July 8, 2021

Lovettsville, VA

Dear Scott,

Just as I was beginning to think you’d finally expired face down in a root-infested trench, and that Michele might have seized upon her opportunity to fill it in and quietly book a trip to Cabo for one… there is news of a letter in my inbox!  Oh Frabjous Day!

I am thankful you are not dead from exhaustion as it gives us all hope that we too can abuse our bodies without mercy on the altar of our gardens and live to complain bitterly about it.

My garden life is hanging on by a thread and by the grace of summer-loving tropical plants at the moment. About twenty minutes before we were leaving for a two-week trip to visit family in California in mid-June, the heavens opened, the river rose, the bridge got clogged, and all the things I’ve been breaking my back to get in the ground (plus many others) passed before my eyes on their merry journey to the Potomac.


Yeah…pretty much everywhere you see water in this photo you’re not supposed to ever see water. Front and center is my much longed for greenhouse stranded on a pallet. Its partner-pallet floated down the lawn and balanced on the riverbank edge, caught in the miracle of newly exposed tree roots. We watched massive logs head towards it and veer off at the last second like a cliché from a bad eighties movie. ‘Stressful’ just doesn’t do the situation justice.


flooded pavillion

So much for gracious outdoor living. But a big validation for buying used and/or repurposed furniture – so much less stressful to watch it float away.

We nearly lost my Dad’s beloved 1986 Toyota truck and our equally beloved and almost equally ancient Land Cruiser had Mike not acted quickly – and probably extremely stupidly (former Marines are extremely handy in times of crisis I must say). But so much else was lost – including, ironically, all the shrubs and trees that were planted specifically to reinforce the river bank.  Hilarious.

Sadly, I could not reschedule the trip as my sister was counting on me to accompany her back to California in a RV with three kids and a busted A/C compressor.  I left the property 24 hours later, utter disaster in the rear-view mirror, Dante’s ninth circle of Arizona desert straight ahead.

barstow sunrise

Barstow, California at sunrise – proving that every place, no matter how grim, has an upside twice a day.

In any case, I returned home two weeks later to find I needed to leave again as quickly as possible. The clean-up seems unending, but I am determined to quiet my panicked heart as there is much to be happy about. Plus I keep returning to fourth grade lessons learned of the Nile flooding its banks at least once a year to deposit rich silt on hungry soils.  There is a lot of silt lying around (I dug 6 inches of it out from around the trunk of the Sango-Kaku maple and the Parrotia persica once I got them on their feet again), and it certainly smells rich — in a fishy, overwhelming way that makes you want to leave for the Arizona desert.  I’m thinking that, minus the inevitable weed seeds, this could be a good thing in the end.


Parrotia persica and Juniperus rigidus in a distinctly non rigid state.


color and texture in garden

The Serpentine bed escaped without much damage thanks to this crazy idea I had to build up the soil level before planting – creating height on what was a very flat canvas. It feels good to get it right sometimes.

As for the topic of mushrooming: In your impossibly narrow-minded way I believe you’ve beaten that horse to death. As have I — albeit from its opposite, more open-minded flank. But I will just take this moment to remind you that your wife ate a cicada in June.

I’m aware that horticulture pays badly (judging by my own meager rations), but surely you can afford alternate sources of basic protein, such as lentils or dried beans? Poor Michele – it is no wonder she toys with thoughts of Jane Austen and wealthy Darcys.

Furthermore, you most probably have kissed that mouth since.  At least I sincerely hope you have.  

Hmmm… wild, earthy mushrooms, carefully chosen and expertly prepared; or huge, crunchy INSECTS with red bulging eyes and tongue-slashing barbs on their yellowed legs?  How to choose….how to choose? In any case I think it’s obvious that people in glass houses should not throw stones.


Perhaps – just perhaps – paired with an outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon…Or is it Pinot Noir with large meaty insects? I can never remember.

Mind you, sexagenarians probably shouldn’t live in glass houses either.  Way too much visibility.

(BTW – by introducing me to the term ‘sexagenarian’ you have created a greater interest within me to experience it. This Quinquagenarian thing is – apart from the gin-laced quinine I was told we must imbibe on a daily basis – for the birds. I’m only 6 months in and not impressed.)

As I said, we have beaten this horse to death. However it should be obvious to you by this point that I must have the last word, so I will end the saga on a funny story , and about (as you so outrageously alleged) “the moonshiners and psychopaths” that wander my Virginia woods. And then perhaps we can retire this mushrooming question until such time as you are seated at my table facing a suspicious lasagna.

I have a neighbor of whom I am quite fond.  I am quite fond of many of our neighbors, but this man holds a special place in my affections because I suppose he scares the hell out of everyone else and I feel quite fortunate that he has taken a shine to Michael and I. 

That’s not to say that he hasn’t threatened to shoot my dog, or that he hasn’t screamed profanities at the men who came to drop off mulch because they blocked the lane for a minute, or that he hasn’t practically run me off the road when he didn’t recognize my dad’s truck; but he knows he is always welcome to come over for a beer and chat about the garden, or have Christmas dinner with us, or work together felling trees on his property or ours; and we understand that just because he wants to be left alone, living rough on his own property and enjoying a bit of Sunday target practice while his beard grows grayer and longer, does not make him the Unabomber.

jack russell terrier

Mungo is cute as hell, but has been known to chase deer across my neighbor’s property.

