Saturday, February 19, 2011

SPRING 2011 BOOK PROMOTION TOUR PLANNED is a scary and exhilarating experience to lay one's work out there to a waiting audience. A little like hanging all your underwear--the good, the bad and the awful--on a clothesline pole in your front yard. Writing itself is a solitary, even lonely business with only the TV blaring in the background, a subliminal technique to keep dialogue loose and flowing. Book tours are something else, intimidating and important, anything but a one-woman show. Tours are about connections and the dialogue they provoke. Necessary. Inspiring. I'm about to start on mine with my new novel in hand, GARDEN OF EVE. Tour 2011. See you soon.


The poor groundhog is being called out of the old burrow to play weather forecaster just as record storms are rampaging from the Great Plains to Maine. Even the Super Bowl festivities were impacted by bone-chilling cold in Texas. If we can’t head to the tropics to escape the relentless white, some creative green therapy might be just what the doctor ordered.
REPOT A PLANT. I tried it today with a very sick looking Christmas Cactus that I had adopted. My mom had threatened to leave the thing exposed to the elements over the Wisconsin winter for its poor performance. All the project took was a bag of potting soil, a plastic garbage bag on my kitchen floor as a work surface, my ungloved two hands and a large new faux terra cotta pot from the hardware. I made a heck of a mess, then hummed happily to myself as I vacuumed up after myself. I’ve been checking on the plant every hour on the hour since. Can’t be sure it looks any better, but I sure feel better.
HANG OUT AT A FLORIST. Valentine’s Day is always a great excuse. Walking the moist and humid aisles is enough to brighten anyone’s day. If we invest in a plant or two and gift our nearest and dearest, we even spread a bit of that cheer around. Best of all, unlike the poinsettias of Christmas, the plants of choice this season are usually cut flowers. That means greatly lowered expectations about their longevity. When a rose or carnation is done, it’s done. We get over it and move on.
ASSEMBLE A SEED STARTER OPERATION. In a classic case of avoidance and denial, for over a year now I have postponed growing the seedlings my husband needs to take the photos for an upcoming children’s book I’m planning. Last week I was fed up enough at the weather that I splurged on a dozen seed packets. Even the big-box stores have stocked them for the season. By the time I find the peat starter trays from last fall’s end-of-season sale (and now buried somewhere in the garage), it should be warm enough to get down to the actual planting. Meanwhile, just the sight of those gorgeous perennial photos on the seed packets is enough to make me smile.
DON’T TAKE ‘NO’ FOR AN ANSWER. I like the fact that they call bringing branches in out of the cold and putting them in a pot of water so they will bloom, forcing. It can also be done with bulbs. A friend tried it at Christmas and now has a gorgeous amaryllis blooming on her kitchen counter. My weaving instructor just installed a clump of forsythia branches in a pickle crock on the trestle table in her studio. Can’t wait. I’ve been thinking of crawling over the massive snowbank the plow threw up to my own forsythia any day now.


My last official gardening act for the season—once the raking and cutting back was done—was to dig in seven enormous pots of sedum. I had coveted those sturdy perennials all fall flowering away like a fiery blaze on the makeshift wood racks in front of the grocery. Autumn Joy, the labels said. When the sales price hit a buck-fifty a pot, I couldn’t resist any longer.
The whole time it took to tally up the bill at the check-out counter, I realized my spontaneous purchase might well be an exercise in futility. The once beautiful crimson flower heads were dried out and a nondescript rust. At the base of the stalks, foolhardy cabbage-like new growth was beginning to establish itself. Even as I dug away at the hardening soil in the side yard, I kept telling myself not to get my hopes up. The wind was howling out of the north. Empty pots rolled down the driveway. Still, at a buck-fifty a pot, I couldn’t be too choosy about the survival rate over the winter.
I can’t totally account for my obsession with last-rose-of-summer plant rescue operations. If I’m lucky, I manage to save one in three. In graduate school, finances were an excuse as I picked through the dead and dying palms and ferns and other staples of the indoor garden. Nowadays, nursery owners glance my way in disgust and roll their eyes as I forage through the Clearance tables. I tell myself that somebody has to love the poor overstock salvia that nobody wanted.
“You’re a tough one,” a manager told me once after I spent a good half hour sorting through the rejects. A softy, actually. But I didn’t argue.
Factory-reject plants make it easier than healthy ones to do the right thing. Cut back the dried out stalks and stems , a voice in my head told me. Let all the energy go to the roots. Two or three weeks ago, I might have been tempted to leave the extravagant red blossoms finish out their blooming season. Unfortunately, short term concessions to aesthetics can reduce a plant’s chances of survival, what ever the season.
Gardening experts are right, of course, when they tell us that in the long run, insisting on the healthiest possible plant stock is a wise investment. One look at those sad-looking sedum pots and logic didn’t weigh heavily on the scale. I loaded up the cart and even the fold-down wire baby seat. By the time I got home, the cargo area was full of bristly plant residue.
In another week I couldn’t have gotten that shovel in the ground. Call it a leap of faith. How much do you want to bet, that spot in bed is the first place I head in the spring to check for tell-tale shoots? A book-maker wouldn’t touch that one with a ten-foot pole.


