Cincinnati, Ohio 

April 17, 2022

Dear Marianne,

Before I get into my typically affable, self-deprecating, apologizing ass self, Michele and I are so grateful to you and Michael for hosting such a wonderful dinner party back in mid-March. What a fabulous night we had! Your home is beautiful. The food was amazing. Interesting people. Champagne. Scotch. Wine. Thank God you let us stay over! Everyone truly had a great time and it was so good to get together in the same room with a bunch of others and not really worry too much about which of us would turn out to be the super spreader. It struck me that even with such horticultural heavyweights as Carol Reese, Janet and Adam Draper, Susan Harris, Louisa Zimmerman-Roberts, John and Beth Willis, not to even mention you and me, that we didn’t talk about plants that much. Just goes to show how well–rounded horticulturists tend to be. 

A fabulous dinner with fabulous company! Left to right, Carol Reese, Janet Draper, Adam Draper, Marianne Wilburn, Louisa Zimmerman-Roberts, John Willis, Michele Beuerlein. Michael Wilburn and Beth Willis missing from the photo. 

Four Ranters were present. Left to right, me, you, Susan Harris, Carol Reese.

And I must say that nothing about where you live, and how, was anything like I imagined. I had pictured a Mayberry-like place but one where Andy spends all day on QAnon websites and where Aunt Bee routinely drops f-bombs anytime Barney mentions Thelma Lou, but Lovettsville seemed pretty much your typical historic, small town grappling with big city commuter gentrification. It was only after we left the paved road, which is one of those crazy things that so many of us take for granted so much of the time, that my Mayberry-from-Hell musings again seemed plausible. We bounced and battered our Kia’s undercarriage for many miles until, to our great relief, we eventually came upon your home and were greeted by you and the other guests, all looking very normal and none wearing camo. 

Now for the groveling part which has unfortunately become customary. I’m sorry it has again taken me over a month to write back but, I’ll just confess right now, my life is just too busy. Overwhelming even. I know you and others will find this surprising because I’ve been faking it so well for all these years but I just can’t do it anymore. I’ve decided that maintaining a facade is  simply too exhausting and just one more stressful thing on an already long list of stressful things, so I’ve chosen “acting in control” to be the first stressful thing to give up.

You have the sweetest dog I have ever met. She seemed to keep trying to pull me aside to tell me dark secrets but I was having a good time and couldn’t be bothered.

Here’s an example of how I’ve changed. The other day a situation I always dread came up. Someone I barely know, unexpectedly, had to ride in my car. In the past I would have made up many excuses for how dirty my car is, and, then elaborated on each and every one of them for the full 45 minute trip. But not this time. After the guy buckled in, I just turned and looked him straight in the eye, gestured broadly, almost proudly, at the very grandeur of my car’s grime, and said, “I’m a horticulturist.” As if that were all that needed to be said to explain that much filth. Then, still  maintaining eye contact, I almost aggressively, added, “I’m a horticulturist at a Zoo.” As if this would explain the smell. 

It seemed to work pretty well and I really liked how quiet the ride was. I didn’t have to listen to myself babble on and on and he kept pretty quiet too.  Maybe it’s true what they say. Sometimes less is more. I’ve never lived accordingly, but that probably just lends credence to its truthfulness.  

Anyway, back to our trip to Virginia. I am so thankful the folks in Waynesboro invited me to speak and gave us an excuse to invite ourselves over. In March. Gotta say, I was so impressed by the courage you summoned to allow such an illustrious group of horticulturists into your garden in March. During daylight hours. For those who don’t know, March can be anything the hell it wants in any part of Eastern North America colder than Zone 8. On Monday, -10F. Tuesday, 84F. Thunderstorms, blizzards, tornadoes, anything can happen and none of it conducive to healthy plants or an attractive garden. The vast majority of plants know this and keep their live bits safely underground. However, there are a handful that poke up early, baring their blooms, which of course lures gardeners out of their homes and into despair. Sure, you can see a crocus over there. And hellebores are somewhere else. But unless you mulch like a madman (and March might be enough justification to do this), all the ground in between is a wasteland of this year’s mud and last year’s blown up chaff. You recently reminded me of something I wrote in 2019: “[By March] anything left in the garden for the purpose of providing “winter interest” can only be identified by its dental records.” Damn! Sometimes I write good. Anyway, you bravely and cheerfully took us around your garden at the very worst time of year and let us all look at it. Good for you! But I’m going to give it to you straight. You know how I am about journalistic integrity. There was some ugliness in evidence. I probably wouldn’t have noticed except Michele kept pointing it out. Just kidding. I would have noticed. But I know that you know that we all knew that you knew that we had plenty of ugliness in our gardens back home too. If one has a garden, and it’s March, there will be ugly. And shame. I know that in my case, for the entire time we marched around your garden, the condition of mine in Cincinnati lingered in my head like a hangover. 

Speaking of hangovers… Sunday morning tour of the grounds. You with your new black fence and wellies for the Marchness that abounded and surrounded around us.

