October 16, 2021

Cincinnati, Ohio

Dear Marianne,

So good to receive your letter dated September 2nd. Is it possible that it’s already October 16th? I no longer have any sense for time. Every day I grind, attention set on the items on my to-do list that, left undone, are most likely to get me fired or killed. When I finally look up, it’s time for bed.  I should just stop making promises based on timely commitments. I can’t seem to finish things while they still matter. 

But I have got a bit of an excuse for a tardy letter. Michele and I enjoyed six days in your home state. We flew to San Jose to visit my sister Karen and her family. My dad, other sister, and her husband came along too. We saw everything there is to see from San Francisco to the north to Paso Robles in the south. And we ate and drank so much I’m pretty sure we caused some shortages. Wine, especially. All told, we traveled almost 900 miles packed into a Hertz Grand Caravan minivan with over 63,000 miles on it. It featured slushy springs, hair-trigger steering, and an air conditioner that couldn’t quite keep up. By every rule in the Universe, none of us should still be on speaking terms and three of us should be changing our Facebook status to single, but, except for one meltdown, we got along. And I was reminded of how much I love California.

Heading towards a meltdown in a Paso Robles winery parking lot, a hot, crowded, bouncy Dodge Grand Caravan to blame. Fortunately, the winery offered wine, which restored our wills to live.

Left to right, my lovely Michele, John (Sandy’s husband), Tom (Karen’s husband), Sandy, Marcos (my niece’s fiance), my Dad, Sarah (my niece), Karen, Brett (my nephew) with Baja, and Frances (his girlfriend). Sarah and Marcos announced their engagement during our visit! In fact, minutes before this photo.

Horticulturally, we jammed in more than our fair share of the group’s vacation time. We visited the Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park and a contingent of us stopped by the University of California, Santa Cruz Botanical Garden. The tea garden was awesome. Cool, damp, and comfortable. Perfect, as you would expect, and filled with familiar plants. The UCSC Botanical Garden is a fine collection of plants I refuse to believe are actually from this planet, including many that are supposedly from the Southern Hemisphere. But, damn, it was hot. Really hot. My dad wound up sitting in the shade while my niece and nephew and their significant others followed us around. To their credit, they feigned interest and never complained. But soon enough we realized the heat was visibly aging us so we went back to San Jose and enjoyed–get this–gin and tonics. After 50+ years following a very bad teenage gin experience, I have recovered sufficiently enough that I can, at least, hold gin down and, at most, even enjoy it. 

The Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

An alien life form found at University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum.

Karen’s garden in San Jose is just a lovely space packed with a thousand exuberant containers of succulents and tropicals. I took a short walk around her neighborhood and was surprised to see that some of their street trees are the same ones we grow here in Ohio—golden raintree, honey locust, ginkgo, walnuts, and London planes. I asked Karen if they ever get watered. “Oh no.” “You sure?” “Very sure.” “When did you last get rain?” “Might have been April. Could have been March.” “What the…? How the…?” For the hundredth time in recent months, I’m re-thinking everything I ever thought I knew about everything. The more I see and experience, the more I realize I probably am, and always have been, a damned idiot and totally full of shit.

On the way to the airport for our return, we had time enough to swing by the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden and I fell in love with roses again. It’s amazing how clean they are in a climate devoid of any humidity.  

The San Jose Municipal Rose Garden.


Reminded me of the time it took me an eternity to identify a tree in Utah. It was fall of 2019. We were there to collect two gold medals from GardenComm for articles I had written. Must have done something dumb at the ceremony though. No gold medals since. But, I digress. “What is that beautiful tree?” I kept asking. After far too long, it finally dawned on me that it was…could be…a crabapple. Nothing rare. Nothing “western.” Just a freakin’ crabapple. Felt so damned stupid! Another reminder that I am and probably have always been an idiot and totally full of shit. But, in my defense, it was a crabapple without any of the features we use to identify them here in Ohio. Not a trace of scab. No rust. Zero fire blight. The plant was clean as a whistle! I’d never seen one like that before. Anyway, it just might have been possible that some big influencer from GardenComm saw this whole crabapple struggle play out. Good, old, high-falutin Scott Beuerlein, newly minted gold medal winner times two, seen struggling to identify a common crabapple. So this could be another reason why the gold medals stopped coming but I don’t really know. There could be so many other reasons.

Anyway, my trip to California loaded me up with lots of ideas for future GardenRant posts, and letters, which are sure to come gushing out of me. Of course, when I say “gushing” what I really mean is dribble, dribble, dribble. 

As always, your letter was witty and a veritable stream of smart and interesting thoughts and ideas. One particular aside raised an issue that I really want to dwell on. Paraphrasing here, but you said something about how many, perhaps the vast majority, of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s visitors are there for the animals and, therefore, to varying degrees, are oblivious to and perhaps unappreciative of the botanical garden and everything that goes into making it.  I might have mischaracterized your point a little, but I think I’m in the ballpark, at least.

