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.

30 November 2023

Lovettsville, VA

Dear Scott,

I’m not sure who owes who a letter, but it’s early morning, and I find myself at a loose end, still slightly under the spell of jet lag, hit with the left hook of Daylight Savings Time.  I’m mixing metaphors, but you understand.

Can’t be bothered to read another article on the top 100 must-have plants for every garden. Can’t read any further in a book which wanted to educate me on some well-known estate gardens, but instead bored the will to live right out of me. Can’t even bring myself to fiddle with my watercolors. I just want to get outside.

Here we go......

But it’s cold – there’s a hoar frost on the soil – and if I go out there too early I’ll kick myself for weeding against the weather, when a few hours would release soil and roots with grace. Plus, my warmest clothes are in the dryer – particularly one item which has made this summer/fall transition a lot easier to bear – ski pants. 

Yep. Quilted, water-resistant, form-fitting ski pants.  With pockets. And belt loops. I’m a ski bunny now. And a dirty one at that.

I found them in a thrift store in California last month – and snapped them up for a song.  I’d been searching for cast-off Kühl hiking pants.  But anyone with any sense doesn’t cast-off Kühls. Unless they’ve grown out of them. And if they’re using them as intended, they probably haven’t.  

So, not a single trouser leg of Kühl to be found, but there were these ski pants, so I whisked them off to Great Dixter where I’d be planting bulbs in the rain for their autumn symposium. With a lightweight pair of waterproof Columbias over the top, I had a smile on my face the entire time.

But then, that could have been the Great Dixter magic.

Silk Route planters

It was wet work – especially on this day spent at the Silk Route in West Sussex planting hundreds of species tulips, crocus and eremurus. But you can see, we were all smiling (and they weren’t even wearing ski pants). From left, fellow attendees, Linda Stewart, Carolyn Loudenslager, Michelle Cohen, Maude Odgers, Andrea Gasper, and me.  

Yes, Dixter.  I went again. Which is why I buy my clothes at thrift stores.  An intensive semester’s instruction on planting bulbs in eight fabulously long days. One of which was spent at the Silk Route garden – a West Sussex project taken on by Fergus and team to create a walkable vision of Asian flora from Istanbul and Persia through the Himalayas all the way to Vietnam.

Don’t roll your eyes, I won’t go on about it. Well, actually I will. Although as you have recently met and listened to Fergus Garrett speak at the Zoo’s Zootopia event and called him “impossibly down-to-earth and exceptionally curious” (if I recall correctly), you might find yourself at a symposium someday. 

FYI You’d need to go incognito with a wig and beard.  You can hardly show your face after the nonchalant way you dismiss the work of British garden writers and designers as irrelevant to Americans. 

Shoot, did I bring that up again?  Don’t worry, Fergus and I didn’t talk about it. At length.

Yes I know. How does one learn about planting bulbs for eight days?  Just dig a hole for God’s sake and put the bulb in. End of story, right? 

I mean, yes, that’s the mechanics of it. The tool, the hole, the bulb. Though which choice of tool is a bone of contention at the moment. Andrea Gasper captured Fergus and I discussing it:


hori hori

The dirt on this proves I am using my newest hori-hori as promised.  BTW, those are the ski pants – notice the inner thigh ventilation zips for when the bulb planting gets serious.

But what of the art of it? I’m going out on a thin limb here, but I’m willing to say that most gardeners, faced with one too many bags impulse purchased in September, plant them:

  • In big color blobs – to impress with sheer quantity. Not that you’d know anything about this at the Zoo.
  • In thin lines, outlining things that shouldn’t under any circumstances be outlined.
  • In circles, just in case your lines failed to do the job.
  • Like soldiers, in regimented spacing that exhausts the eye.
  • As buckshot scatter – the result of throwing them up in the air and letting them fall.



I’m only giving you hell about the sheer quantity thing.  Keukenhof and Longwood have built a reputation on this manner of planting – as have you at the Zoo, and there is a place for it. Right next to the gift shop.


bulbs at Longwood

Tulip Shock&Awe at Longwood

But for homeowners short of three grand trying to either a) do more with less; or b) approximate a garden kissed by natural forces, you’ve got to admit it falls short.

The Dixter approach is two-pronged.  First, to see the bulb – even the sterile, over-hybridized floozies – as a plant with a reproductive and competitive nature. Second, to place it with this in mind whilst paying close attention to the ways in which it might both negatively and positively affect surrounding plants.

How would we find that bulb in nature?  How would it expand its reach, with seed trickling into crevices and low spots during a downpour, or through bulblets expanding into loose soil, or storms scattering seed pods only a few feet from the mother bulb?  


Great Dixter Symposium

George Game lays out a perennial and bulb scheme under the watchful eyes of fellow symposium attendees Adam Stoter and Carolyn Loudenslager.

