April 15, 2021

Lovettsville VA

Dear Scott,

Spring! Etc. etc.

What a relief.  I am torn between feeling overwhelmed each morning, and tearful gratitude. However, finding a new colony of native may apples where I winter-dispatched a thicket of multiflora rose may have soundly tipped the scales towards gratitude. Those mottled, delicate umbrellas took me by total surprise this morning – especially as they appeared to have been professionally underplanted with a carpet of claytonia.

may apples and claytonia

Try not to pay attention to the honeysuckle. It’s a never ending battle.

Isn’t it ridiculous that I can hunt for, locate, plant, and cosset a Podophyllum pleianthum (which is now tentatively emerging near the front door), but when I rip out brambles by the roots and trample the soil to within an inch of its life, suddenly I’ve got April at Mt. Cuba happening on my northern slope?  Perhaps I should give up all future expensive podophyllum acquisition dreams and just focus on what I’m apparently good at: editing. 

podophyllum pleianthum

My cossetted P. pleianthum – making a late-ish entrance to a party well underway.

I find it fascinating that each spring unfolds with its own unique rhythm – some mellow, others not so. This spring’s rhythm reminds me of an underground prohibition-era bar in NYC I used to visit when I was younger and less protective of my sleep patterns: slow build-up, exciting jazz riffs, a little blues, and no punishing jazz fusion. There has also been plenty of opportunity to sip a top-shelf G&T.  All in all, worth lingering a while in the evenings and ordering a second.

Along with the common-as-dirt may apples I attach a few poor photos of my rapidly growing epimedium collection (minus my two faves – ‘Amber Queen’ and ‘Pink Champagne’ which are just coming out). Watching these delicate flowers emerge thrills me in that same way I used to bemusedly observe in other (more obviously nerdy) plant nerds.


This one was given to me as ‘Lilac Seedling’ from John Willis.

How we find ourselves where we find ourselves I honestly do not know. I was normal once. I assume that, to a certain extent, you were too. Yet here we are, sharing photos of epimedium, claytonia and hellebore while the rest of the world is buying a new Weber and three sacks of Weed and Feed.

Epimedium sulphureum

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ is my cheapest and most cheerful. When it is regularly dug and divided you can have a huge carpet rather quickly.

I enjoyed your Easter letter and its tasteless but nonetheless amusing resurrection analogies; but I harbor concerns that illustrating your gargantuan, drain-digging labors in such Kafkaesque detail could be very off-putting for the 20+ million who garden-dabbled in 2020.

I’m not trying to tell you how to do your job as an award-winning garden writer (groan) and purveyor of unending green happiness, but perhaps these people shouldn’t be made so soon aware of the inexorable, destructive effects of the humble water droplet?

Maybe it’s not an issue as 19+ million of them are probably reading The Spruce and haven’t yet moved on to the Rant portion of their gardening lives; but for those who have read ahead in the curriculum, truth of such magnitude could shake a few foundations. And damn that was some serious truth.

We only have these people by the finest of hairs Scott. Right now you should be YouTubing the immeasurable joys of seed starting with a fixed, but generous, smile upon your face and a sponsored product somewhere within arms’ reach.  Let these sweet innocents find out about water, and its revengeful, spiteful nature later in the process when there is no escape from the gardening life they have worthily embraced.  They can learn about roots then too.

Bait and switch my dear. Bait and switch.

mystery epimedium

This is a sweet little epimedium given to me by Lindie Wilson in Charlotte last year. Glad to see it blooming.

However, as the damage is now done, I will admit that for the rest of us, it is a relief to hear of your suffering. Moreover, it is a relief to hear of you jumping into a job of that magnitude.  I wonder how many others are daily tortured not so much by the undertaking of large home and garden projects, but by their identification and the accompanying dread of them.  I can instantly think of three projects that sink the heart in me, and that’s without trying.

Once stuck in, there are moments of pure despair (as you so richly illustrated), but there is also the knowledge that, for better or worse, you got started.   It’s happening. What is worth worrying about must be solved, and what isn’t disappears into that dark and dangerous place one only visits at 2am (instead of that underground bar – sadly).  All of the ambiguity and worry about the particulars is crystallized into certainty

mystery epimedium

Cannot remember where this one came from – and no name sadly – but it is a lovely orange flower paired with a rather boring leaf.

I wish you luck and less in the way of roots. If this letter had an envelope, I’d slip you one of my precious lidocaine patches – or is that technically drug dealing?

