes close.



But I love it for all its awkwardly placed plantings—all the
tall things in the front, the sun-loving lilies stretching forward in their
partial shade, the voracious ivies, the rampaging wisteria. I’m not there now,
but I know these lilies—the same I posted on last year—are currently in bloom, and quite a bit more. Check here for some more GBBD meanderings, and of course here.

Posted by on July 15, 2009 at 5:30 am.   This post has 6 responses.
Bloom Day

For Bloom Day, Picasa!

Pretty plants here include, left to right, squash, garden phlox, petunias with sweet potato vine, and Hakonechloa Grass over a skirt of epimedium.

But for sheer excitement nothing beats discovering a much, much easier way to organize and edit photos than Photoshop Elements ever was or could be for me.  And on top of its ease of use, there's the total FUN of its instant collages, like the one you see here.  It's Picasa 3 for me now, and thanks to Amy and Xris for suggesting it.  It's even free!

Over on my blog I'm breaking the Bloom Day rules and extolling the virtues of the doublefile viburnum's berries.

Posted by on July 15, 2009 at 4:00 am.   This post has 11 responses.
Everybody's a Critic

Garden vs. the beach


A nice dune planting on Topsail Island

How could I do it? How could I leave trumpet lilies ready to
unfold, an amazingly early second budding of roses, the unknown promise of dark
purple hosta blossoms, and the unfailingly brazen flowers of Mme. Julia


The necessity for a summer getaway is not always timed correctly
for the garden and the gardener’s timetable. I love the ocean and our ocean
cottage— the only thing I ask is that I have enough time before Garden Walk
Buffalo to get some mulch down and to fill in the most embarrassingly empty
spaces. This year, I decided to use our beach time to read some garden-related
classics: the ones that everyone else has read but that I somehow missed. As
many of you know, the Modern
Library Gardening Series
, edited by Michael Pollan, includes some of the best
garden books and gardening writers we know. I took The Gardener’s Year by Karel
Capek (from that series) and The Essential Earthman, by Henry Mitchell down to
the beach, where I have been enjoying them immensely, amid bouts of rain.


Here are some gems:

It will soon be clear that until it has been tamed a hose is
an extraordinarily evasive and dangerous beast, for it contorts itself, it
jumps, it wriggles, it makes puddles of water , and dives with delight into the
mess it has made …

In due time it was obvious that I must crunch every day one
hundred and twenty  radishes,
because nobody else in the house would eat them; the next day I was drowning in
savoys, and then the orgys in kohlrabi followed .

There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only
gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on
with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her
chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises.

I could go on and on and on. I particularly respect the
adherence to the Chicago Manual and the wonderful introductions to these new
editions. It’s also interesting how Capek and Mitchell reference a timetable
that is just so slightly skewed from what I know to be the reality in Buffalo.
They both have a lot of action in January and February, for example, but while
the months may be different, the feelings and foibles are the same. I also
enjoy Capek’s hyperbolic description of his epistolary demands to his hapless garden-watcher.
It reminds me of the tactfully-worded instructions I barely managed to fit on
one sheet for our house-sitter. (“Containers must be watered all the time;
always water where the Norway maples are, blah, blah, blah …”)

Which brings me. Why do we leave our gardens in summer,
especially those of us in climates where summer is the only gardening season? I
guess because we must. But vacations are for reading and I do recommend this
new Modern Library series. What gardening books are you reading this summer?

Posted by on July 14, 2009 at 5:00 am.   This post has 21 responses.

Spotted at a Bus Stop in NY

Spotted at a Bus Stop in NY

Posted by on July 13, 2009 at 2:11 pm.   This post has 15 responses.
What's Happening

Sustainable Gardening Newsletter July ’09

GardenRant edition.  The whole newsletter is available here.

In the News

  • New evidence that ingredients in Roundup
    are hurting humans.  Read about this big news in With Shirley170 Scientific
  • Here's
    that rooftop farms are taking off in New York City, and that veg
    gardens are considered desirable amenities for suburban subdivisions.  Lordy,
    it's a new world.
  • Yielding to factual evidence – that only about 3 perfect of rainwater
    falling on houses reaches streams – Colorado is relaxing its strict prohibition
    on the collecting of rainwater.  This story in the New York Times
    shows what a nonsensical mishmash water laws in the West still are, though.
  • Purdue has promising news – that its new hybrid of the American chestnut
    tree might just revive the almost-extinct species AND sequester a whole lotta
    carbon, too (because they grow so much faster than other hardwood trees).  The
    new hybrids have the blight-resistance of Chinese chestnuts, while retaining 94%
    American genes (somehow).  Source: Science

Found on the Web

  • On Treehugger,
    a good comparison of drip irrigation with xeriscaping. 
  • Plantwerkz is dedicated to
    architecturally beautiful plants, defined as plants that are visually aesthetic,
    that "command attention to themselves, causing all background to fade away in
    their presence."  Yum!

