Behind the 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.

Cincinnati, Ohio

June 30, 2024

Dear Marianne,

You are so justified in the hurt and anger you so lyrically expressed in your recent letter(s), and I say you have every right to lash out at me in the severe way in which you did. I have been dreading this day, and it came. And it did not disappoint. You really have a way with words when you’re mad.

And, of course, I have excuses. And some good ones too. After so many years of needing excuses so many times for so many things, I’m pretty good at them. Sometimes I actually assemble and articulate exonerating facts, like a good defense lawyer. Other times, I just conjure something up out of thin air. Like a cad. Practice makes perfect, I guess. But this time I will spare you excuses, both real and made up. I will only say that I am a bad friend. In fact, a bad person. A bad person who is good at excuses but might be transitioning into groveling. In fact, I think my future lies in groveling. As I lose some of my edge, excuses get harder. And groveling looks easy.

The American Conifer Society toured my garden a few weeks ago as part of their National Conference. I got some nice comments but some of the nicest to receive were compliments about my containers. I don’t consider myself a container designer but I work hard at it and these comments came as welcome boosts to my ego. The ruffle of Heuchera villosa came naturally. Seedling volunteers that just showed up. My genius was simply in letting them stay.

So I meant to write but got overwhelmed and didn’t. And the more I didn’t, something awful happened. Shame crept in. And as each consecutive week ticked off, and—I sensed—you were becoming more and more incensed, the shame got worse. Until it sort of took over.  And then I couldn’t write because I didn’t know what to say.

Marianne, it got so bad I considered faking my own death. And I had a pretty good plan too, I think. I was going to wind a very long hose to the way far back reaches of my yard and lay a skeleton down beside the very end of it. Then I would just disappear. Hop a train. Begin a life of drifting from town to town, sitting around small fires, eating beans from cans and making small talk with other lost people running from shameful acts (or non-acts) in their pasts. People who also didn’t write to their friends, or might have pinched the tip of a sedum from a friend’s garden, or who told their physical therapists they’d been doing their stretches.

So, that’s what I expected to be doing while the scene back home would speak for itself. The cops would shake their heads and paint an outline around “my” skeleton, take a few pictures, and deduce what they needed to from the baked garden around them, new plant tags next to withered wisps of once promising plants, and—most of all–“my” bony fingers wrapped around the nozzle of a still running hose. They’d see this, take off their sunglasses, utter something pithy, and close the investigation.

Where it all fell apart was when I couldn’t find a skeleton on Amazon. At least not an affordable one in my size.  So, I put faking my own death on the back burner for a while and wallowed in my shame until your letter arrived and made it all moot. Being lambasted like that was actually liberating. It brought the situation to the fore and kicked me out of my craven, cowering state, and forced me to do this here. Write back. And choose between making excuses and groveling. 

And I’ve chosen to grovel. So imagine this order of things. I’ll extend my neck. Submissively. You’ll show your fangs and snarl. I’ll whimper. You’ll seemingly turn your attention to something distant for a second which will allow me to slink away, and, just like that, the order of the pack will be restored. And we can then go about setting out on a hunt, turning our focus on taking down big game like, apparently, Nandina-haters. But more on this in a moment.  I want to talk about my garden a little first.

This year was the best Spring I can remember. It just rolled out soft and sweet. No late freezes, no extreme temps, no bad storms, and lovely, beautiful, consistent precipitation. It was wonderful and I don’t know which was worse, that the heat  and drought came on like someone had thrown a switch or knowing that it would. But our reality is, what we’re all doing now, is desperately dragging hoses and learning new gardening lessons we’ll probably forget.

Like this one. From now on, Marianne, I am going to plan my new plantings better. Not one new plant for each of my many garden beds, but several new plants for one, maybe two, beds. Because having to water one new plant in every nook and cranny of my garden until they are established is such a nightmare. It means I’m dragging watering cans or hoses all over creation. Whereas if I had been smart and concentrated most or all of them in close proximity, I could drag a hose and leave it there, walk over every other day, turn the valve, hose ‘em down, and be done with it. Next year, I’m going to remember to do this like a smart person would, and, thus, move slightly ahead of where I am now.

Something I’m going to do this year is kill my Ligularia japonica ‘Chinese Dragon.’ Such a beautiful plant. I love the leaves, and the flowers, but hate the crash, which it does every summer, wilting like it had been dropped in a pot of boiling water. This year, heat alone did the trick. It didn’t even wait for the drought. I can water but I can’t do a damned thing about the heat, so it has got to go. Even as I watch it now, struggling so hard to live, I’m not second-guessing my decision. Its fate is sealed. The first spare moment I’ve got, shovel pruned.

Ligularia japonica ‘Chinese Dragon.’

Possible Ligularia replacement, Acanthus spinosus. Not that it doesn’t appreciate a little water from time to time, but a beautiful plant with at least something of a will to live.

Maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned from the big Heat and Drought of June 2024 is that it makes animals crazy. Yes, they’re always crazy but this year I’ve seen absolute lunacy. Little round holes—a virtual grid pattern of destruction—dug by whatever animal for whatever reason in heretofore perfect patches of Mazus repens and Saxifraga stolonifera.  Rabbits eating everything and doing so in broad daylight, usually hopping lazily just a few feet beyond my reach. Deer somehow getting into, and then back out of, the fenced-in back garden. Marianne, it’s as if they’re jewel thieves who can somehow do a floor routine through the museum’s laser security system. Voles scampering between beds at unusually high frequency. Herds of millipedes throwing themselves into the pool in droves. Vultures circling overhead every time I’m watering the back, far reaches of my garden.

Saxifraga stolonifera. Had been a beautiful patch. A carpet of cool. Turned overnight into a crime scene by some animal seeking worms or something. Note the rabbit mauled Sedum next to it.

You know, sometimes I have these ideals. At my loftiest moments, I think I’m gardening for wildlife. I even tell other people I’m doing it. I even tell other people that they should be doing it. Trouble is, the animals took me at my word and just ran with it. With no sense of decorum. And they come over and just totally make themselves at home. They eat whatever they want and as much of it as they can. They eat flowers. They eat buds just about to flower. They chew off things they don’t even eat! And then they mate in front of my wife. They take big dumps right in the middle of my paths. Marianne, I’m done. I’ve had it with them. There’s a reason we call thuggish, awful humans animals!

But it’s not all a total loss. The front yard, although subject to full-sun and less irrigation is chugging along okay. Plants more evolved for it, I guess, and less competition with tree roots. The more I garden, the more I love Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster!’ Common as can be, but for every good reason.

And the backyard is holding up too. Of course the trees are so important, but even on the hottest most miserable days, sedges come to the rescue.

As for Nandina? Another day. I hear what you’re saying. I agree with what you’re saying. I just don’t need a win right now. In fact, now that I’ve learned to grovel, I might not need to win ever again. Maybe a little rain will restore my willingness to fight. I’ll let you know if that happens. 

Yours always,


PS – Heat and drought survivors. As you pointed out, Verbena bonariensis. And lilacs and grapes.