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 4, 2023

Lovettsville, VA

Dear Scott,

I’d like to apologize for my tardiness in replying to your letter of March 15th.  However.

Yes, however, however.  I must confess to being secretly pleased that you were able to experience the ‘What the hell?’ feeling of correspondus interruptus, as has happened to me so many times in this odd, but quite enjoyable exchange. 

I’ll let that realization sit with you for a moment. Like you, I’ll promise it won’t happen again. Only you can know the worth of such a statement.

My reasons are pathetic, or perhaps I could put that better – they are sentimental and sickly sweet. As a rule I am not any of the above – that’s your territory; but I found myself returning to my garden after an exciting winter’s speaking tour which ended with our wonderful trip to California and the California Spring Trials, and I found I didn’t want to leave it. 

I didn’t want to leave it for my desk, for the grocery store…for the dinner table for that matter.  I’d been too long away and the reconnecting was nauseatingly like falling in love.

spring garden

Early spring down by the barn. It’s good to be back.

Again, we’re in your territory here – I’m very uncomfortable with the fact that I just typed that sentence.  But so it was. And while I pottered around this place with all of the middle-aged fuss-pottery of the characters you and I used to watch in coming-of-age movies and never dreamed we’d become (much less look like), I also became aware of how much I’d missed in the weeks between the first of the year and the first day of spring. 

This is what I look like in love.


ballerina tulips

I spent way too long staring at beautiful moments like these….Ballerina tulips after the rain.


Lily of the Valley

I look forward to the blooming of lily of the valley every year – it reminds me of a very dear friend. Did you know that in the Victorian language of flowers it signifies a return to happiness? Very special. Sorry about the fingernails.

Seed starting for one.  Here’s another confession to add to a letter that is already not doing much for my reputation as a girl who’s got her proverbial shit together:  I never even opened the envelope containing my Jelitto order, knowing that Mary Vaananen actually does have her shit together and would absolutely have sent me what I ordered.

I did have the foresight however to put them in a cold drawer in the garage before I headed off to Seattle, or Charlotte…or was it Schaumburg? And to request of Mary a printed Jelitto catalog for its incredibly detailed planting instructions. Michael Morphy, the Nursery Manager at Great Dixter calls his thumb-eared copy, a ‘Bible.’

The catalog is safe. The seeds are safe. But neither of them are in anything that could be termed ‘use.’

Good Lord it felt good to admit that.  It’s like a massive weight has been lifted from my shoulders. 

container wars

Competing in The Container Wars at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in mid-February while my seeds were being neglected. And before you can pour salt into the wound, no I didn’t win thank you very much. I was robbed.


But wait there’s more.  In December, Louisa Zimmermann-Roberts from Thanksgiving Farms and I went down to the house of plant-nut and gardener’s cheerleader, Janet Draper, for a last-minute seed exchange and birthday feast with the gentle and lovely Melanie Ruckle of Putnum Hill Nursery.  What a wonderful evening we had getting to know Melanie – especially as her nursery in Forest Hill, MD will be growing a lot of the perennials I’ll be planting this fall for my new Piet-ery (which is what I’m temporarily calling the mini-meadow design Gregg Tepper and I are working on in the New Perennial style until I can think of something better).


piet oudolf

Piet Oudolf’s new book arrived last week and is providing some terrific inspiration for the Piet-ery to be.


Anyway, (wow I’m not sure I’ve ever started a sentence with that word, I really must be off my game), I had a blast spending hours with incredible seeds and incredible women, and imagining the potential that is always present when you hold seeds of something special in your hands in the winter. Louisa and I put them in the back of the car, we drove home…and there they remained, while I headed off to Florida, or South Carolina, …or was it simply Baltimore? 

No matter. I told myself that the seeds were the coldest they could be, with minor temperature fluctuations because the car was in the shade, in the winter, with a flat tire that I really needed to deal with but which I avoided by driving Michael’s car instead. 

Janet Draper and Steve Owens at the Mary Livingstone Ripley Garden just off the Washington Mall showing off one of Steve antirrhinums from Bustani Plant Farm on his annual trip to deliver insanely fabulous plants to the Smithsonian, the US Botanic Gardens, Meadowlark, Chanticleer and Longwood this week. Louisa and I went down to say hello. Bet you’d like to be on that list eh?

