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.

Lovettsville, VA

June 26, 2024

Dear Scott,

I assume that in the hopes of a few cheap Likes, the contents of the letter you promised months ago with a contrite and naïve heart have instead gone to Facebook as a series of ironic asides and pithy one-liners. 

Can you imagine the epic, best-selling novel you would have written by now if you’d re-channeled half the energy you take giving your adoring masses Beuerleinisms by the dozen each week?

Can you conceive of Penguin Random House, Macmillan, and Harper Collins blowing up your agent’s phone in a nasty but deliciously expensive bidding war? 24-year-olds throwing themselves into your limousine? Michele throwing them back out again?

What a life. Black berets in seven shades of charcoal in the closet – the ghost of Dorothy Parker sardonically hovering over your book signings.  Weekends drinking heavily with Tom Robbins and Gus Van Sant discussing potential screenplays and further bidding wars. 

Ah the cigarettes you could smoke. The carbon credit neo-indulgences you could buy. The little people you could destroy. The thrice weekly confessional visits that could in themselves become the basis for your next novel.  

But no. Facebook.

Fair enough, but I can’t help wishing the heart-clicking enablers would stop encouraging your descent into a world of dopamine hits and validation scrolling – then you might take part of an afternoon and let me know how garden and life goes in Cincinnati. 

Luckily for you, I have a lot of practice talking to myself these days – mostly in the garden.  So I won’t let the lack of a correspondent spoil a correspondence. This week the majority of those conversations took place at 5.30pm on a wander through the dry hellscape that passes for my Virginia garden. 

For three days I have profaned the air with…well…profanity, cries to heaven, self-recrimination, and undecipherable muttering.  Lots of sentences start with “I’ve got to…” and trail off just like those ellipses.

Basically, how we lecture other people not to garden (and what I was warning about last weekend in Alabama at the Mobile Botanical Gardens) – visualizing what could be instead of what is.

marianne willburn

I’ll get over it – I always do – but I’m not superhuman, I’d like at least one paragraph — or five — in which to wallow.  I’ll effortlessly look at the bright side when it rains hard and fills up nine rain barrels — and my heart with human kindness.  I’ll go out and dance naked in it.  Fairly certain at this point I’m not joking either.

All bets are off in the dry garden when you don’t have pumped water.  If I hear another gardener complain of schlepping hoses in the sun, I’m in danger of completely overreacting to a sweet grandma who was just making conversation. 

I’d give up a toe (they’re looking pretty shocking anyway) to be able to point a hose at anything in my lower gardens.  Anything.  Instead it’s me and a watering can and two inches of water in the bottom of my last of nine water barrels.

That said (and true to my word), here is the bright side: the opportunity to observe. (Once we’ve stopped drinking heavily.)

Thus, my observations:

Hügelkultur is saving my hintern.

The Verbascum are off the chart.  They don’t give a damn about dry and dusty and ask for more – even in the partial shade.  Here’s a V. thapsus lounging against an Ageratina altissima ‘Chocolate’ – which gets through the dry spells but doesn’t look like it wants to most of the time.


Ditto the Verbena bonariensis.  In fact, I just saw another gardener-friend in North Carolina, Jay Sifford (do you know Jay?) detailing his hard crush on this fantastic trooper on Instagram. 

(Our Ben is not impressed, but then, he’s in Devon and I’m thinking that the general moisture-rich environment plays merry hell with Verbena’s Mediterranean-esque joie de vivre.) Here it is with some larkspur two weeks ago.  Larkspur long since gone, Verbena, better than ever.


Here’s a few more [established] plants happy to wallow in the Inferno. (Worse actually – it’s early morning tender shade, afternoon Inferno, then sun cut off 5:30-ish by tulip poplars just to make the susceptible disfigure themselves reaching for it.):

Pyracantha ‘Silver Lining’ – Damn.

silver lining

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ – Double damn.

morning lightChamaecyparis – all taxa I grow. Probably 6.

Juniperus – ditto.

juniper and chamaecyparis

Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ – keep waiting for it to tap out in the five hours of south-facing it gets, but no.

aralia cordata dry

Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’ – my love for this stunner grows by the day, but it NEEDS ventilation or all is lost.  Your front garden perhaps? 

