January 17, 2024

Cincinnati, OH

Dear Marianne, 

I’m two letters behind if we’re counting actual letters, closer to five if we’re counting months, and I apologize. As always. And, as always, I have my excuses.

Marianne, my life is crazy. At the end of the year I went back through my calendar and wrote down all the major events of last year. In 2023, I gave a bunch of out of town talks across the eastern half of the country.  I went to CAST in California with you and Andrea, which took us to dozens of plant breeders and marketers. Repeated that exact same route with Michele to attend my niece’s wedding. Three trips to Atlanta and one to North Carolina to visit our granddaughter. Within these trips, I visited 14 botanical gardens.  I also wrote 6 columns and 6 interviews for Horticulture Magazine. 16 blogs on Rant. Invented Hort Trivia Night in Cincinnati and then put together and hosted three of them. All this while working a full-time job, at which we put together and hosted three major symposiums. I kept my home garden (mostly) alive, and experienced the shockingly swift deterioration of my spine.  Marianne, I’m tired.

Such is the desperate life of a 64-year old, second career guy who is trying to make up for the lost time I spent adrift in my first career while also scrabbling to get everything in I can in the ever-apparent and diminishing amount of time I have left. So, of course I’m tired. I’m driven tired. I’m tired with a cause. I hope I never won’t be tired. I fear the truth that not being tired means the fun is over.

Loved all the thoughts you soaked up at Great Dixter regarding planting bulbs. Fergus Garrett’s question, “Where would the bulb put itself?” rang so true. It reminded me of the one and only prairie I installed for a customer. Sixteen or seventeen years ago now. It was a terrifying endeavor. An elderly couple I really liked. A completely new project. I feared failure in my bones! Thank God it actually came out pretty well and the couple seemed very happy with it. I was very glad they got to see it somewhat mature before they passed on. Everything about it was a learning experience!

After doing my best to kill weeds on a compressed schedule, I scattered the same seed mix on a winding strip of barely undulating land. All of it might have totaled an acre. No variation in the amount of light any part of it received. Very little variation in the soil, moisture, and topography. Six, maybe eight inches of difference between the highest piece of ground and the lowest, and yet it quickly became apparent that some plants favored the conditions here while others preferred it there. Surprising lessons too. Rattlesnake master took to the lower, moister spots. Monarda preferred it high and dry. In a highly competitive environment such as a prairie, such minor variations are apparently the difference between existing and not.


That is a lesson I have carried with me ever since, and, yet, everywhere I go, I’m also reminded of how resilient and adaptable plants are. All those ubiquitous invasive plants make sure of that. They are resilient to a fault and there’s no avoiding them. But in a few months all these bulbs you spoke of—these plants you learned to site with competition in mind and with the master artistry of nature at the fore—will serve as bastions of well-behaved resilience. These plants are mostly native to Turkey, Armenia, Iran, and another ‘stan or two. They are divided and fattened up in Holland. Sterilized, boxed, and boated to warehouses in New Jersey. Then they are trucked to homes throughout much of the North American continent where they will no doubt wait out procrastinating gardeners and harried landscapers who will eventually stab a hole in the ground and drop them in. And, you can bet your bottom dollar that many will do this with little to no regard for correct spacing, planting depth, or any of the other rules. As for design, as you mentioned, at best drifts, at worst thin regimented lines of soldiers—daf, tulip, daf. One, two, one, two.

And these plants will shake off all that travel. They’ll forget the long waits in boxes and bags, forgive the shallow holes, and, finally, they’ll embrace soils and conditions so foreign. They’ll even dismiss thoughtlessly insulting design and, indeed, they will grow. Thrive even. And they will undoubtedly delight all who grow them.

Because those who plant them in rows, expect rows. And those who plant them in drifts, expect drifts. And those who plant them where they would plant themselves, will expect to see that. And all those people, skilled or not, learned or not, sophisticated or not, they will be lifted by dependably sunny blooms on cold spring days.

I, myself, use the apparently discredited toss them up in the air and plant them where they fall method. Or some variation on it. I would put them where they would put themselves but I’ve never had the time or opportunity to learn how to think like a bulb (see paragraphs 2 and 3). And my garden doesn’t vary much in terms of conditions anyway. But I would like to learn more about it someday and at least carry the knowledge around in my head, even if I never have an opportunity to apply it. 

It might seem like I’m making light of your method, but I’m not. I was bouyed by the enthusiasm you brought back and shared. Learning everything we can about plants, how to grow them and how to use them, that is the fuel that feeds my fire. And yours. I just marvel at the expanse there can be between two gardeners or ten. For gardeners like us, our learning can follow long seams which we mine for all they’re worth, descending to incredible depths as we do.  Yet, other gardeners, whose knowledge just barely scratches the surface, can grow the same plants–all wrong–and still receive great pleasure. Our earth, and many of its plants, can accommodate both ends of the spectrum and everything in between and bring beauty and joy to all. Isn’t that remarkable? And maybe even humbling?

I am writing this from a hotel room in Bloomington, Illinois. Out my window a thin skiff of snow blows back and forth across a vast sea of very frozen pavement. The temperature is somewhere around 2F. I’ll give two talks here and then one in Northwestern Indiana on the way back home. My bilateral laminectomy is next week, four to six weeks off to follow. Then a symposium in March. A few more talks. The Perennial Plant Association Conference in Asheville. Another symposium in August. Of course, the cherry on top will be leading a tour of several gardens in Cornwall with you and Andrea in September. I am very blessed for this horticultural travel and for so many horticultural friends. It and they fire my passion, add to my body of knowledge, and further this adventure. I am even more blessed that I sometimes have the privilege of sharing my knowledge and passion with others. I’m living the dream, Marianne, and I say that without a hint of the sarcasm that that expression has come to be known for. I hope my body allows me to continue with energy and joy for a while to come. And keeps me tired.