And then from there – how to plant enough that the color echoes but does not dominate along a line of sight?  Lisa Roper does this outstandingly with bulbs and with color generally in the Gravel Garden at Chanticleer – but perhaps you’d had too many gin & tonics at PPA last year to remember?  I know I did.  Luckily I live close by.

Well, by American standards of distance at least.

In any case, it all makes a great deal of sense to me and goes so much further than the ‘throw them in the air and see what happens’ method of bulb planting that passes for naturalism on all the big sites these days.

planting bulbs

Planting hundreds of Tulipa turkistanica bulbs in miniscule crevices at the Silk Route was made SO much easier with my 4-inch pointing trowel. Just sayin’.


Once you get curious, the game changes. Each spring I watch with interest the double jonquils emerging in little patches here and there along the creek all the way down to the main bridge.  I didn’t plant them – as you can’t call throwing reject bulbs in the creek after two gin and tonics with Louisa Zimmermann-Roberts “planting them.”  But they found nooks and crannies in which to rest and nourish themselves, and eventually bloom.

And often, new bulblets are loosed from their mother’s apron strings by flooding, or animals digging, and come to rest in another spot.  It is fascinating to see them popping up here and there – and where they choose to do it.  That’s the spirit Fergus urges us to harness.  Where would the bulb put itself, and how can the gardener improve upon it?  And yes, I’ll go so far as to say “improve upon.”


I’m not above a little Shock&Awe myself.

That’s the reproductive side of the equation, and then there is the competitive side.  There’s the foliage of bulbs to be thought about.  And gardeners think about it, sure. But we’re most often thinking about the ugliness of the post-bloom, not the kill-or-be-killed intrigue going on in the pre-bloom. Beyond the B-grade daffodil death-scene you went on about last spring, there’s no point in interplanting bulbs with perennial favorites in naturalistic drifts if the foliage of something like camassia or allium will smother the emerging crowns of something like phlox or echinacea. 

Only then do we come to that death scene.  For permanent plantings, what can push up through it and mask it, quickly and efficiently?  For temporary plantings, where is help needed? We were all shocked I think by the amount of bulbs taken out of the ground in the green at Dixter, and stored in the barn to be sorted and re-used in autumn.

And all of this – whether choice of bulbs, where to put them, and what to pair them with has to be figured out within the framework of what grows well in one’s own garden – in one’s own climate. There’s no sense trying to copy the schemes of gardens in LaLaLand when you’ve got a Midwestern climate on your hands.  But the technique…. Yes the technique is solid.

In any case, you can find an intro lecture to the techniques at the Great Dixter website if you’re interested.

I know you are, secretly. You don’t need to tell me if you rent it. I’d only bring it up later. Smugly.

robin and worm

This little robin followed Linda Stewart and I throughout one of the days, waiting for worms as we cleaned the soil in preparation for bulbs. My cold heart cracked just a little.

I’ve got two crates of bulbs in front of me right now, and hope to sort out a plan by the end of the weekend, but I need to finish caulking the greenhouse first. 

I spent yesterday on the roof of it, holding myself in ridiculous positions and coming to terms with criminally diminished muscle tone, despite all the Operation Linda Hamilton training I’ve been doing.  What. The. Actual. Hell.  Estrogen! Estrogen! My kingdom for some estrogen! Spent my thirties battling the fun and games of estrogen dominance and now it only shows up occasionally to piss me off.  More push ups needed obviously.


It’s funny how such a simple job requires so much of an aging body.

Speaking of age and infirmity…hoping the shock waves reverberating through your lower back and leg each time you put one foot in front of the other have turned into dull aches and a milder form of swearing. How’s the kale diet going? I found a Hostess cherry pie box and 7-11 burrito wrapper in the bottom of Michael’s car yesterday, so it appears that we are not above reproach chez Willburn.

Well, the dryer is ringing with news of my freshly laundered and fully fluffed ski pants, and the frost is gently loosening its grip.  We live in a decadent age my friend, where machines do our washing and suggest our next thought; but as of this week at least, they don’t know the cotyledons of a larkspur from that of a chickweed.  Time to go clean some beds.



P.S.  You’ll be thrilled to hear I didn’t win the Garden Media Guild’s Garden Writer of the Year award, but what an incredible night it was. To be shortlisted as an American made my entire year.  Matt Collins (the winner and head gardener at London’s Garden Museum) is coming to Virginia in May and I am immersing him in Lirodendron – I sense a road trip for you and Michele. 

GMG Awards

Here we all are – the few, the proud, the shortlisted for Garden Writer of the Year. From left, Claire Foster, me, Paula McWaters, Matt Collins, Jodie Jones and Rachel deThame.


P.P.S. London was decked out for Christmas like nobody’s business. Michele would have been in heaven.  


London at Christmas