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.

Caye Caulker, Belize

20 April 2024

Dear Scott,

A handwritten letter today for you from lands more distant than Virginia. I will type it up later if all goes well and I am not eaten by bull sharks while snorkeling this week.  With these words I am officially on my seventh attempt at pen meeting paper. We’ll see how this intro paragraph shapes up in the next few lines, or whether it joins its brothers wadded up in the bin.

Hand writing a letter is always a humbling experience. It is worrying how much revision is necessary, and therefore what must be happening without thought when one’s fingers are lightly perched a top a keyboard. I should send you a photo of this paragraph to fully illustrate the point.


Onward & Upward then – isn’t that what we’re supposed to say as gardeners thanks to Katherine White?  Here I will confess that I did not enjoy her book, whose title, Onward & Upward in The Garden (1950-something?) must have caused the term to lodge in gardener brains.  Too dry for me and that’s saying something. Positively brittle. But she’s long since gone onward and hopefully upward (as has her devoted husband E.B. of Stuart Little fame), so there will be no hurt feelings as a result of my posthumous review.

Speaking of hurt feelings, I know you must be concerned that I am fully three paragraphs into this letter now with no mention of your back or continued recovery from surgery – or indeed inquires as to further meddling by barber-surgeons in darkened operating rooms where ominous music plays.

I can’t help but think that these spinal experts must rub their hands together with glee when a new patient arrives limping, and a full examination reveals dirt under the nails, callused knees, and crows’ feet that warrant their own topographical map. Add a birth certificate placing the patient nearer to hip replacement than hipster, and the next twelve payments on the Audi are virtually in the bank.

My elaborate snark-filled theory aside (I am the daughter of a chiropractor after all), I hope you are seeing some degree of relief — and eating a good diet that keeps inflammation in check. I will not bore or irritate you with talk of my fasting regime, but I have been grateful for the ability it gave me to get somewhat on top of the battles being waged ‘twist tissue and bone in my lower back.

No fasting in Belize however, for that is where we are – on a long overdue vacation. Sans laptop. Sans phone.

The moment we left Miami, I shut off that device of devilry and haven’t turned it back on in seven days.  We are visiting friends who live on a little island off the coast of Belize where cars are not allowed and golf carts and bikes take you anywhere your legs are too lazy to amble.

It is hot – though not as hot as it could be – and I find my thoughts returning to the bluebells and Claytonia carpeting the valley when we left; and the delicate waves of an unfolding Virginia spring. There is nothing delicate about this tropical climate. Flora and fauna have evolved with attitude, and there is no place for plants that need to be cosseted.

My friends have a beautiful wooden house of which they built every square inch. And that’s ‘they’ used in the true sense of the term, and not the more modern “They [hired a builder, paid them a lot of money, and claimed creative credit] built.” They have crafted a small garden around them by moving into the understory of existing vegetation and limbing up the bitter almond, Coccoloba, and black mangrove, thereby preserving the precious shade of these sturdy trees whilst highlighting the intricate shape of their trunks.

The white shaded sand against the dark twisted wood is quite striking and reminds me that a garden is more than flowers and color. If you have showcased shape and form, you have a garden.

tropical plant

Here is a lovely thing on the mainland that looks like a cross between an Albizia and a Cephalanthus – any ideas? It was the one shrub I really, really wanted to bring home.

The quest for color is still on their minds however. An oleander has come and gone after [eventually] dipping its toes in brackish groundwater and a sad little Bougainvillea grows in a large pot at the bottom of the stairs, fully draped in black netting to protect it from iguana. I think I may have convinced them to be done with it, as its presence is a constant reminder of what cannot be, rather than a celebration of what is.

The iguana are no longer fascinating creatures as a result, but a pestilence that raises the blood pressure. The possession of the one precludes the love of the other. It is the reason I will not build a koi pond as I cannot bear to hate my herons.

A river of fresh water runs under this island which keeps the Plumeria, oleander, Mandevilla and Justicia in the center of the island happy; but on the edges, it is red, black and white mangroves. The first putting down long lanky legs into the turquoise sea and making way for its more terrestrial cousins as the land is slowly created by leaf, branch, root, and trapped sediment.  A fascinating process that protects the island better than any sea wall. 

Not that a nearby island now being developed by the Four Seasons hotel seems concerned enough to keep any of theirs.  White sand beaches are much preferred by visiting tourists — especially visiting high-end tourists — and mangroves with their rich ecosystems and murky waters are soooo inconvenient when one is trying to ‘Gram out the classic #bestlifeever/#yourlifesucks frenemy fodder between rum punches.



I kept a Cecropia alive for two years and finally decided it wasn’t worth it last fall – now I am annoyed with myself – what a fascinating pioneer species. This is on the mainland in San Ignacio – up against a Mayan step pyramid.


Speaking of rich ecosystems and murky waters, the crocodiles are plentiful and of varying sizes; and though our friends gave us all the platitudes we similarly offer our guests when they quail at black bear and coyote in our woods, I must confess myself less than confident balancing for the first time on a paddle board amongst the mangroves.

At least in Virginia, Mungo will occupy the bear with taunts and barks and cagey Jack Russell moves while I run away thanks to terra firma.

The best advice offered over rum punches the night before was to remain vertical as crocodiles can’t snap sideways. Small comfort.  As was the story of a friend who successfully fought one off to the detriment of the tendons in his hands. As were the crocodiles in the run off ponds as we drove to the dock.

Still, I did it. Faced my fears and got on with it. Not that I saw any in the water with me, but that’s beside the point. The terrors of being grilled unmercifully on some point of botany by a heckler in a conference audience determined to prove his superior knowledge while 600 people look on, holds nothing for me now.  I will be impossible to live with.

Well, it’s time to wrap up this missive. While I was penning that last sentence a sting ray jumped out of the water to the amazement of everyone on our catamaran trip – except me, head down in letters. And now I’ve gone and mentioned the catamaran, which I had studiously avoided in earlier paragraphs as there is, believe it or not, a limit to my cruelty. Content yourself perhaps with the knowledge that I missed the sting ray on your account.


P.S. But not the dolphins.

Gaia resort

Above the Five-Sisters Waterfalls in Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve on the mainland. Great swimming.  It’s 323 steps down and up. I counted.