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.
June 29, 2023
If you saw the state of my office and house right now, you’d stop endlessly complaining on Facebook about needing a personal assistant, and feel pretty damned good about the chaos swirling around you.
When it comes to my personal account, I can’t call myself a ‘Facebook User’ as much as a ‘Facebook Lurker,’ which is why I didn’t comment on that particular moan. Also, the last time I dared to comment on one of your posts, the Meta Gods said my remark violated their community standards and logged one black mark against an otherwise sterling social credit score, which is probably now globally matched to my retinal scan thanks to Heathrow Airport and OpenAI. Granted, I do want to violate some sort of standard at least once before I die – but over something a lot juicer than witticisms on your latest ear infection.
I have owed you a letter for some time; but I did tell you to take my last apology for the same offense with a grain of salt. I’ve been abroad to visit friends in the UK and meet Anne and Charles for the first time, scout gardens for guided tours next year, drink copiously, and eat a lot of clotted cream.
A lot of clotted cream. As in, Cream on Cream (community standards be damned). And gin on gin. And wine on wine. And such good wine. In such beautiful settings. I believe there was also some champagne involved at one point. Two points. And the cream of course.
Which means that I got back home and went on a masochistic diet at precisely the same time I had to face a mountain of work and cope with a flare of up of the chronic Lyme disease that hangs out in my body waiting for me to abuse my immune system. For abuse my immune system I did – admirably. (See above.)
Not the brightest idea, but I’ve had worse. Disavowing clotted cream wasn’t an issue as we can’t get anything approaching it here – hell, our heavy cream is thinner than the stuff they give to stray cats in Cornwall – but not to have a fine glass of red while watching the sun go down after a day slinging dirt and words – yes, that stung.
The letter I started to write to you mid-crash diet tasted mildly of bitterness and self-recrimination; but now that I have decided that fourteen days is quite enough, and my immune system is slowly shifting into gear, things are looking up. I think I’ll have a modest glass tonight.
The UK has been having the same drought conditions that we are both experiencing in our corners of the US – and hose pipe bans were in effect in several counties – probably all of them by this point. I drove just under a thousand miles, the classical strains of Radio 3 calming the nerves at left-entry roundabouts and right turns. I still have my UK driving license, but it takes a few days to remember the feel of a gear shift in the left hand.
The hawthorns and rhododendrons were off the charts in both Wales and Cornwall. Simply glorious. After a quick night in London and a walk around Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park Gardens with Dixter symposium buddy Adam Stolter, I stayed with an old friend in mid- Wales and visited Hergest Croft Gardens in Herefordshire. I simply couldn’t believe how magnificent the rhodos were. We wandered through forests of them until we came across a pond filled with the lush foliage of skunk cabbage and gunnera – reminding me that I’ve got to get some skunk cabbage started here.
When you’re not all that into rhodos (and I’m not – they hate my soil), and you find yourself struck dumb (in my case that’s a feat in itself), they’ve got to be pretty good.
And then closer toward the English border to Anne and Charles in Chepstow and their fascinating garden The Veddw, where we sat and ate moreish chunks of cheese and fourteen cups of strong tea, and every five minutes or so, exclaimed “THAT would make a great Rant.” The cheese is the other reason for the crash diet. And the fish and chips that Charles pre-ordered from their local chippy that night. It turned out to be one of four I would eat over the next two weeks.
What a joy to meet them both and compare garden writing, garden photography and the horticultural industry in general, in both countries. And discuss the challenges they had in creating what is an excellent, compelling garden. A garden that – no surprise here – makes you think. The little railway carriage that Charles renovated up for guests (paying or otherwise!) is uniquely wonderful.
The next day, Anne and I visited the nearby Wye Valley Sculpture Garden and sat at the top of it by an odd little reflecting pool, looking out towards the ruins of Tintern Abbey of Wordsworth fame. We breathed in the thick scent of a nearby Philadelphus and discussed the tricky balance of writing, and speaking, and touring, and, perhaps most importantly, finding a good amount of time to work (and learn!) in one’s garden. Which is, after all, the point. And then a slap-up meal in England 10 minutes away, across the Severn Bridge. Charles’ new Volvo has bendy headlights that anticipated the curves on the dark ride home. Very cool.
That is the other reason my letter is so late – that “finding a good amount of time to work in one’s garden” thing. Ten acres of one’s garden to be exact. I played hooky throughout the month of May, hitting my drop-dead deadlines, but otherwise pretending that I didn’t need to do a thousand things at my desk, from website work to tour planning to a new book project, and just stayed outside.
I got all the tender plants in, pruned shrubs in new and interesting ways, staked perennials in boring but necessary ways, and weeded late into the nights. And then I took a deep breath, and rolled up the black fabric holding back the weeds in the kitchen garden, and explained the plan for the raised beds to Michael with the hopes that he might, possibly, slap a bed or two together while I was gone. I had hoped to finish this renovation three years ago, but there is only so much time and we are stretched thin.
He did more than slap one together it turns out. He took all that Marine Corps toxic masculinity and directed it at that space – building all ten beds and spreading the stone dust I’d conveniently and evilly had delivered before I left. It looks fantastic, but we still need to fill the beds, build the cold frames, the gathering platform, and the compost dividers, spread pea gravel, install electricity in the greenhouse, and, of course, plant up the beds. Still, this is a major, MAJOR, hurdle accomplished. I am very grateful. He is very sore. Here’s a quick video.
(Now THAT’s something we couldn’t have put into the letters of yesteryear!)
I’d go into further rapturous details over the gardens I saw in Cornwall, the Burgundy I consumed, the conversations I subsequently had, and the walks I took over moorland and coastal cliff, but it would only make you envious and sulky. So I won’t.
But I will just add that on my way back toward London and several gardens therein, I spent a full day at RHS Wisley – which was fantastic as always. They’ve opened up a new Science Center, Library and three new gardens as of 2021, and my day ended on the highest of notes when I found Tropical Plants and How to Love Them in their beautiful new reference library. Obviously an excuse for a celebratory glass of Prosecco and a pot of mint chocolate chip ice cream in the café that looks out upon the Glasshouse Landscape designed by Tom Stuart-Smith.
Man I earned this diet.
On the home front, I hear you got Hans Hansen to speak at the Zoo’s upcoming Plant Trials Symposium during one of his busiest months. Well done. He did say last year that you were a charmer. That’s one word for it. I’m going to try my best to get out for it – what fun we had last year!
You have been busy – very busy – as I see in my capacity as a FB Lurker. Please rest assured that I wasn’t bitter over you speaking to the 1000+ audience members of the International Master Gardener’s Conference in Kansas City, as I can only assume they must have misplaced my speaker sheet in the frantic booking process and were forced to seek an easily available option.
Don’t they know I’ve got a book in Wisley’s library? I trust you ensured they had all my details for next year. Good man.
P.S. In my lurking I discovered you have been reverting to vodka with your tonic. Have I taught you nothing? Vodka is for starting land wars in Europe, not holding intelligent conversations with Michele after a long day. That’s a job for gin.