In fact, just the day before we had visited Colston Burrell’s incredible garden outside of Charlottesville and that was such a revelation! Cole’s garden is chiseled out of Shenandoah mountain wilderness and, unlike either of our gardens, Cole’s is chock full of many mature and large clumps of early bulbs, ephemerals, hellebores, and more, all nesting beneath tall trees. Still, there was a lot of mud and plenty of the mortal remains of last year’s herbaceous whatevers hanging around and some ugliness to see if you were looking for it. But mostly our group was distracted from it by a continuous bread crumb trail of beautiful, little woodland gems as we wound down from the house to a picture perfect mountain stream. And it was here where the revelation occurred. It is at the creek where Cole’s garden ends and God’s country begins. The other bank was pristine wilderness, which rose up steeply, mountain laurels and fairly old-growth forest clinging to the rocks. 

Four of us touring with C. Colson Burrell. Left to right, Michele, Cole, Marie Mims Butler, Carol Reese

A rare Erythronium. One of many cool early gems to be seen at Cole’s garden.

I took that moment to hang back and allow the others to move on ahead. Standing there alone looking at the other bank, reflecting, it occurred to me that even God struggles with ugly in the March garden. In fact, as I stood there looking from one side and to the other, I couldn’t help thinking that Cole’s side might have been a little better. It feels like heresy to write such a thing, and it scares me plenty that I did, but, again, journalist integrity.

The creek the divides Cole’s little piece of heaven from God’s country.

One of Cole’s tricks for spicing up the March garden is the inclusion of cold hardy Camellias. Bright red flowers borne on a shrub that looks a lot like Michele.

Remind me to order more bulbs for next Fall. 

After returning home, I went into a power tool-fired, panic-driven, spring cleanup, trying desperately to wipe ugly out of my garden but, truth is, only some of what I did made anything look even slightly better. The real cure for March is April, and the cure for April is May. Anyway, I went into a string-trimming frenzy, slashing back sedges, grasses, perennials and slinging dirt, sticks, gravel, plant labels, cigarette butts, beer cans, and whatever else all over creation anywhere I went. I consider myself kind of a performance artist when it comes to using a string trimmer. And a pretty innovative one at that. A lot of what I do with it would show up very prominently in the DO NOT DO section of the operating manual if manual writers had anything like the imagination I’ve got.  

As fun and crazy as string is, some jobs are done so much better using the steel, circular blade attachment. This sounds and looks very dangerous as basically I become a wielder of death lumbering around the yard with a screaming engine whirling a circular saw blade at no less than 100,000 rpms at the end of a steel shaft, but it’s probably actually safer than using string. Cutting down big clumps of grasses and sedges is quick and easy and, more than anything, clean. It leaves a nice straight cut and the lopped off top just lays down in place. No slinging of chaff and whatever else off your face and windows like string does. You just want to be sure no beloved dogs, cats, or family members are wandering around with arms or legs you might amputate if they come up on your blind side.  

When a string trimmer with plain old string ain’t enough, get out the “blade.” Someday I’m going to take a photo of myself dressed all in black with a big hood wielding this thing. Sometimes I deadhead (plants) with it too. 

Random thought that occurred to me. If two people–a busy one and a bored one–lived the same number of days, the bored one would at least feel like they lived a longer life. That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? A little like two guys playing golf. The worst one gets to play more. Anyway, just a thought. 

I’m not sure about this but I think I’ve been paying for some past transgressions lately. Here is one example. Maybe 20 years ago I built a metal shed in the backyard. Somewhere in the process of building that shed, or maybe in stocking it, I left about a six foot length of poly rope on the ground inside the shed. Probably noticed it then and never stooped over to pick it up. Over the years, many more chances to put it somewhere or dispose of it, but, no, never did. Two years ago I tore the shed down. The rope was still there half buried in the gravel. Did I pick it up? Nope. I did not. Last Fall, I put in a couple of temporary compost bins and somehow that rope managed to get caught in every piece of wire fencing in the process. Still, I left it. Last week, I was edging with a 2HP power edger and that thing caught the end of that rope at no less than 100,000 rpms and wound it around the shaft just like that. Stopped the tool dead. Took me two hours of doing surgery with a razor blade and needle nose pliers to fix it to and that entire time I was thinking about what I had done to cause such a thing.

The edger that tried to eat the rope and, to the right, an example of how nice a job it’s capable of.

There’s a dog whistle here that only other gardeners could possibly recognize. It is me telling them that had the grass not been shaded out by the Baptisia last year, that this would be the clean edge between bed and lawn.

And this was only one of an increasing pattern of such things. An old toolbox I’ve been foolishly storing on a rickety overhead shelf fell on my noggin the other day. I saw stars. When I came back to my version of my senses, I starting wondering if it was some kind of retribution. Maybe it was God telling me to quit some more vices. But, dang, I’ve only got two left! Cussing and drinking. And at the risk of heresy for the second time in a single letter, if God, or anyone else for that matter, really wants me to stop cussing, dropping a heavy toolbox on my head is not the way to do it! 

I suppose that’s enough for now. I probably should go call a minister or counselor or something. Or go do some more cleanup. But, seriously, your garden is big, bold, beautiful, and ambitious, and the semi-homesteading life you and Michael have built in your own little corner of the world is incredible. Watching Michael feed your dog her daily duck egg was about the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. Thanks for the lift that weekend visit brought us. 

Yours until the next time. Maybe June or August. 


PS: Sometimes you just gotta make cleanup fun. And you get a visit from the fire trucks too!