I did get them out of the car before our California trip, and they too, found refuge in the cold garage – though not the attention they deserved.  Two nights ago Louisa just confessed to the same heinous sin after a tongue-loosening gin and tonic. Or was it simply a Coke Zero and a whole lotta guilt? 

And it is heinous, believe you me, I felt the weight of it. She felt the weight of it. She’s been crazy busy herself with no time to sit down and sort out seeds beyond the ones she already had to get into production for the spring season at Thanksgiving Farms. I could hardly bear to look at Janet’s smiling face when she popped up on the Smithsonian’s Instagram feed telling the world all the reasons they should grow some of the great plants whose precious seeds were currently lounging in my cold garage.

While I’m at an emotional low point (I know, I know, this is totally your wheelhouse), let’s take this confession even further.  And no, I’m not talking about the pretty HilverdaFlorist bag I stole from you in California.  Bet you thought Andrea took it.

Here goes. I still have bags of Curcuma zedoaria, Alocasia, and Canna sitting in the garage.  They’re plants I actually have a plan for, not just things I dug up and thoughtlessly threw in bags in November.  The canna is C. x ehemenii — which I value quite highly, and the turmeric should have been potted up WEEKS ago with the others to give me the size I want right now.

I have gotten most of the tropicals out over the last few weeks, but it wasn’t pretty.  I didn’t lose anything, but the bananas only made it by the skin of their teeth and they were covered in aphids as if Moses himself had decreed it.  And they weren’t the only ones. I had to go down to the creek to wash off the aphids on the Colocasia fontanesii – I didn’t want that mess anywhere near my other plants.

I’ve never seen such colonies, it was like a swarm of bees.

Oh yes and the bees are dead.

early spring bananas

Here. Here is my shame. Scabby and sad, but thanks to the power that is Ensete, they will soon be amazing and we can put all this behind us.

Yes, they’ll survive. The tropicals I mean, the bees are definitely dead. I’m sure you have a few subtropicals sitting in a secret corner of shame too; but then you didn’t write a book on tropical plants which makes it look like you have (as we seem to keep coming back to), your proverbial shit together.

This letter is rapidly going downhill. In my defense I will only say, apropos of the tropicals, in many ways, I’m living the exact message I hoped to convey in the pages of that book. Shit, as it were, happens. As does the vernacular in letters to friends apparently.

Life is not the same year to year, and neither are our relationships with our plants.  Tropical Plants and How to Love Them wasn’t just a cheap gimmicky title offered by an author desperate for an angle, it’s an awareness of the fact that we are not perfect, most of us don’t have greenhouses, and if we do, we can’t afford to heat them (that would be me).  Some years you treat your plants like princesses – and others, you can’t remember their names without a prompt.

Though I’m sure I said it less crudely.

spring table

A snapshot of chaos – trying to hit a deadline while laundry, groceries, and the remains of the weekend’s gathering haunt me. Oh yes. Shit happens. It’s very real.

Bottom line: unless you have help or a small, mature garden, or ignore it all together and pretend that you aren’t (with the magic of skillfully angled photos), there is no way you can be away from your garden on a regular basis and keep up with the work load.  There simply isn’t the time.  And I say that as a Type AAA personality. (Though I’m starting to think I handed in one of those A’s in my forties.)

Somewhere in the middle of all that shamefulness however, I did manage to comb surrounding nurseries for their cheap 2-inch pot-ups, and actually got them potted-up, and regularly watered, so there will be good sized castor bean, and salvia, and Euphorbia marginata, and Basella rubra, and Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’, and some specialty eggplants and a few other lovelies that I came across that I should have seeded or rooted myself. And the garden, as always, offers her volunteers in surprising and wonderful places.

There is still plenty of time to direct sow some summer color fodder like zinnia – in fact it really is the right time right now, but as for my other seeds…. Well, I will sit poised – with seed by the metric ton – of Aquilegia, and Anthriscus, and Verbena and Orlaya, and Papaver and Tagetes and so many others, and throw copious amounts of it into the garden once the time would have come for those plants to naturally ripen and throw them themselves.  “Why seed indirectly when you’ve got a good throwing arm?” says I.

I jest, but it’s totally overcompensation for a winter of seed shame. Next year I’ll be more frugal. Every seed is sacred don’t you know.

And I’ll have my shit together.



P.S. You know, confession IS good for the soul.  I await yours.