On the Sustainable Gardening

My So-Called Second Career

I'm busy writing an actual magazine piece – for Fine
Gardening, my old fave.  It'll cover plants that can be used to replace lawns –
yay!  This topic's near and dear to me and I got a chance to tackle it at the
American Hort Society recently – and got great suggestions from Brent and Becky
Heath, and a very knowledgeable horticulturist who works there.  Seems only
natural to do a book on the subject, right?


And some of you will be
amused to know that I've finally given in to social pressure and the advice of
lots of smart people and have begun tweeting.  Sure, I tried once before and
gave up but this time I've installed the much-recommended Tweetdeck, which
promises to make it all soooo easy.  (More will be revealed.)  My Twitter name is GardenerSusan.

Here's the
thing, though.  I'm DO write or contribute to 8 blogs and websites, so I may still fail at this
social networking thing.  (Unless I give in to my lust and get an iPhone. 
Seeing Carol Michel
wield hers planted a seed that wants to grow!)

Posted by on July 13, 2009 at 1:42 pm.   This post has 8 responses.
Unusually Clever People

Two country gardens by James van Sweden

I’ve admired the landscapes of Jim van Sweden and his firm for decades now, and their lawnless “New American Garden” style is finally gaining real traction in the U.S.  So when he invited me to the Eastern Shore (of the Chesapeake Bay) to see his country garden, I hit the road.

What I found were not one but two of his works – the landscape around his own home, designed by architect Suman Sorg, and Sorg’s garden next door.  (Nice barter between old friends.)  He calls his garden the “ugly one” because it’s all meadow and big sweeps of dramatic plants, including Rudbeckia maximum, Little Bluestem, Panicum, Mountain mint, and a few I didn’t recognize.  It all adds up to my kind of ugly.



Next, Sorg’s more garden-like landscape – notice the roses and oakleaf hydrangeas.  Still very low-maintenance, though.



After ogling the gardens and the seaside view, I sat down to pump Jim for stories, and boy does he have them.  My favorite was about designing Oprah Winfrey’s $9 million country garden near South Bend, Indiana.  She wanted to replicate the gorgeous field in “The Color Purple” and Jim had to give her the bad news – that that was a temporary movie garden (mostly cosmos in bloom) and that a real meadow would take 5-6 years to mature.  But Oprah got with the program and spent long hours with Jim  choosing every single plant.  So what’s it look like?  Photos exist but have never been published.  (Maybe we can get an exclusive!  I’ll summon some blogger chutzpah and ask.)

So how do you sum up the long award-winning career of one the greats in a short blog post?  Well, you don’t.  But I can send you to his books.  And here’s 10 Q+As with him by Garden Design Mag, with full bio and photo.  In one answer he declares that he’s anti-lawn and has been for 30 years!  As he told me, he’s been designing sustainable gardens all along, since they were called low-maintenance.

Posted by on July 13, 2009 at 4:01 am.   This post has 10 responses.
Eat This

Manchester, UK to Turn its Parks into Produce

RaspFlickrMarko_KI LOVE this – Manchester's plan to plant fruit trees, herbs, and veg patches in the city's 135 public parks, plus bringing in beehives to pollinate all that action.  And all the produce will be free for the picking. They're hoping to be known as "Britain's greenest city."  You know, along with the home of the United.

Great quote:  "These are public areas and there is no reason why people shouldn't be able to
help themselves to the produce grown."

Now I notice they're counting on volunteers to make the veg and herb part work, and I've seen hopes like that dashed a time or two in my part of the world, but I hope those volunteers materialize because if this 3-year pilot succeeds, it could be an awesome example for urban public lands everywhere.

Here's the story, thanks to Tai-Haku. Photo by Marko_K.

