Lovettsville, VA

Dear Scott,

Rain. Glorious rain!

The exclamation point is, I assure you, fully justified. After three and a half weeks without the stuff and without piped water to my sunniest gardens, I had reached a point of exhaustion and had begun the process of separation.

Not so positive - milk jugs on thuja

Last year and the year before were the years to plant trees – and I did. But this year, I finally had time to put in the thuja hedge. Now it’s being kept on life support by milk jugs schlepped up from the creek. How wonderful that the crab grass and creeping charlie seem undaunted.

I know you are familiar with this gardener’s trick of self-preservation. Just stop looking at the things that upset you so that they in effect, disappear. My inherited 100ft Long Bed currently requires a machete, pith helmet and vaccine certificate to enter, but by simply turning my head left instead of right when I exit the back door, the issue is solved until winter takes a crack at it.

Douglas Adams wrote of something similar in his Hitchhiker’s series – advocating the use of a towel over one’s head to successfully protect the wearer from seeing anything dangerous.  And I am successfully using something similar with my mirror these days – you do not have that many years on me you know.

I touched upon this August feeling of exhaustion/annoyance two weeks ago on my own website – pulling no punches – only to have a subscriber withdraw her reading services, citing “Looking for something more positive.”

Oh how I wanted to reply to her – breaking no doubt, sixteen Mailchimp covenants and sworn oaths of privacy – to say “My friend and fellow gardener, this IS positive. It’s the perfectly packaged pap from the everything-is-okay-I’m-doing-awesome-having-it-all-#BestLifeEver crowd that you should be avoiding.  We’re all in this together – it sure as hell helps if someone is truthful about it.”

I refrained. But I did get a giggle when Anne Wareham of The Veddw House Garden commented “Still knackered – I measure this by how many times a day I say f… off to an inanimate object.” Wonderful.

I believe you are dry in the Midwest too this year – isn’t it annoying to find ourselves more dependent on the wet stuff than we wish to be? And that’s just the vodka gin and tonics. The despair attached to a long cool spring and mostly rainless summer in a year where I am writing and photographing a book on tropical plants has necessitated a few more visits to the drinks cabinet than are advocated by those that officially advocate these things.

lilies on drinks cabinet

Fresh flowers on the drinks cabinet keeps the intoxication process civilized.

Some mornings I can feel the ghost of Beth Chatto hovering over me and my watering cans as I slop warm rainwater over sandaled, gritty toes and give Anne at The Vedww something to strive for in graduate level Creative Swearing.

Hearkening back to our discussion of gardeners you do not care to read, but don’t mind slagging off, Chatto championed the idea of planting specifically for drought tolerance.  When I last visited the Beth Chatto Garden in East Anglia two years ago, they had received all of 13 inches of rain by the end of August, and the gravel garden (built over the remains of a car park) had not had a drop of supplemental water. It was a hot summer certainly, but that area of England is particularly dry in the best of years.

Beth Chatto Gravel Garden

Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden in August 2018

Chatto’s ghost chastises me for planting choices made in wetter years.  I’d offer her a coffee, but she has so many gardeners to chastise on her morning rounds there’s no time for a chat. Should she stay, I’m ashamed to say I would begin the discussion with an excuse — having been instructed throughout my gardening career not to.

“The difficulty with my garden,” I would say (How many sentences begin thus? I have heard hundreds myself.) “is that I live in a wooded stream valley.”

She would look at me blankly – in that way the British are so good at – in the way my militant (but beloved) godmother used to – politely waiting for the actual problem. And I would instantly feel ashamed of myself and get back to water slopping and some menial weeding.

Hypothetical one-sided discussion over.

Not that I wouldn’t continue to feel sorry for myself, chastised and muttering into the crabgrass.  For I am a gardener and that is what gardeners do. There is an enormous amount of energy spent feeling sorry for ourselves.  A dry season, a deer feast, a late spring freeze, a child on a mower. Poor Anne and Charles at The Veddw lost one massive yew in an established hedge to a dripping tap and I want to shake my fist at the Heavens for them – I can’t imagine how cosmically wronged they feel.

Ah! The glories we could achieve were it not for [X]!  The vegetables we could grow were it not for [Y]! The excuse-free year we would have were it not for [Z]!  I could go on, but I have an excuse to finish illustrating for you and demons compel me…

A wooded stream valley means free draining alluvial soils worthy of a Mediterranean garden…were it not for the 90 foot tulip poplars meting out sunlight like a miserly king. And then there’s the cold air that trips and tumbles down the hillsides to pool over my expensive zone-pushers.  Lavender without the sun. Ferns without the moisture. Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink…

A drone photo in May shows part of the lower garden, but more importantly, shows the surrounding woods lurking like Fangorn Forest. Minus the Ents.

It is a paradox that can only be solved by the time and effort needed to amend the soils and figure out what works and what won’t. Beyond the Japanese Stilt Grass, which couldn’t be happier.