He does however have a reputation.  He once held two would-be burglars at gunpoint and literally forced them to eat dirt while (for the first time in their lives perhaps), they prayed for law enforcement to show up. If I was a casting agent, he’d be on my speed dial for character parts. To most of the suburbanites who wander the sterile neighborhoods and shopping malls of the metro DC area, and come out on weekends to experience a bit of rustic Loudoun County and its 7,485 wineries and breweries (if not their school board meetings), he is exactly what they would expect to find at the end of a long and pitted gravel lane.

country lane

A less pitted section in November.

He is a subsistence gardener, a ‘make do-er’, and a true recycler – which I respect beyond words – and I know that he regards my majority-ornamental garden as a massive waste of time and energy; but what we do have in common is a love of hunting mushrooms.  He often brings me that which he cannot use himself, and I in turn send surplus when I find it, the odd jar of honey, and a constant supply of fresh eggs.

All this to say that we are cool.  It’s been at least six years since I have fallen asleep wondering if he has people chained up in his basement.

So last October on a gorgeous day when I was locked in mortal combat with my laptop and seriously questioning the meaning of life, the universe and echinacea, he calls me up and tells me he’s got a chicken-of-the-woods he’d like me to identify at his place – and not in the way that guys used to want to show me their collection of first editions before Mike came on the scene (and before I became a first edition myself).

It was a beautiful day and I didn’t need any further urging. I jumped up, told no one where I was going, and made my way by foot over to his house.   We wandered for a while up the hill and discussed the topography and geology of it, the beauty of the clouds that day, and the way the sunlight hit the wild watercress along the stream. And in his right hand he casually held an old cardboard box that used to hold soda cans.

We came to the mushroom in question and it was definitely past its prime but still worth some attention (much like the men who used to invite me over to look at their first editions). And he set the box on the grass, and a very long, and very nasty, butcher knife slid out. He restored it to its flimsy sheath without a word and my blood suddenly ran cold.


mushroom basket

Just for the record, this is my non-threatening – docile even – mushrooming knife.


Now you know when you’re watching those thriller films and the protagonist suddenly clues in that the person in the room with them is the murderer/mafia boss/Robert deNiro, and the thing in that person’s hand is no longer just a butter knife, but a weapon of grisly potential, AND instead of playing it exceptionally cool and behaving with nerves of strung steel, they start babbling and staring at the knife and making it obvious that the jig is up? And meanwhile you’re screaming at the screen for them to act like a grown up and casually excuse themselves to the safety of the nearest police station?

Yeah, well, the babbling is a thing. 

It was a butcher knife. Suddenly I realized no one knew where I was.  And who in their right mind leaves an article half-finished for a mushrooming emergency? What, after all, did I really know about my neighbor? Had I ever seen his basement? Should I accidently drop a handkerchief on the ground? Where could I find a handkerchief at such short notice? 

Oh yeah.  Babble, babble, babble.  Smile, nervous laugh, stumble over words, nervous laugh, smile…don’t look at him directly…don’t look at the box…talk generally about mushrooms….c’mon Marianne, stop babbling….but why was he hiding the knife?!?…DON’T LOOK AT THE BOX MARIANNE – Oh God you did it again……. ad nauseam.

P A T H E T I C.

And then he took out the knife, cut the mushroom from its log tethering, put it in the box, and I fought complete adrenal failure all the way back to my house.

I’ve learned some lessons since. Mostly, “don’t think you’re better than people on TV,” but I now leave little notes about what I’m up to for Mike to come across when he realizes I haven’t been around lecturing him for at least an hour. After all, even if my neighbor is just choosing the wrong knife for the job, there is always the bear and attached cubs to think about.

Your macrophylla hydrangeas are stunning.  Around here, I find myself on the H. paniculata and quercifolia side of the fence as they are so versatile with climate, exposure and height, and at any one time, bombarded by pollinators. I have far, far too many – including a new take on an old favorite which I am interested to trial over the next couple years – ‘Limelight Prime’. 

One of my favorite paniculatas – ‘Baby Lace’ at that perfect point of pure potential. (And vulnerability to deer).

H. serrata 'Bluebird'

H. serrata ‘Bluebird.’ Ten feet away, a second is fully pink, and reminds me never to make assumptions about my soils.

I cannot for the life of me reach down and find love for the rough (and often ragged) leaves of H. aspera, though I know it is what one should like if one is at all ‘serious.’  I do hate shoulds and shouldn’ts when it comes to personal preference.  It smacks too much of the Emperor’s New Clothes – and there is far too much of that about these days in every other aspect of life.

I have rambled too long, and no doubt there is something that requires my attention outside.



P.S. I’m glad you had the joy of a tidy garden without the pressure of an official tour to alert you to its shortcomings (as it always does). These days I far prefer the joys of inviting a few plant people over for drinks, dinner, and a wander – and a discussion of outrageously unattainable, but fabulous new ideas. The back and forth dialogue is what makes it all worthwhile, don’t you think?

P.P.S. Hoping to see you in Columbus this weekend for Cultivate! Or at the very least, tour your garden to discuss outrageously unattainable but fabulous new ideas over a vodka gin & tonic.

I trust you won’t be serving cicadas.