Behind posts, articles, conferences and social media, there’s a backstory. Have you kept up with the digital correspondence between Ranters Scott Beuerlein and Marianne Willburn?  You can start here, or go back and find the entire correspondence at Dear Gardener


May 17, 2023

Cincinnati, Ohio 

Dear Marianne,

After the profuse purging of shame and guilt you unloaded in your last (and very late) letter, I bet you thought I’d be in full gloating mode. Well, you’d be wrong, Doofus. I’m not. Nope. I’ll see your shame and guilt and raise it. After all, what’s to lose? 

Seeds. Yep, I’ve got ‘em in my garage too. And I’ve got weeds. And plants needing to be planted. And I’m late on deadlines and projects. And I’ve forgotten promises. And I was late on my taxes. And I killed a mouse last night. 

And you  know what? It’s spring. I’ve been through enough of them now that I’m getting to know what happens. There will be too much to do and too little time. Period. Well, not period. The extra part is this: I am going to fail at getting everything I needed or wanted done. Pretty bad, but, wait, there’s more! I will also sometimes fail at getting what others needed or wanted me to get done. Argh! I hate that. But! There’s something even worse than that: Letting spring slip past while you labored at the grind stone. Now, holy moly, that’s a sin! 

Back to your seeds. I remember– and sometimes take solace– in something Allen Bush said to me a long time ago about starting seeds. I had asked what he thought was the best seed germination reference. He told me, “Well, Scott, the Jelitto seed catalog is really good. But I usually just sow them straight into the ground.” Since then, although I usually begin ambitious and intend to provide each seed its preferred cold-warm, warm-cold, cold-warm-cold, warm-cold-warm stratification cycle, more often the seeds get the old  “Allen Bush outside treatment” treatment. The problem is I never remember where I sowed them (or where I made a record of where I sowed them) and therefore often plant something on top of them in the intervening 1-3 years. But, hey, as you said so eloquently, and repeatedly, in your letter, shit happens.

I’m now using cheap, wooden golf tees to indicate where I have planted seeds. In 1-3 years, I’ll give you a full report.

We’ve had a few successes with this outdoor treatment method. Species peonies for instance. I say “we,” because you pulled the Miss Willmott’s Ghost thing on me a visit or two ago and secretly planted some peony seeds you found in my garden around. Well, over the years, I’ve been doing that too. Now, between us, baby peonies are poking up everywhere. I mean everywhere! As I’ve been doing this for a while, a few actually bloomed for the first time this year. Delicate, fleeting flowers on stout, enduring plants. I absolutely love them!

Seedling of Miss Willmott’s origin.

A species peony seedling of earlier origin, blooming for its first time.

In the wild back corner, which becomes a lush sea of Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern) every summer, I was wonderfully surprised to find an Erythronium americanum (yellow trout-lily) in bloom early on, a number of other small, not yet blooming plants surrounding it. I have no memory of sowing those seeds but I must have. A notoriously slow to germinate and bloom plant, there is no other way it could have possibly gotten there.

My first trout-lily bloom. Had given up on having one and then voila! Older Scott thanks younger Scott for the seemingly small gesture of tossing some seeds into that bed many years ago.

The trout-lily now lurks somewhere under the ostrich fern, as Michele also often does.

And that is what is so wonderful about a mature/maturing garden. Or, one of the wonderful things, anyway. Given enough time, more fun and random things just happen. It takes years for a gardener to input more than they can remember. It takes almost as much time for the gardener to give up some control. But when that happens, it’s a magic combination. It creates a garden capable of continually presenting surprises.  

I’ve been walking, and usually photographing, my garden every day. Actually, more like twice a day. Sometimes more. My neighbors must think I’m nuts, and they’re probably right, but I swear I find something new and exciting every visit. Something just germinated, or emerged, or bloomed, and, suddenly, the first hummingbird, and then, and then, and then. Photography adds to the pleasure, usually because I’m seeing all this in forever changing light. And trying my best to capture it.

Multiple visits a day to the garden with camera in hand sometimes nets a perfect combination of plant, light, and ant. Here Bletilla striata in evening light. 

As you know, design-wise, I started as a plant collector and morphed into a gardener. Although I think I’ve become pretty good at design, there was a learning curve. I started out a strict “separate the peas from the carrots” kind of guy, but now I’m finding it much more interesting when the peas and carrots, and sometimes even the mashed potatoes, come together. Some of these combinations are quite good. Some came by intent, some by serendipity, but however they happened, that’s what years of growth and crowding, forgotten sowings, and much, much more allows. It’s what happens when wait-and-see wisdom gradually undermines sheer energy and willpower.

One of my favorite garden beds. The luminescent hosta, which I think is ‘El Nino,’ is contrasted by the darkness of the heuchera and the texture of the sweet woodruff. The heuchera are the progeny of several long lost ‘Palace Purple,’ but I think the toned down darkness with a little green in the leaves works even better. 

I love how the textures and the light combine in this photo. And in that part of the garden.

So in summation, sinner, you are forgiven. Forgiven for not planting your seeds and for taking way too long to write, but you are not forgiven for spending time in your garden. For tending this earth and basking in its beauty is not a sin.