December 9, 2021

Lovettsville, VA

Dear Scott,

My apologies for allowing your letter to float gently down through the inbox until it lodged somewhere between a reminder to pay my sales tax and a notice of toll violation on the Dulles Greenway.  You’ll be pleased to know that writing to you is more agreeable than dealing with either of those issues. They have been shelved for another hour/day/week, and I have re-read your letter to answer it properly. 

While I did that, 12 new emails joyfully deposited themselves into my inbox.

This inbox.  What is it exactly?  What was it before it became what it is?  It has not in any way diminished the traditional means of delivering fresh administrative crises to our doorsteps. We seem to have just as much physical mail – the bills, the notices, the flyers, the magazines, the vaguely official looking envelopes that dare you to discard them at your peril.  We have voicemails – now added to the spam racking up on the machines attached to our landlines. 

And we have the additional hydra head of text threads.  We answer.  More come. We fail to answer, and six hours later it is only visible if you scroll down.  And who has the time to scroll down besides teenagers and people on a too-long VRBO family reunion? 

And on top of the mail, the answering machine, the voicemails, and the texts…on top of all of that, there’s this inbox.        

Self portrait with Inbox

I know you can relate. Everyone is dealing with this.  I describe the daily fare of so many Americans, whether you work in an office or at home. Even the retired cannot escape. This is normal life now. And we just shrug, accept that we must live our lives in the spaces between one notification and the next, shrug again, and make a note to find a doctor who might be willing to dole out Xanax like TicTacs.

And all this without even touching the subject of social media.  John Freeman wrote his excellent book The Tyranny of Email before a Facebook account became de rigueur. Put it on your list, it is a good one. Deep thinking is not possible in this kind of world, which, if anyone is paying attention, explains a whole hell of a lot.

Of course there are good and worthy emails.  Perhaps it’s a job promotion or a chance for a second interview. In my world it’s a lovely note from a reader, or a surprise notification that Tropical Plants and How to Love Them was just shortlisted for the Peter Seabrook Practical Book of the Year (I’ll make sure you hear about this a few times, never fear). It’s an email from an old friend – or a treasured colleague. When I open an email from Allen Bush it’s like being handed a cup of tea and a chocolate chip cookie.  Email is not without its wonderful moments. 

And its puzzling ones. I recently received a fairly unhinged email from a Dutch woman who vehemently wished me more flooding in my garden, having picked me at random as a representation of all things American and conspicuously consumptive.  Somewhere in that tirade she informed me that I might be upset to have a stranger lecturing me, but that she bet her English was better than my Dutch. The dreaded inbox was ignored whilst I I took precious minutes to tell her that this was certainly true, but my manners were a damn sight better than hers. And that she might want to read my first book Big Dreams, Small Garden, and realize that she had her head fully up her arse.

But enough.  You brought up something in your letter that I wanted to comment upon, and it’s certainly not the two GardenComm gold awards you will not let die already. (Did I mention that Tropical Plants and How to Love Them was shortlisted for Best Practical Book of the Year by the UK’s Garden Media Guild?)

It’s this:

“…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.”

That resonated.  And not because you were generous enough to call me a horticulturist, which I am not.  I am simply a writer who has spent far too much of her life in the garden, and the rest of it studying the words of other similarly unbalanced people. 

No, it was the first bit — those who know less about horticulture may just get more out of it. Some will protest, but in my experience, this rings true. You call it horticultural innocence. That is a wonderful term.

They see Chihuly. I see really healthy adiantum and why can’t I get mine to look like that? (Atlanta Botanic Garden)

It doesn’t mean that the horticulturists don’t find joy, that there’s some malevolent wizard behind the curtain that you can never unsee once the curtain is lifted and you are introduced. Far from it, otherwise I would not be spending my birthday next weekend happily tramping up to Longwood to see their Fire and Ice Christmas display.

It means that my husband and friends will be overcome with the beauty of it – the in-your-face-awesomeness of it all (if past years are anything to go by) – and then over lunch they’ll slide right back into talking about how likely the Caps are to win the Stanley Cup this year.  They’ll experience all of the magic without looking for the hidden wires.

They are experiencing. I’m identifying. Longwood Christmas 2018.

Meanwhile I’ll be trying to figure out how to mist the tillandsia-covered trees without leaving water spots on the ornaments, or how the cool, resinous scents of the Mediterranean room can be replicated in my steamy woodland greenhouse, or how to perfectly prune the Ilex verticillata, or what the hell that bromeliad was next to the children’s garden entrance.  I’ll also be ruminating over their healthy camellias in that back corner of the East Conservatory; and trying to swallow my Grinch-like glee when I find scale.  Because you know I’m going to look.  Because you’d look too.

This camellia at Chanticleer was clean. Of course it was. They have elves and fairies up there making magic.

And meanwhile, Mike and friends are just bathing in the experience.  They are entranced by hanging trees, and blooming camellias, and don’t know what tillandsia is and they seriously don’t care.  And they don’t need to in order to have full and happy lives.  I don’t want them to. They get the full joy and none of the scale.  Why mess with that?

They’re loving the entrance. I’m thinking how well this illustrates the fact that common plants can make uncommon front gardens. (Buffalo Garden Walk)

Mike often brings this up when he’s experiencing a particularly grueling session of garden tripping with me. He reminds me of when we were very young (we’ve been together now longer than we have not), and used to walk through gardens and I was just as fresh-faced and joyful as he was, and thankfully neither one of us had the ability to ‘Gram out the experience to our 623 thousand followers, so the moments did not need to become Premium Content.  They just were. 

An allium was simply an allium back then.  Actually it wasn’t even an allium, it was a round purple ball that looked incredible with those flat yellow flowers under it, and I wanted to have a proper garden someday and I wanted to grow that beautiful thing.  I wanted to create the magic I was feeling. Yes, I miss that. 

Purple balls and yellow flowers. (Sarah P. Duke Garden)

That feeling takes me by surprise every once and awhile, and it is always when I am looking at pictures of my own garden from past seasons.   I am not in the middle of creating it – I am not in the blood sweat and tears of it.  I know what all the plants are, so I don’t need to make notes. There is little more to be said, to be teased out from it.  I can just look at the photo and absorb the magic.

And then I see the obvious hole that was left when the allium went over, and we are back to square one.

Purple balls have names now. One of my favorites is Allium schubertii.

At the same time, I wonder if all professions suffer similarly?  Does a doctor recognize a beautiful woman passing by , or does he see a 35-year-old female with possible thyroid issues and initial signs of osteoporosis? Is a cosmetologist’s head turned by a stunning haircut, or does he just want to know whose shears are responsible?

I’m way over an acceptable word count, and have left no room for news of the garden, which is just as well because there isn’t any.  I have been very detached from it once I dug what was to be dug and then went for another injection in my back.  I am finding my way back.

However. Mike and I have joined a gym and I have high hopes for building back better – quite literally.  I should resemble Linda Hamilton circa 1991 by April.



P.S.  I’m glad you enjoyed your California adventure – overdue since COVID so cruelly stripped you of seeing the Spring Trials in a Plant Nerd van.  It really is a beautiful state – so many microclimates.   When my mother asks me gardening questions I always answer with “You’re kidding, right?”

P.P.S.  I can send you a link to the GMG shortlist announcement if you’d like.