15 October 2022
I’m pretty sure you set some name-dropping records per-column-inch in your last letter. After reading it I have no concerns over your ability to navigate an Instagram world – that is if you haven’t been banned from the platform after your Rant about influencers.
If in doubt for future posts, just default to a common formula iced with subtext: i.e. “I’m thrilled to be at X with Y, and we’re excited to be doing Z, which means we are most definitely A (list).”
Trust that those of us scrolling through your curated moments of #bestlifeever in our pajamas, eating Doritos and watching the roof leak on our elderly cats, will be suitably awed and/or inadequalized™, and pretty soon you’ll have big names begging you to take selfies with their snow blowers.
Alternatively, you could also show people cool plants; and follow those whose gardens interest you. A naive concept I know, but a long time ago (2010), I believe that was the point.
The weather has significantly changed here. I’m not sure how I feel about it this year. Some summers are long, and breeze well into late October, so you have those bright, warm happy days without humidity that make you forget that the dance floor has been hot and sweaty and undignified, and that you’d given it up for the night.
Those days have the same effect upon me as the first few beats of The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be wafting over the sound system; or perhaps Safety Dance (the power of which turned our annual Robbie Burns Night into an 80’s dance party several years ago). Suddenly you’re throwing your shoes off and making an ass of yourself.
But this season is different. It came on suddenly. The cold and wet from Hurricane Ian and an earlier system settled in for a couple weeks and wrenched the dial over to something introspective and wistful – something like Fiona Richie’s long-running NPR program The Thistle and Shamrock. There it stayed, encouraging me to put the kettle back on and reach for the duvet and/or Liam Neeson.
So, for the past few weeks I feel as if I’ve been living in the valley floor of Jimi Blake’s garden at Hunting Brook in County Wicklow – watching moss growing over every available surface outside, and being generally okay with the look. Inertia’s a bitch.
Meanwhile there is the small matter of 4,563 tropical and subtropical plants outside the front door clambering for safety and succor, and only about 100 of them are going to get it. 30 houseplants came inside about two weeks ago; and happily, not one occupies its new home due to guilt on my part. They either fulfill a function (beauty & joy and/or further education), or they don’t make the cut.
That’s the blessing of having limited time. If you lean into it rather than react to it, you become incredibly discerning, incredibly quickly; and you end up with plants that you truly love, rather than those you think you’re supposed to love; those you were told you should love; those that you feel you need to love in order to run in certain circles; or those you detest but hey your Great Aunt Josie gave them to you on her death bed and maybe you will love them someday. Spoiler alert: You probably won’t.
That’s why I told you to ditch that meh canna when I was in Cincinnati in August. I know you grew it from seed, and that’s fun and games, but did you adore it? Did your heart sing when you looked at it? Did angels cry? From the looks of it sitting in that 5-gallon bucket next to the pool pump with mosquito larvae tickling its toes, the answer was a definitive no. It’s one thing if a plant is hardy and boring, but boring and needing protection? Oh hell no. Life is way too short.
Yes. I know. Harsh. So unlike me. But tell me we’re on the same page here? Gardeners have an instinctive desire to save everything because a) it’s a plant; b) we have skills to show off; c) we want to learn. Of those three reasons, only (c) keeps you sane and moving forward in my book. Because damn, the plants that coax us get up and start dancing are sooooo worth it; and the ones that knock us down and makes us spit out a few teeth do it like prizefighters.
That was the message I offered last week to a terrific group in Charlottesville, Virginia when I discussed techniques for tropical plant storage. Gardeners want to do the ‘right thing’, but at the same time they are desperate for absolution and an exit strategy.
20 minutes in and you could practically taste the relief flooding the room… “Whoa. This woman is telling me it’s okay to kill something?!?”
But here’s the coolest part: Along with the 150 sighs of “Hallelujah! I can throw out that [insert life-sucking plant here]”, there were concurrent realizations of which plants actually made them happy and which ones they actively want to protect.
Peggy Cornett, the Curator of Plants at Monticello, came up to me at the end of the talk to show me a strong, healthy, and beloved snail vine (Cochliasanthus caracalla) that she carts in and out of her garage every year and I swear you’d think she was related to it from the size of her smile as she pulled up the photos. That’s end-of-season storage I can get behind. Wonderful. I’m giving a similar talk at the end of the month for the National Arboretum. Storage techniques laced with sobering, honest assessment and a dollop of forgiveness.
And before you infer something snarky, I’m not paid by a nursery industry desperate to sell more plants. For one, there are simply not enough selfies on my Instagram feed to warrant influencer status, and very few macrophylla hydrangeas.
It’s been a busy summer, (as you have related, ad nauseam), and tropical migration, Liam Neeson, and the duvet aside for a moment, in between travel I’ve been in emergency mode in the garden – putting out fires and enjoying those moments when everything comes together without me.
The fact that this happens as much as it does makes me very happy and means that dense planting, and deep, moisture-retentive soils are the way to go. We haven’t had the drought you have had, granted; but there are areas in the garden where soils have only been teased with compost, and the plants show the stress and look lean and hungry.
I feel like I’m doing a Christopher Walken impression as I walk around the beds shouting “More Compost!” to no one in particular. Native soils in this alluvial valley really benefit from some moisture retentive amendments.
As usual there is far too much to discuss and no time to discuss it. Ian’s devastating wake in Florida, the media frenzy over the Queen’s death, the constant looming threat of war in Europe. No wonder I spend so much damn time in the garden.
