If you were a GardenRant reader in the early days, you’ll remember Michele Owens, one of our founders, and her wise, witty and sometimes politically incorrect articles here. Here are MY favorites from those early years together, when I looked forward to Fridays, Michele’s day to post.
Grow food, for crissakes!
More than any topic in the gardening world, Michele used this space to advocate for growing your own food, then cooking it beautifully, as she always did.
From “Why I wrote my book”:
Growing food is not something that requires loads of specialized knowledge, specialized tools, and wearying attention. It takes just sun, seeds, and enough water. And a nice mulch. That’s it.
And “Kitchen gardening…
will also give you the ineffably beautiful experience of fetching a salad or tomatoes from the garden right before dinner, when the sun is setting, the air is cooling, and the birds are singing about the wonders of the day gone by. That’s as much transcendence as I require in this life. I’d hate for you to miss such a beautiful experience out of the mistaken idea that anything about this endeavor is hard.”
Graduates, that means you, too!
“The commencement speech no one’s invited me to deliver” is her imagined address to graduates of “Expensiva University:”
Today, I want to urge you to consider something even more elemental –namely, the dirt beneath your feet. Why? Because it’s the most reliable source of transcendence you are likely to encounter. To put a plant in the ground is to understand the miracle of life. Develop a relationship with the soil and you will get something more valuable than a Wellbutrin prescription.
Let’s face it. It can be hard to find such sources of hope in the modern world. As far as I’m concerned, religion has been completely discredited, thanks to some really devoted jihadists, many homophobic American fundamentalists, and loads of pathetic and creepy Catholic priests. But it’s tough to survive without any form of transcendence. You’ll need it at age 25, when the boyfriend or girlfriend you’ve placed such hopes in breaks your heart. You’ll need it even more, at 45 or 55, when you’ll have disappointed yourself many times.
Nerding out on Food Policy
Her knowledge and opinions went far beyond the boundaries of her own large kitchen garden – she covered national and state food and agricultural policy, and reports from economic summits and think tanks on the subject. Following policy is part of her job writing speeches for leaders in business, academia and government.
She actually reads the Freakonomics blog and in “Attacking food gardening on the grounds of inefficiency is a huge waste of time“ she declares that its critic of kitchen gardens:
moves in an eye-blink from his own inability to make orange sherbet at home to the conclusion that food-growing is best left to professionals. No, not to the adorable, dirty-pantsed 25 year-old idealists at your farmer’s market, but to super-efficient agribusinesses.
And on food-gardening and the economics profession:
Personally, I like knowing how to do stuff, especially how to grow beans and cook them beautifully. These activities are extremely enjoyable, and so meaningful that I would no more outsource them than I’d outsource the raising of my children. They connect me with the whole of human history, which, let’s face it, has been largely about scrambling to find the next meal.
Michele is passionate about school food policy, too, and she grew food with her kids’ classes. “We not only garden with the kids, we cook with them–and seriously!”
From “School food vegetables should taste good.”
My feeling is that until you have tasted locally grown or homegrown vegetables, you have never tasted a vegetable. So ‘healthier’ school lunches made with tired sad produce shipped all the way from California, or frozen or canned vegetables, are probably not enticing.
Look, institutional cooking is hard. I understand that. But many of us live in places surrounded by superb local farmers. I would bet that if you tapped that resource, as my school district does, and gave the Food Service people wider creative latitude–and kitchens they could cook in–healthier eating would move out of the realm of theory and policy and into kids’ lives.
Appreciation for No-BS Writing
From “Mrs. Greenthumbs: An Appreciation”:
“Most garden design books strike me as abstract to the point of absurdity, with advice on the unhelpful order of “consider proportion,”
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.
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.
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.
Michele takes us back to the bad old days of gardening advice before Jeff Gilman and Linda Chalker-Scott when “most cultural recommendations were either mindless anglophilia, primitive superstition, or horseshit pure and simple.”
But DO click on the article because the quotes that Michele selected from the book will make you want to read Ruth Stout.
On Invasive Plants, She GOES There
Daring to push back against one-size-fits-all laws about plants that can or can’t be grown, Michele bravely wrote “What’s Invasive? Telling people what they can’t plant in their yards.” which prompted a hot conversation in the comment section – 95 in all.
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.
My feeling is, if it’s invasive in your yard, get rid of it. If it’s not invasive in mine, be quiet.
In “The Myth of Planning – Planting with Conviction is more Important“ she makes the case for why the popular wisdom about emulating the perennial borders of Gertrude Jekyll is wrong:
- Gertrude Jekyll was a genius and a painter with a magnificent eye for color and form. Presumably, you are neither.
- She was designing giant beds on giant estates. Maybe if you’d been a little nicer to one of those finance majors in college, you too would have giant beds on a giant estate, but, no, you were too busy dating painters and poets. With smaller beds, you just have to pick your moments. They cannot accommodate enough plants to be consistently impressive from early spring to late fall.
From “Why plant-shopping at the big box stores is depressing“:
In Saratoga Springs [New York], gardening forms no part of the local fantasy, which revolves around very expensive horse-flesh and some Gatbsy-eqsue vision of highly exclusive summer parties enjoyed in linen suits, silk dresses and large hats. This fantasy is not mine, but I wouldn’t object to it, if only it hadn’t driven away all the damned nurseries.
Here is the one common thread in all my big-box shopping experiences: I go in with my credit cards thrumming in my wallet, absolutely itching for plants. And I come out with only a tiny fraction of what I intended to get. The local Lowe’s could hire a horticulturalist full-time on the difference between what I want to spend there–and what I actually do spend there.
Michele’s “Turf Management – an Appalling Waste of Horticultural and Scientific Talent” also prompted a lively discussion in the comments. In it she first summarizes the ills of the world and the need for people to do something about them and then scolds:
And you want to spend four or more years learning how to pour water, artificial nitrogen manufactured from fossil fuels, and soil-deadening pesticides onto turfgrass mowed with giant gasoline guzzling machines? In order to make 75 year-old golfers who don’t care about the future happy?
Wouldn’t it be more socially productive to get a degree in Croupier Sciences? Sex Worker Management? Pyramid Schemes?
In March of 2010 Michele wrote “I just turned 50, so I have thought about gardening and aging.” Among the many benefits of gardening, including that it’s good exercise, there’s this:
It’s important for one’s morale, while one is wrinkling and losing one’s waistline, to feel nonetheless as if one is getting fitter every day!
I will always have a task so absorbing that all mundane annoyances disappear.
I will always have a community, too–the company of other gardeners, who are clearly the wisest and most wonderful people in the world.
Details of Growing Vegetables
I don’t grow food myself, but if you do, you might get ideas from Michele’s detailed veg-growing reports and seed lists. We saved a few in this curated selection of her posts.
Good news, readers! To help celebrate GardenRant’s 15th anniversary, Michele has promised to send us an update on her adventures in gardening. And presumably anything else she needs to get off her chest.
I certainly look forward to hearing from Michele. I hope she and the kids made a good solid landing and are thriving after the breakup.
I came late to this Rant so I didn’t get to read Michele’s rants before but she sounds delightful. When I read the excerpt “But it’s tough to survive without any form of transcendence. You’ll need it at age 25, when the boyfriend or girlfriend you’ve placed such hopes in breaks your heart. You’ll need it even more, at 45 or 55, when you’ll have disappointed yourself many times.”, I burst into tears! I can’t wait for the snow to be gone from my yard so I can get my hands dirty again.
Wonderful reading this writer’s point of view. Thank you, I will go back and read a few more of Michele’s Rants.