Posted by on July 12, 2009 at 7:30 am.   This post has 6 responses.
It's the Plants, Darling

Weigh in on the “National Flower” Debate

It started with Burpee owner George Ball declaring that "The Rose Blows", and campaigning to have the sunflower declared our national flower instead.  Then Judy Lowe took issue with Ball's description of the U.S. as "botanically barren." (Yeah, I wondered about that myself.)  And Tom Alexander added to the story this tidbit: seed-growers lobbied for marigolds but narrowly last to the rose back in the '80s when the flower-naming took place.  Veddy interesting.

So here's my contribution to the debate:  Yes, lots of roses DO blow and I can't imagine growing the sickly ones.  So if we want a plant that's always easy to grow, I nominate  a flower just as cheerful as the sunflower but far more garden-sized – the rudbeckia species, especially the medium-sized Black-eyed Susan.  Not coincidentally, Maryland's state flower.  And not usually grown from seed – sorry, George!


Posted by on July 11, 2009 at 3:57 am.   This post has 32 responses.
It's the Plants, Darling

Things I’ve Learned in the Last Month

Ah, the crazy stories of wicked plants you people have told me in the last month as I've been traveling from town to town.  Here's just some of the useful information I feel compelled to share:

Euphorbias can blind you. This should be an obvious one. Anybody who grows euphorbias in the garden knows that they produce an irritating milky-white sap and should be handled with care. What I did not know about, however, was the dreaded Euphorbia Splatter. Not one person, but two told me that they had been out pruning their euphorbias when some of that nasty sap flew into their eye (or, in one case, seemed to simply vaporize in the heat and send its stinging vapor death rays straight up), causing horrible pain and long-term eye damage.

Seriously. Long-term damage. One woman told me that her eyesight has still not recovered, a year later.

Both of them told me that they waited too long to even go inside and wash their eyes; that doing the stand-under-the-shower-for-a-long-time routine helped a little but not much; and that they now wished they had dropped everything and run off to a doctor or clinic where they could have gotten a professional eye-washing.

So. Remember that. Maybe garden with sunglasses, I don’t know.

Rose thorns can give you a disgusting disease. Three people told me their tales of woe regarding ‘rose thorn disease,’ otherwise known as sporotrichosis. It’s caused by a fungus found on rose bushes, and a deep puncture wound with a rose thorn can introduce it into your bloodstream, where you will enjoy such symptoms as disgusting lesions, infections of the joints and nervous system, and other such horrors. Treatment is difficult. One guy I met spent a week in the hospital and still wasn’t totally recovered.

And once again: their regrets? Failure to seek immediate medical attention. They did what I do in the garden: they toughed it out. They yanked the thorn out, wiped the blood off with their muddy sleeve, and kept gardening. If only they had given themselves a little simple first aid, these people told me. Just gone inside for a minute, really cleaned up that little cut, maybe used a little ointment, put a good bandage on it—maybe that would have made a difference.

Or maybe it wouldn’t have. Don’t take my word for it. I didn’t even know about this disease until about two weeks ago. But I did learn that it’s also found in sphagnum moss and hay, and it can be inhaled as well, although that’s rare.

Protective gear is advised. The CDC even says to avoid skin contact with sphagnum moss entirely.

I know—now they tell us! Well, that’s why I’m passing all this on.

Children really do eat deadly berries. People always act like I’m overreacting when I suggest yanking out plants that might be tempting to pets or children too small to listen to reason. So I submit this to you: A nurseryman in the Northwest told me that he came home one day and his wife calmly told him that their toddler had eaten every berry off their daphne bush. Did he think that was all right?

All right? Hell, no, it was not all right! Daphne is very poisonous. Only a few berries could kill a child. The little girl was made to throw up, a great deal of unpleasantness ensued, hospitalization was involved, and she lived. A happy ending, but still. What a nightmare.

Brugmansias can make you fall in love with your wife all over again.Speaking of happy endings, here’s a story that’s terrifying to no one but me, who had to hear it live on public radio and try to muster a response. A guy called in and told the listening audience that, while on a road trip, he and his wife bought a brugmansia (angel’s trumpet) and had it in the back seat of their car for a few days as they went from state to state. One day in bloomed, filling the car with its lemony-sweet fragrance.

“And that night,” the man said, with obvious astonishment in his voice, “My wife and I made love! Which is not that unusual, but you know, it had been a long day, we’re just in some motel, but we thought, OK, that was nice.”

(Try to imagine me in the radio studio, trying not to make eye contact with the host.)

Then he says, “And in the morning we woke up and—again! A second time! OK, that’s a little unusual, but—you know—great!”