Strollers parked while moms and kids ride the train. Are there any among them that notice the beautiful Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’ along the tracks? Any who appreciate tall bald cypress, or the weeping katsura, or the whiter than white bark of ‘Suttneri’ London plane?

This is something I’ve thought about a lot. I imagine a lot of people in horticulture have. For those of us who are true believers in the power of plants and tirelessly strive to convert non-believers, the challenge has always been: “How do we tease out the value of horticulture when it is almost always part of something else? A home, business, park, community, or whatever?” 

Cincinnati is a good place to consider this question. It is an old city with a prosperous past and more than its fair share of old money. Because of this, we enjoy a rich horticultural legacy and presence.  But nearly all of its public gardens, where many of my best friends work, suffer the same dynamic. We’re all playing second fiddle to something else.

Spring Cemetery & Arboretum in Cincinnati.

At the CZBG, it’s the animals. At Cincinnati’s parks, many of which have great horticulture, most visitors are there to throw frisbees, make out at the overlooks, and attend wedding receptions. At Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, which is as fine a setting as you’ll ever find for a world class collection of old, beautiful, and grand trees, the arboretum is shadowed by the dead body side of the business. And Rowe Arboretum? It has completely given up on horticulture, committing itself entirely to dwarf conifers.

Of course, the first argument for horticulture is pretty obvious. People usually don’t make out, get married, get buried, or experience any of life’s other momentous occasions in hideous, horrible places. Not at all. Folks want to do those things in nice places. And what makes a place nice? Oftentimes, it’s horticulture.

A wedding reception in the making at the overlook at Alms Park.

After eleven years wandering the paths of the Cincinnati Zoo, I don’t believe most of our visitors are oblivious and unappreciative of the botanical gardens. Many, even non-gardeners, truly enjoy the color, the shade, and the feeling they get by being in nature. The rest still feel the horticulture and benefit from it too, but at an even more subconscious level. Perhaps feeling it without knowing it. 

One of many calming paths at the CZBG.

Now, of course, there are places where horticulture is front and center, and the first of these that come to mind is the High Line in New York. The place is always crowded and horticulture is the top draw. But, two questions, 1) How many of these visitors are horticultural literati like you and me? 2) How many are the unwashed, unenlightened, horticulturally ignorant masses? Answers: 1) Tiny percentage. 2) The vast majority.

Masses of humanity enjoying the High Line.

And that’s awesome! The last time I was there, I got emotional. Not surprising. I’m a super emotional guy who chokes up at many commercials that feature soft piano music and any that have a dog in them and there I was, in a sea of humanity, every one of them polite and respectful in their reverence for a garden. They shuffled along at communion line speed and spoke in the hushed tones of a group of Knights of Columbus fellows who had just seen an image of Mary in the condensation of a beer can. And this was proof that horticulture matters! When everyday people see good horticulture they feel it. They get it. They want to bring more of it into their lives.

In my more horticulturally despairing moments, I cling to the idea of the High Line as if it were a floating wooden door after a shipwreck.  

While I gladly rode that emotion, sadly, I didn’t feel the High Line in the same way the others all did. I know too much. I was thinking about the horticulture. I was marveling at the breadth of the plant material. I was wondering where they were able to obtain many of these plants. I was thinking about the other visitors. And I’m willing to bet that the same is true with other horticulturists who visit, which is the reason why I believe that those who know less about horticulture feel it and need it and find joy in it more. Certainly, more purely. Our job, as horticulturists, is to find ways to give it to them. 

Sometimes I want my horticultural innocence back. 

So, yeah, the Zoo isn’t the High Line and only a minority come specifically for the gardens. Most are young families who are there mostly to get out the kids out of the house. They are smack dab in the thickest part of their lives, raising kids, making house payments, balancing two careers with childcare, homework, soccer practices, and more. They are tired, stressed, distracted, and, dammit, they probably aren’t gardeners. So maybe they are not especially primed to enjoy a first-class horticultural experience, but they get it anyway. Simply because it is there. And who can measure what it means to them, collectively and as individuals? When you add up all the countless moments of all the millions of guests who find themselves in the presence of magnificent trees, of beautiful flowers, and surrounded by the very essence of life, you know wonderful things have happened–commitments to improve, changes for the better, life decisions, or maybe just a much needed moment of peace. One of the challenges horticulture faces in proving its importance is that it does most of its best work at the subconscious level.  

Of course, I say all of this in the shadow of having visited the Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park with my non-gardening sister. Can safely say no transformational moment happened there. So, keep in mind, I probably am, and always have been, a damned idiot and totally full of shit.