From the editor: Rant readers following the verbal sparring between our own Scott Beuerlein and guest ranter Marianne Willburn may be wondering if the daggers had been sheathed for good or just for the holidays. This week, after the two met up at the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (MANTS) and Scott spent an evening good-humoredly roasting her at Maryland’s Brookside Gardens, Marianne offers an olive branch with a few thorns and a tough topic for discussion….in letter form. Will he answer? 

Lovettsville, Virginia

January 22, 2020

Dear Scott,

I’m trying to remember now how we left things in November. It’s probably safe to assume you were bitter; and I believe I was sitting in front of a roaring fire stroking a cat, reading Lloyd and quietly chuckling over a sharp sentence or two.

In truth, it is a Jack Russell that I stroke, though the fire exists, and so does the chair. I have an unreasonable love for these little dogs which I must admit was fostered by a friend in England and her series of intelligent, ball-obsessed terriers.

Mungo.  Garden dog. Vole killer. Part-time writer.

The love affairs one experiences in one’s twenties – be they man, beast, plant or country – make a deep impression on the psyche, and are tough to shift. I foresee an equally long series of JRTs in my own life (Mungo is my second), punctuated by my husband Michael’s desire for sloppy, loveable labs. I would tell you to try the breed, but they can be little devils and you certainly need no further reason to give in to that opioid addiction you keep mentioning.

How we left matters as the sun shone on a little house in Maryland on Sunday is far easier to remember, as is the loveliness of your wife Michele, who, as you say, is far too good for you and has an incredibly sweet smile. I’m thrilled the two of you were able to venture East for MANTS and even happier that you were able to attend the dinner party held in your honor, deep in the country, and referred to by many of the DC Beltway Crowd as “way the hell out there.”

I did warn you to keep driving until the banjos started playing. If you thought it was tough getting to the festivities on Sunday, my house is just across the Potomac River and down a two-and-a-half mile gravel road. Many of my friends have had to buy four-wheel drive vehicles just to keep drinking our wine, and complain bitterly up until the moment they are sitting on the deck surrounded by the night sky.

I wonder what Michele thought of that motley Mid-Atlantic group of pedants and plantspeople, yards deep in an 1840’s Federal – and many of them exhausted after a week trudging through the wonders and warrens of a Baltimore nursery trade show? Michael can only handle a half an hour’s discussion on epimedium foliage before he begins to lose consciousness and begs for a glass of single malt.

Did you switch dinner partners between courses as instructed? I’m afraid that I interrogated a very decent native plant nurseryman and his wife a bit ruthlessly during the salad course, but I love a good discussion and he brought up a few excellent points that I will file somewhere in this poor brain of mine.

Soaking up the sunlight on that wide porch with you and Michele and a very nice gentleman named Paul, and not discussing global warming was one of the joys of the afternoon. It has disturbed me over the last few years that it is widely considered flippant or insensitive to take some pleasure in the weather when it is unseasonably warm; or to do anything other than discuss the impending apocalypse when a massive snowstorm forces us to unplug and unwind.

Well he’s happy, anyway.

Instead we must rend our garments and gnash our teeth and shake our fists at the sky or a passing politician (there’s always one within arm’s reach in this part of the world). Guilt and Anxiety I suppose to be our constant companions from here forward, whether or not our sinks carry the weight of compost bins (I have two), and we regularly use ancient green tools such as clothes lines. (Can’t beat that fresh scent.)

I like to think I have changed enough cloth diapers on the back seats of vehicles in Mid-Atlantic winters to earn me the ability to turn my face to the sun with pleasure during a January warm-up. Even if it means there will be no tight, touchable blossom heads on Hydrangea macrophylla again this year.

A handful of joy.

It is an interesting question don’t you think? If we somehow find the ability to turn off all the voices in our own heads shouting about the mortgage, the hydrangea, a new suspension system for the Subaru, and a pressing deadline (or five), are we allowed to turn off the voices around us and be happy in the short life we are given on this Earth – living as responsibly and as carefully as we can as individuals?

I feel increasingly that as gardeners we are soldiers in the literal trenches.  Forced to cope with what is, while our generals bicker over another political win or loss, and civilians weigh-in from armchairs far away.

We learn to remediate early springs, late frosts, 35-inch-above-average annual rainfalls, a greenhouse full of lost stock, a crop devastated by blight, or bugs. We are adaptable in a way we should be proud of – and for that matter, so are many of our horticultural charges.

If we must cope with the effects of a changing climate, can we not admit to moments of joy in the midst of adversity without being shamed? Our anxieties will only line the pockets of the pharmaceutical companies.

Rainfall that did not stop – The summer of 2018.

…and Mungo could not have been happier.

Drugs aside, gardening is obviously the answer when it comes to quieting the soul. For all your bitterness over meconopsis, you and I both know this.

I have watched a cutting of Atlas cedar root over the last several months and felt the weight of the world melting away when I look at the tiny grey tufts of new foliage happily protected under a cloche. You could bottle and sell the endorphins coursing through my blood in those moments.

But I fear we are making our gardeners, and worse, potential gardeners, nervous wrecks with the sheer number of rules they must follow or be damned.

For example, I sat through a Master Gardener meeting not so long ago where hellebores were touted, only to have a freelancing health and safety officer making sure we all knew they were poisonous and that we might want to make other choices.

I’m afraid my exclamation of disgust was not as under-my-breath as a room of that size might have merited.

Hellebores for God’s sake. Call out the National Guard. Contain the area. Kiss your children.

Chris Martin put it best I think in Coldplay’s Don’t Panic:

“All of us are done for. And we live in a beautiful world.”

Did I mention that he and I started at UCL the same year? You were dropping so many names on Sunday I probably couldn’t get a word in.

Perhaps I am only feeling the weight of living so close to the constant turmoil in Washington. Friends in Missouri say their dinner parties rarely turn political, and when they do, there is no shouting over the bread pudding – only discussion.

Is this your reality? What did you call yourself… “a simple gardener from the heartland?” Are you viciously throwing miscanthus plugs at each other out there; or are you pushing chairs back from the table like Browning’s Bishop Blougram and settling in for a lively debate over your Big Gulps?

Speaking of which, I thoroughly enjoyed the roasting at your talk Friday night. Yes, there was a lot of palaver about African savannas and something about a woman with her white-trousered leg in an open pit toilet – the image of which I can never erase – but overall, a lot of laughter, and I do think we need more of that in this world right now.

That, and good red wine. I didn’t tell you (or anyone else for that matter) but I’ve gone off the grape for the month of January, and by the time you read this the horror may well be over. Even Michael doesn’t know. I can’t bear being watched. If you knew the temptations I have overcome these last two weeks. MANTS alone. Dear God. Gardeners and writers can drink, damn them.




P.S.  There is new UK plant porn on the market – I knew you’d want to be informed at once. Jimi Blake’s A Beautiful Obsession has come to American shores.  I can guarantee I will be able to grow less than a third of what he’s fondling with those magic Irish fingers, but I shall read it anyway.

P.P.S. Beth Chatto’s biography by Catherine Horwood is also here. I enjoyed it, and revere St. Beth perhaps a little more.  Little pink pills and a lover, as it turns out.  I guess none of us is superhuman.
Marianne is a gardening columnist and the author of Big Dreams, Small Garden. Read more at SmalltownGardener or follow @smalltowngardener on Facebook and Instagram.