With regards to roots, I have spent much of the last three weeks moving shrubs which are too big for the space where I planted them seven years ago, to spaces which will be too small for them in seven years. 

An SI joint and my lower back have been so dodgy for the last year that I am forced to do this wearing a constricting belt that limits my ability to move without cutting off circulation to a major artery.  The resulting lightheadedness then limits my ability to make better decisions about spacing – or at least that’s how I will look at it in seven years’ time.

It is a blow to one’s vanity to look down and see such a contraption strapped around comfortable and generous sweatpants where levis and leather belts with bronze buckles once dwelt, but if it gets the itea shifted and the lilac finally scrubbed out, I must accept my personal new normal while I undertake a hideous strengthening program that is right, and good, and boring as hell.

Speaking of itea and lilac, one mistake I am never (yes, I use that word precisely) making again is to put a heavily suckering woody shrub anywhere other than an area where I am happy to have it sucker (such as along my streambank).

This cuts down on a lot of options for mixed borders – but there are plenty of less enthusiastic shrubs whose rarer suckers still excite the frugal wench within me.  Runners from my rugosa roses for example. I never grumble as they provide cheap, cheerful, and exceedingly welcome gifts for new gardeners who have never attempted to prune one.


Look at this lovely thing – Iris bucharia blooming this morning through the little gray rosettes of pilosella.

The lilac wasn’t my doing – it was here when we moved, and I have held onto it for sentimental reasons as I had a fondness for the previous owners, Lloyd & Jeanne.  I even called it Lloyd’s lilac, when the truth of the matter is that Lloyd probably didn’t plant it, and if he did, didn’t put any more thought into it than what he was having for dinner that night.  Still, it was one of few cultivated plants on the property, and I felt I must nurture it, renovate it, and tactfully avert my eyes as it became more matronly and less maiden-like.

I trust you will offer me the same consideration when we next meet.

But this is the year. Strengthened by Dan Hinkley’s admonition in Windcliff not to plant a “meaningless blob of nothing to fill a gap” and extrapolating from there to include eradicating those inherited monsters that do the same, I decided to take it out. With my handy battery-operated chainsaw it was the work of an Ibruprofen-laced moment, but now I am faced with this large stump complex. And my back. And another one of those large digging jobs whose contemplation brings me full circle to my points above. 

Yet the job must be done. The space is slated for a Chamaecyparis obtusa that has gracefully grown too large for its current spot. In my defense I always knew it would, but wanted it where it was for that gorgeous five-year window of perfect height. You are a lover of trees so I know you know exactly what I am talking about.  Trees go from small-and-helpless, to perfect, to too-damn-big the same way as children do – though thankfully they don’t have adolescent mouths on them.  

Lastly, with the exception of the bananas, the tropicals are out of the garage and into hacked-together temporary cold frames for the next couple weeks. The spring has crept up on me quickly this year. And with the vegetable/kitchen garden undergoing a major re-do which will most likely take all season, I have not started seeds as I normally would. 

It is exceptionally freeing and I highly recommend it. 


I cannot get enough of this time of year once the claytonia start blooming. They are absolutely everywhere.

I have started many thousands of seeds over the years and I’m sure there are thousands more in my future, but I realize these days that I actually prefer the excitement of cuttings.  It’s ironic to get excited about asexual techniques, but there you go, that’s middle age for you. Are you a seeds or a cuttings man do you think? You may answer freely – I promise that I won’t draw any moral conclusions (at least consciously).

pink claytonia

Here is an unusual one (at least for around here) that sports pink flowers, rather than just pink veining and pink pollen.

I must stop before some horrible dystopian software alerts you that this letter is more than a “four minute read,” (thank God Tolkien and Tolstoy weren’t bloggers), but before I do, I can assure you that, yes, the word used to describe you in that email was indeed ‘treasure.’ The term has even been repeated and shared on Facebook, and therefore cannot possibly be considered misinformation, as apparently, they’ve got that sort of thing squarely locked down.

However, before you alert various media companies, shamelessly looking for yet another award (and you wonder why someone at work is being mean to you), I will pass on a wise bit of advice that I heard recently:

If you don’t let compliments go to your head, insults cannot pierce your heart

Wise indeed as there is usually a hefty supply of the latter to negotiate in this life.



P.S.  Please tell Michele she looked beautiful in that dress. Easter personified.

P.P.S.  My long overdue author copies of Tropical Plants and How to Love Them finally arrived today! 
            It’s a treasure. Possibly award-winning.