21 February 2020

Lovettsville, VA

Dear Scott,

It is Sunday morning, everyone is fed, and there is still six inches of crusty, icy snow upon the ground. The will to put my boots back on and be upthrusting and productive outside dwindles with each contented sigh of little Mungo here at my feet.  It is a good time to answer your letter. I had thought of answering it last Sunday, regardless of the momentous date, but couldn’t trust you to leave the easy joke alone.

It appears we are finally in agreement. Albeit in condemnation of others, but it’s good to feel united in righteousness.  At least we are following the zeitgeist.  

When Michael and I were without land – and worse, without any hope of it – the dead, empty lots of suburban homes filled me with envy…and not a little anger. You’ve got to be pretty desperate to envy some of these modern lots – awkward slopes, total decimation of soil structure, boundaries that resemble first grade geometry puzzles, and often all of it under the mothering, smothering gaze of an HOA and its ever-vigilant Clipboard Police.  

And of course, totally and disturbingly empty.   

the gardenless yard

Mr. and Mrs. McMansion aren’t the only ones not gardening. This house is one of many near the tiny mother-in-law apartment where I carved out my first garden from a 2×17 foot hellstrip. I would have done ANYTHING for even half this amount of space. But, as you say – the enormous privilege is pissed away.


dervaes garden

And yet – it can be done. This house sits directly across the street, belongs to the Dervaes family of Urban Homestead fame and produces over 6,000 pounds of fresh produce every year (and is the venue for CLASSES on how to do it). You gotta wonder how neighbors can actively resist being inspired to grow food. Or just a freaking marigold.  Photo from: Big Dreams, Small Garden (2017)

We were desperate. And this — as I’m sure you never asked me — was the inspiration for my first book.  Finding a small run-down lot that we could afford and building a garden over ten years was such a soul-filling rush that I wrote it high as a kite on that feeling, hoping to encourage others who instinctively “got it” to JUST DO IT, and others who didn’t to fill those lots with something other than grass and four-thousand-dollar swing sets.  It was so bleeding obvious to me that THIS was the missing piece of lives otherwise well-lived.

Well. Lived at least.

It resonated with thousands. It should have resonated with millions more (there are so many feeling just as desperate) — but sadly my publisher didn’t have the ear of an Oprah minion who might feel similarly disenfranchised, and thus place it on the royal bedside table with a large glass of Sauv Blanc and my phone number.

big dreams small garden

Shameless Plug. But just in case Oprah (or a minion) is reading.

Well, I gardened the hell out of that 1/10 of an acre. The hell out of it. This forced my children out of my landscape and into the woodland behind us until a developer focused his beady little eye on that avenue of pleasure and we began the earnest hunt for the land that alternately beats us and blesses us today. 

So now those empty lots do not make me envious or angry.  They make me sad.  Sad for what is lost. Sad for the farm that sits six feet below the subsoil; for the wild creatures that adjust their paths and sometimes lose them; for the waterways choked with metric tons of Weed & Feed during the growing season.

But most of all they make me sad for the inhabitants of those four walls who do not know what it is that they squander.   Would birds, bees and The Bored not all have been happier with an expansive wild common area outside the windows of a 3500 square foot condo with Florida Room option and access to the club’s infinity pool?

So, yes, we are in agreement.  I will not go so far as to call them truly bad people. I will leave that to big-thinkers like yourself drunk on lack of sleep, mashed potatoes and vodka tonics. 

They only become truly bad people in my book when they move out to even larger empty lots in the country because COVID has attached the powerful, wealthy wings of a telecommuter to the heart and mind of an urbanite. They only become truly bad people when they want to know why we don’t have streetlights on our graveled road, a Whole Foods within spitting distance, and regulations against roosters.  Oh and a decent internet connection.

That last one makes me laugh.  It’s an evil laugh, but a satisfying one. To move “all the way out here” only to find that our data connection is easily bested by an Everest climber at base camp with an iPhone.

That’s gotta sting.

snowy creek

We’ve had more snowstorms than I have seen in years. It’s making the deer hungry. Way too hungry.

In garden news around here, the deer are breaking my heart a little more than usual, helped by the frequent but unusual amounts of snowfall that encourage them to seek out evergreens they have always ignored.  I look out on the nibbled Chindo viburnum and am reminded of Madeline Kahn’s brilliant delivery in Clue, where she calmly describes hatred as white hot flames emanating from the sides of her head.

I am also reminded of oh-so-pompously chastising my mother in my early twenties when she would moan over the deer eating her rhodos and azaleas. “Don’t grow them then!” was my clear and wise and hopelessly clueless, slap-worthy reply. Why didn’t she clock me I wonder?

Mungo gives chase – his little body driving bravely through the snow, up to his belly in it as Nessa lopes past with the long legs of a wolfhound.  His heart is as strong as a thoroughbred and damn he wants a piece of that deer flesh.  Nessa’s just in it for the giggles.

I have greenhouse news!  It starts innocently enough with a well-placed Instagram ad by a small, quality company in Terrebonne, Oregon and two gin & tonics. It ends with an April delivery date.  There are a few weeks in between those two events, and a lot more gin, but you get the idea.

nw green panels

Mindless scrolling cost me big this time. This is just one of their lovely double-paned models.

Now, I know. I know I said something about putting it off (once again) for another year.

I caved. Michael caved.

In fact, this whole thing reminds me of how my eldest child came into the world.  We had a long talk over how it just wasn’t possible on any level at the time (we were both working and at university abroad with no family support system, a tiny flat, and mountains of student loan debt), then we go watch Jerry Maguire one night, witness the world’s cutest boy deliver the world’s cutest lines in the world’s cutest glasses, consume three gin & tonics, and low and behold I have to figure out how to write my dissertation with a toddler on my lap.

I’m going to extrapolate from this parallel story that it will all work out wonderfully in the end, though I may have complete adrenal failure in year two and switch careers.

In any case, Come April!

Sois courageux!


P.S. Thank you so very much for reinforcing the idea to your thousands of misguided fans (one of which emailed me last week to term you ‘a treasure’) that there are too many reasons why you don’t have time for tropical plants in your life.  That, my darling man, is the point of my bookto help incredibly busy and dismissive gardeners like yourself figure out how and where to sneak in these summer warriors so that the punishment that is August doesn’t make you hit the bottle even harder.

And if it wasn’t languishing in a warehouse in Singapore at this very moment with the rest of the COVID export refugees, I’d hit you over the head with it.

P.P.S You forgot to tell me about your winter garden – or were you carefully avoiding the topic?