So they continue their drive. The brugmansia continues to perfume the car. I continue to cringe and avoid eye contact with the host. Where is this going?

You guessed it. “And that night,” he said, “We get to our next motel, check in, and you know what? Again! The next morning? Again!”

He could hardly believe his good fortune. Eventually we reached the end of the story, or maybe he and his wife reached the end of the trip. Regardless, his question, after all that, was, “Is brugmansia an aphrodisiac?”

Don’t ask me. I now officially know more about brugmansia than I ever wanted to know. I ducked the question and was relieved to see that we were finally out of time.

When I left the radio station, the host said, “I’d love to have you on again sometime.”

“Again!” I said, and we both cracked up.

“Again!” he shouted, as I got on the elevator.

And then I went in search of a bar that would be willing to write up my receipt as bridge tolls or parking fees so I could run it through the expense account. Just another day on the book tour.

Posted by on July 10, 2009 at 5:26 am.   This post has 12 responses.
Taking Your Gardening Dollar

Smith & Hawken is Dead.
Long Live Smith & Hawken.

Co-founder Paul Hawken,
(indeed, there is a Smith) imbued the catalog with a new gardening persona,
making organic gardening a “hip to be square” hippie pastime—still a waft of
patchouli, to be sure, but still refined, mysterious, and sexy. Every tool,
every garden clog, every piece of gorgeous, pricey teak furniture came to
represent for me a vision of organic garden glam, magnified by the sumptuous
photography of pretty people getting dirty and having fun doing it.

Hawken, a superb writer, honed his craft on the garden porn
that sold thousands of tools, trugs, and boots. Moving beyond languid
descriptions of soft afternoons spent thinning the lettuces in a pair of
perfect garden clogs, he soon published Growing
a Business
, a practical and inspirational guide to expanding a lifestyle
empire of one’s own. Sporting my canvas gardener’s pants with the insertable
knee pad pockets I drew inspiration from this bible of eco-entrepreneurialism
and dreamt of ways to make gardening my career.

 As Hawken pursued his true calling as an green
visionary—beginning with the publication of The
Ecology of Commerce
—the company continued to grow, but profits slagged due
in part to an overly optimistic focus on the clothing line. Like me, gardeners
were practical types who liked to muck up only a couple of sets of drawstring
ripstop Japanese Farmer pants at a time. A floundering Smith & Hawken was
purchased in 1993 for $15 million by a firm best known for marketing the
NordicTrack and The Nature Company. The line expanded to include chintzy table
linens and wine bottle totes, and at about that time, I opted out of the
catalog subscription. The soul was gone.

The newly capitalized company moved on to open 25 retail
stores throughout the country. And the company went through several changes in
ownership and management, finally landing in the portfolio of Scott’s, makers
of Miracle-Gro. Hawken started a software company and became a highly
sought-after environmental expert and speaker. Smith was selling organic flower
arrangements through Whole Foods last I heard; and other retailers have made
deep cuts into the market share built on a simple desire on the part of Hawken
cohort and double-digging biointensive gardening guru, John Jeavons , to import and market a
solid garden spade.

I recently thought of Jeavons, Hawken, and Smith as I
perused the discount coupon display on my local S&H counter promoting the
benefits of Miracle-Gro to keep that lawn clean & green. What a crushing
irony that Smith & Hawken, Scott’s latest acquisition, should become leverage
to cross-market all manner of “grow & kill” in the soft summer rain. I knew
it would be the last time I visited the store. The founding principle had been

Though my lifetime guarantee is probably now moot, and I’m
likely to die holding the damn thing, Smith & Hawken no longer carried the
spade I bought so long ago. They carried nothing like it. And now that Smith
& Hawken is shutting down, the lock is now on the door that closed some
time ago for me. According the Marin Independent Journal, Hawken threw a party
on Wednesday night to celebrate the closure.

Smith owns Mulligan’s book store in Ukiah. There are rumors
that Hawken, ever the entrepreneur, has his mind on the garden tool business
again. I hope that’s so. In some ways, the awakening of the gardener in many of
us may be related in some way to those misty black and white photos taken in
the Marin fog. Smith & Hawken validated gardening as a hip pursuit. I’d
love to see what Hawken might do with another opportunity to fill the needs of
serious gardeners for quality garden tools. Smith & Hawken is dead. Long
Live Smith & Hawken.

And if I’m ever in the market for an easily-dissolved
form of plant crack, I know I’ll never go wanting. There will always be Miracle-Gro.