Speaking of which, on its way out but still beautiful, the best aster of them all in my opinion – October Skies (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium). At the risk of name dropping at your Olympic level, Pam Harper says she likes to stagger Raydon’s Favorite, then October Skies, then Fanny’s at the end. I might try that. And that reminds me that I was given a little bit of the ‘Dixter Orange’ mum from Bill & Linda Pinkham in Virginia and I need to scuttle out to the garden and see what has become of it. Fingers crossed.
I’m glad you and Michele could make it out again on your magical mystery tour of a vacation, but sad you didn’t keep moving East and hit the Delaware coast. I spent last weekend with a girlfriend there, walking every sunrise, raiding every thrift store, and watching a glorious pink Hunter moon rise up over a [now calm] Atlantic Ocean. Bliss.
So much sea glass found it was beginning to get embarrassing. Ian gave gifts in the end.
Love to Michele,
P.S. I’m afraid I’m not the best person to explain Instagram/Facebook Stories to you. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just another way to steal our precious time on this Earth and keep us focused down instead of up. You’ve got to hand it to the tech companies though– not only do they have addiction down to a freaking science, but those that recognize what is being lost and have the courage to say so are marginalized as the weirdos. Absolutely brilliant. I should have bought stock.
I don’t move tropical plants in and out of my garden, but you have given me “permission” to get rid of a few houseplants that cause me more frustration than give me happiness. Oh, what a relief. And there are so many more to try.
Be Harsh! Permission should not be needed, but sadly we all crave it. Me too. – MW
Question about the tropicals you are bringing inside – especially the Red Abyssinian banana – was that planted and you are digging it up to bring in or are they in pots in your garden that you bring in and out each year?
The best thing to do is direct you to my book Tropical Plants and How to Love Them, which gives a very detailed run-down of what I do here, as some are potted, some planted, and some planted in their pots! Moreover, some are saved and some are not. I have just done a video for Instagram on my feed at marianne.willburn to detail how I dig and store my red Abyssinian bananas, and I will put it up on my Vimeo channel within the week. Hope you are enjoying the tropicals you have! – MW
I made this decision with a number of potted tea roses. Too much work for not enough reward. Hard to do now as they are reblooming but overwintering space is at a premium in my garage and they will not make the grade this year. Thanks for encouraging me to be tougher.
You’re very welcome Elaine! I’ve thinned out the roses here too, and ended up with a few extraordinary shrubs, a few rugosas (LOVE) and one sentimental tea that will probably peter out here soon. – MW
Great observations. I’ve never needed permission to kill a plant but rarely get the chance. They most often do themselves in after a season of neglect.
Joe I once put a struggling Meyer Lemon out in the snow, disgusted by its lack of leaves and my lack of space to deal with it. My son heard me say “That’s it! Out you go!” and yelled “No Mom, don’t EXECUTE it!!!!” He was seven, so I had to relent on the grounds of unbearable cuteness. (Until he went over to a friend’s house that is.) – MW
Beautiful Colocasia you have. I tried to plant an Elephant Ear from a bulb/tuber for the first time this May, but the plant is only 2′ tall as of today, not as tall or lush as it should be ( granted, the bulb was bought from HomeDepot garden centre). This discourages me from planting more next year or even bother digging this out for overwintering. What can possible be wrong? Are they thirsty drinkers?
The dry storage ‘bulbs’ we get in the home centers and even in the nurseries packed in sawdust are usually very dry after weeks of abuse and take a great deal of time to come back to life. I bought a ‘Coffee Cups’ this year for a ridiculous price in a nursery (springtime impulse-purchase idiocy), and never got it past two leaves. If it is easy to save, save it. If not, toss it and look for an elephant ear already in the green in a nursery after your first frost. Ordering from reliable online sources such as Brent and Beckys, Logees, Plant Delights, or Brian’s Botanicals will significantly increase your success rate (read: enthusiasm) for dormant elephant ears next year. Brian’s Botanicals might very well start an addiction – you’ve been warned. – MW
What a lovely dispatch as always! I feel like maybe I missed Scott’s last letter though–or maybe I read it in a sleepy daze. But one must go onward and upward: I’m going to see if I can admire your instagram without actually having a login. Till next time!
Sneaky, sneaky. But understandable 😉 – Thank you! – MW
Thanks, Marianne. Lots of wisdom and temptation here. My experience in Kentucky is the reverse of Pam Harper’s in Virginia. Aster ‘October Skies’ blooms first, beginning in late September through mid October, briefly overlapping with ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ that blooms until late October. Both prefer dry conditions in full sun and don’t like to be crowded. The aromatic asters are great as stand-alones.
Damn, I read this too late. I already spent too much time cursing and struggling to remove Canna bulbs (rhizomes?) From a large terracotta pot. Bought 3 for $2 at plant sale. Shoulda known they’d be thugs at that price, pot was full of them all crammed together. Question is, will I plant them next spring, if I can even get the mass apart or say eff’ em?
I don’t have anything that really compares to all these tropicals listed except for dahlias. One kind. I dig the so-and-so things every fall, put them in a bucket in the cellar, plant them every May because it’s too d#$# cold before that. Then I wait. By Sept. I MIGHT get 2-3 gorgeous, dark red 2 inch flowers. By late Sept., early Oct. I cover them faithfully every night hoping it won’t be a freeze, just a frost. Alas, blackened leaves and stems. Of course, I dig them up yet again. Yeah, they make me smile. And shake my head at my own obstinance. Keep posting pics of your garden, please, I love to “wander” in it.