I’ve got a little one in the next photo that is doing so much better than its super large predecessor in the main Serpentine bed which used to fall prey to fungus, color early, and drop leaves, when other plants were too close. That’s what a border is to me: plants delightfully too close. So I nixed the big one and moved a baby where it could stretch out a little bit. That sumac has lots of babies.


And while we’re at it – how about that Eastern prickly pear (above) and in bloom (below). I feel like it’s a no brainer to list a cactus as drought tolerant, but come on. (C. humifusa)


Arundo donax ‘Peppermint Stick’ – the kind of upright white variegation Miscanthus ‘Cosmopolitan’ only dreams about. Here on the left picking up the color from Salix integra ‘Flamingo’

peppermint stick

Orlaya grandiflora – second round of spring-sown/thrown seeds are blooming (most of mine thrown in fall), and I am prostrate with love at dusk when it picks up all the light left in the day.  What an easy, sweet, umbellifer year after year.  (with thanks to Janet Draper at Smithsonian for the introduction).



Euphorbia wallichii – another of Janet’s pass-alongs, though she’s sure I’ll cry uncle on its self-seeding abilities.  Not a great chance of that as I am always looking for hardy, herbaceous euphorbia that can handle partial shade locations and disturbed soils. If they want to get into bed with the Nepeta or Verbena, or Salvia, or all the #@#@#$#$ summer grass weed-species, who am I to judge?


Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’ – I have so much respect for a plant that is good in shade and well-behaved, dappled sun, dry conditions, wet conditions, all the conditions, strong statement in three seasons, AND up until two days ago, I would have said completely deer resistant.  Some curious youngsters are nibbling.  Hope it chokes them.

solomon's seal



And here’s an inconvenient truth nugget for the haters: Nandina.  Straight Nandina bloody domestica.  I’ve been watching this in my garden (given to me by Louisa) for eight years now, side by side with ‘Lemon Lime’ ‘Filimentosa’ ‘Fire Power’ and ‘Obsession.’

I watch it handle flood and handle drought.  I watch the wasps, flies, honey and bumble bees COVER it in summer (right now) as panicles open with tiny flowers. (I’ll cover it in the photo with a sphere so as not to shock too many people).


I'll try to cover it a little with the sphere so it's not too shocking.


I watch the evergreen gravitas in the winter garden, and the summer leaves which, in drought conditions, look as if they’ve been regularly watered.  I watch birds make nests in it. I also watch people lose their ever-living minds when I have the temerity to mention that this plant is highly adaptable to a shifting Mid-Atlantic climate and that it seems as if our fauna is similarly adapting to it.  

Not that we’re supposed to pay attention to our eyes these days. In fact, I’m supposed to rip it out and plant a Cornus sericea instead which will ask for 5 times the water and be defoliated by sawfly in August if the deer haven’t already razed it to the ground by July. Makes sense.

And don’t get me started on that single observational paper that ignited the internet fury and placed a seed (no pun intended) in every Master Gardener’s mind from here to California re: birds and the berries. Or rather, greedy cedar wax-wings.  Susan did a great post on that hot mess here.

I know, I know, you don’t like conflict.  And you know what, believe it or not, I don’t either – I just don’t like things that don’t make sense, play into hype, or fit into easy boxes. And it’s hard to be curious in an age of orthodoxy. That’s why this sign greets me on my way to my desk in the mornings.  Found it in a thrift store.  Guess whoever owned it ended up exhausted and gave it away.

voice not echo


The irony of course here is that it is mass produced in China.

With that, I’ll sign off.  Though I will take a minute to ask you two questions. 

The first can be answered in one simple sentence, no more: How is your back doing?

Take as many paragraphs as you wish with the second: Which plants are coping best with the Inferno pattern in your garden – because I know you’re dealing with some of the same nonsense in the Midwest and I need more subjects upon which to conduct cruel and unusual experiments.


P.S.  Would it be easier if I just started to write Michele letters? As a Jane Austen fan there is no way she falls down on her correspondence obligations.

P.P.S.  So it looks like we’re going to do the Southern Garden Symposium together in Baton Rouge.  That’ll be fun. I have already requested the better podium and a kind, soft-focus spotlight.