Posted by on July 9, 2009 at 9:39 am.   This post has 55 responses.

The BBG veg garden

Kids harvesting lunch in Brooklyn. Love it.The BBG veg garden

Posted by on July 9, 2009 at 9:21 am.   This post has one response.
Unusually Clever People

The Nuffield Report

In which the lovely and charming Heather Gorringe of Wiggly Wigglers wins an impressive-sounding Nuffield Award and travels all the way to America to interview gardeners and farmers who are using social media to–well–do whatever it is we all do here on the interwebs.

Her report is here. It's entertaining and bursting with personality, just like Heather.  Lots of helpful tips,ideas, and insights, not to mention observations of American life (visiting Starbucks without getting out of your car!)  Check it out.

Posted by on July 9, 2009 at 6:41 am.   This post has 2 responses.
It's the Plants, Darling

Sugar Casters

IMG00013By far the cheeriest thing happening in my soggy vegetable garden are these tall, gorgeous, and super-double self-seeded papaver somniferum.

Poppies are much easier to start in the open field of a vegetable garden than among the shadows of a perennial garden. The lore in my part of the world says to throw the seed out onto the snow in early spring. I find that when I order poppy seed, I get such a stingy few in the package, that it makes sense to sow it out in the open, where I can babysit the seedlings.

Once you do get poppies, however, you will have them forever, because each flower produces a ton of seed and disperses it with one of nature's more ingenious pieces of engineering. The big pods are like a salt shaker or sugar caster, with a ring of neat little openings below the flat top, out of which seed flies every time the pod blows in the wind or is brushed against by a gardener.

Despite the density with which poppies will produce seedlings, the seedlings have to be ruthlessly thinned if you want them to look like anything. Otherwise, you will get pathetic, tiny flowers at ankle height. Given enough room, on the other hand, each plant can grow waist high, with wonderful blue foliage and incredibly seductive fat buds.

As to the legality of this display, from which opium could in theory be produced, I've never attempted to stay current with it. Twelve years ago Michael Pollan wrote a brilliant essay on the subject, available at the link. This is the highest form of garden writing–the kind that happens to be talking about the culture while it talks about plants.

Posted by on July 8, 2009 at 11:59 pm.   This post has 8 responses.
Eat This

Ten Things to Hate About This Rainy Summer In the Northeast


10. It's turning near-farmers into frou-frou ornamentalists. My perennials, in previous years referred to as "those stupid weeds," are all as big as buses with this steady moisture and as elegant as anything in a Penelope Hobhouse book. A peculiar and dangerous fascination is ensuing.
9. It's ruining all survivalist fantasies. My feeling about the post-peak-oil/global warming apocalypse has generally been, bring it on. Here on Quarry Road in Salem, NY, me and the doughty neighbors are prepared to be extremely gastronomical about the collapse of civilization. But that was before I realized that climate change might mean increased precipitation in the Northeast–and NO MEDITERRANEAN VEGETABLES! Now, I can see that in a future with no roasted tomatoes, the cowardly way out chosen by the wife in Cormac McCarthy's The Road might be the only option for me.
8. While potatoes like the water, they rot in the ground if you leave them too long in the fall. So I discovered in last year's super-wet summer.
7. Poor germination is the rule.
6. The strawberries taste like crap.
5. On the cucurbit front, everything is sulking except for the Dill's Atlantic Giant pumpkin. Another ridiculous ornamental the gardener plants only under pressure from the short people in her life.
4. The okra appears to be completely inert.  It has not grown an inch in a month.
3. Yet the pea plants are burning up in their accustomed July way nonetheless.  Whatever are we going to eat if it doesn't stop?
2. The weeds are ceaseless. In a normal July, they are panting and saying "Uncle" by now.
1. No pesto in sight. Now, we are talking a real survival issue! The only truly great 10-minute meal!  Here's how I do it: Rummage up a handful of nuts. Pine nuts are traditional, but walnuts are fine and I've even used pecans in a pinch.  Roast in a hot oven until they are slightly brown and the bitterness is gone. Throw into a blender with raw garlic, two cloves if you are cooking for a six-year-old, five if you are cooking for my husband. Add a colander's worth of basil leaves, a teaspoon of sea salt or maybe more, and enough good olive oil to blend this easily.  Pour over a pound of pasta. Grate a nice pecorino romano over it. Be happy. I would be if only there were enough sun for the basil to grow.

Posted by on July 8, 2009 at 3:56 am.   This post has 24 responses.