During this dry year, it is tempting to allow the survivors to slip quietly into dormancy. With COVID bells sounding and everything off the calendar, including tours of my garden by highly opinionated gardeners tsking and tutting between mouthfuls of quiche and cheap plonk, I have questioned the need (for instance) to keep watering containerized color for my eyes only.  Further existential questions such as “What is it all for?” or “Is there a purpose to all this suffering?” or “Why the hell did I wait to put in that thuja hedge until THIS year?” have been springing from my lips just as often has Anne has been abusing her inanimate objects.

Now it is you who are no doubt looking for something more positive. Forgive me.  I am in an August state of mind and there is nothing like it. August will try the very soul of you. How many new, excited 20-something gardeners have met their Waterloo in August and fled back to more pleasurable ways of abusing their bodies and minds?

There I go again.  This is getting grim quickly.  You might as well be writing this letter.  Let me attempt to redeem myself with something profound: Adversity refocuses the lens of necessity.

This perhaps is the most positive lesson coming out of all this mess, by which I mean the COVID emergency, the dry summer, and the non-stop political wars:  The perspective it gives on the importance of the garden.  Not the garden in a particular moment in time mind you (glorious May, damnable August), but the garden in general. The necessity of the garden.

Space to breathe, a place to think, inanimate objects to abuse without recrimination.  I am very grateful for that.

Echinacea Granada Gold

I love the color and resilience of the Sombrero series of Echinacea too – Granada Gold is perhaps my favorite (though this is an early season photo), followed by ‘Baja Burgundy’

'Baja Burgundy' Echinacea

‘Baja Burgundy’ Echinacea

I have also been made more aware of the things I don’t need – like that containerized color in a far off part of the garden, extra pots of cuttings to water that will never find a home this season, clearance plants at deep discounts that will cost me dearly in sweat trying to revive them during a cruel summer.  It is a freeing state of mind.

I was so very thankful recently to a professional gardener on a social media page who took an honest picture of plants heading to the compost pile in the back of a truck because he hadn’t the staff to plant them, much less water them after the COVID mess.  He also had zero time to find homes for them all and arrange pick up etc… (yes, this takes time!).  He was saddened, but realistic.

I submit such honesty as “something more positive.” We all know we’re going to keep working with plants.  We all live, breathe and sleep it.  But to pretend the difficulties don’t get us down? That creates unrealistic expectations for others (particularly beginners) that may result in them chucking it all before they have had a chance to thoroughly swallow the hook.

Should we wallow? I do not believe this to be helpful either.  But a well balanced mix of good with bad is better I think than broad August smiles proclaiming truths one knows to be lies.

Now for “something more [overtly] positive”…

With August’s arrival, the tropicals are coming into their own, which is why I adore them and have spent the first half of this year slouched in front of my laptop trying to communicate why we should all have a tropical love affair or two.  They are heavy drinkers of course (you’d get on splendidly), but sometimes I am amazed by what I can get away with wielding only a watering can.

tropicals in garden

Ensete and ‘Bengal Tiger’ canna against a burgeoning ‘Baby Lace’ hydrangea.

In the early evening when I walk the garden in a better frame of mind, they magically transfer their enthusiasm for heat and humidity to the temperate shrubs and perennials who are flagging. A bit like that guest at the party who comes late, mixes up a new cocktail, commandeers the playlist and gets everybody moving again.  We’ll all have a hell of a hangover digging rhizomes in the fall, but damn, it will be worth it.

tropical pond

You simply can’t beat the instant effect of tropical foliage. This little pond area is five weeks old and looked like hell in June.

Thank you by the way for your last letter which elicited a belly laugh of the best kind. You are too rich in your praise – I can assure you it is undeserved.  I am merely an extrovert who enjoys the natural introversion of academics – and would happily sign my life away to sitting in a common room discussing Zingiberaceae over a subsidized beer if I didn’t have to literally sign my life away to another round of crippling student loans.

Been there. Done that.  If I had a rich uncle I’d be doing it again. So I read. And I study. And I tour. My garden is my lab. Minus the subsidized beer.  And the piercings.

However. Do not think for one minute I am not on to you and your cleverly-chosen avatar of Underdog. That is a strategic place to lurk, and you pull it off well.  I can only come off as harsh and unsympathetic in comparison.  I will remind you that I did once sit through one of your interminable lectures (the one where you weren’t attacking me), and you are fooling no one with the “I’m just an average, at best, student” shtick.

The Pity-The-Poor-Midwesterner routine is also particularly shrewd (esp. as anti-coastal bias is popular and I am creature of not one, but two); but I’ve seen the black, beautiful soils out there. You could throw a pack of cigarettes on the ground and sprout tobacco. Who needs mountains and oceans with fertility like that?

Yes. You are good at what you do. But do seek therapy at once.



P.S.  My version of too much gin at age 15 and the dirty asphalt of a drive-in right off the Mosteller Road exit in Sharonville, Ohio, is tequilla in a little town in Norway at 18. No asphalt.  Cannot touch the stuff now…double-vision fjords come flooding back. Thank God social media didn’t exist when we were young & supple, eh?