Putting the garden to bed—I was outside yesterday with weed whacker, clippers and rake. Sad as it was to see some of my favorite greenery going down, I realized that fall can also be a great time to look ahead, to take stock of the overall health and welfare of that plant community.
BALD SPOTS: With the foliage under control, it is easier to spot the holes. In tough northern climates, we garden folk worry a lot about what winter might do to our beloved plants. In fact, the growing season itself can inflict its share of damage and problems. By now, I know better than to wait for the spring sprouting to remember where new plant stock is needed. A simple annotated sketch or photo of the bed combined with label stakes can be important when deciding where to replant next season.
MAINTENANCE PLANS: Then there are the weeds. Hard as I try to keep up with that nasty chore, it is amazing how even full-grown intruders can hide out under hostas and other big-leaved plants. Ditto, for tenacious invaders that twine themselves among the roots of perennials. The fall cut-back lays bare such problem areas. A wise master gardener friend once said that every weed we wipe out in fall saves us dealing with 2 to 3 in the spring. Tired as I may be after keeping up with the intruders all summer, now is NOT the time to give in and give up.
ASSESS THE CROWDING: As a die-hard perennial fan, I would be the first to admit that one of my biggest shortcomings is keeping my beds under control. To thin out a bed HURTS—literally and figuratively. Breaking up overgrown Siberian iris is tougher than weight training. To pull out an overabundance of common aster demands a great deal of tenacity and patience if I’m going to get all the roots. The mere thought of throwing out perfectly good plants makes me cringe. But that is just what has to happen in order to keep the survivors healthy. With the foliage gone and the root structures laid bare, DENIAL about what is required becomes a whole lot harder.
FORGET RETIREMENT: In the context of four-season gardening, the fall take-down is not a signal to break out the cocoa and seed catalogs quite yet. Moving on takes work. It takes honesty, too. The biggest enemy is our own end-of-season laziness.
A silver lining? Fall’s chill, brisk air is not just a boon for football fans. At least as we tackle some of our garden’s toughest problems, we are not going to pass out from heatstroke. Dig in—and happy fall gardening.


Do you consider yourself a “late bloomer”? Do you talk about “weeding out” the “deadwood” in your life? Some of the most colorful and common expressions in our language can be traced back to the human fascination with gardens and gardening.
Close to 3 million internet sites collect garden phrases. Among the most popular: The grass is always greener. . .; separating wheat from the chaff; everything’s coming up roses; to lead someone up or down the garden path; reaping what we sow; a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; life isn’t always a bed of roses; to be sitting on the fence when it comes to making a decision; a plain old ‘garden-variety’ item or experience; or the opinion that something is for the birds. What is about gardens that call out to us even in the language of the everyday? For starters, like the proverbial pigs in mud, the prospect of playing in the dirt speaks to the inner child in all of us. My husband grew up in New York City with glass-strewn alleys and open hydrants in the summer heat for his playground. But he still speaks with borderline awe of the tiny patch of immaculate grass his father treasured outside their walk-up apartment. As a boy, it was his job to trim it as needed with a household shears.
As a Midwestern native, I was never far from the earth. We filched berries out of gardens along the block and held neighborhood parades waving the stalks and jumbo leaves of rhubarb for flags. Nothing ever tasted quite as good as beans or pea pods right off the plant. I can close my eyes and remember exactly what the puddles felt like under my bare toes after a hard summer rain.
Scientists have documented the healing sight of green things growing on the human psyche. Travel agents can testify to the power of Fall color tours and the changing of the seasons to ignite our imaginations.
I write this as many of us will soon be agonizing over putting our gardens to bed for the season. Maybe it is time to just stand dead still amid those rows of veggies or beds of perennials and enjoy. In the low September light, golds and yellows, mauves and rusts have never seemed brighter than in the beds of mums flowering at their peak. The sedum is thrusting its filagreed flower heads high enough to outwit the snows that are bound to follow.
The gardener in us understands the necessity of winter, even as we mourn a summer past. We set our emotional clocks by the seasons. And ready or not, the smells and sights and sounds of change are in the air all around us. Words alone cannot hope to do them justice.


One definition of gardening: meditation with sweat. The blog that came up with that tidbit may be defunct. But the thought is worth preserving.
Not just gerontologists but most doctors and psychiatrists agree. Working—even casually standing or sitting—in a garden is one of the best things around for our mental health. The connection to the earth acts like a powerful magnet on the human spirit and psyche. We feel part of forces larger than ourselves. It is hard to be lonely or self-centered in a garden.
Gardening engages all the senses. Our hands instinctively reach out and touch. What child hasn’t spontaneously raided a neighbor’s garden to share the beauty with a Mom or Dad? Adults may feel no such freedom. But as we walk through a garden, we feel a subtle kinship with the leaves and stems brushing at our feet and ankles.
Folk wisdom has it that if we listen closely, we can hear a garden growing. We certainly can hear the voice of the wind as it stirs the buds and blossoms. And we can pick up the steadying rhythm of our own heartbeat as we contemplate that feast for the eyes spreading out before us. Spring’s brilliant array of greens are tell-tale signs new life is coming. In Summer’s rich palette, we experience the garden in its prime. The subtle transformation to the subdued golds and purples of Fall calms us in the middle of our hectic days.
Weeding in the garden after the rain last weekend, I found myself unwilling to pull up a random mint that had strayed into a bed of astilbe. The distinct herbal scent of that interloper wafted over the bed and graced my hands with its presence. Taste, you say? Even the most die-hard veggie hater among us has at one time or another wondered why that carrot or pea pod or pole bean tastes so much better right from the plant than on a plate.
Touch, hearing, sight, smell and taste. Of all the senses, smell they say is the first and last we recognize. As I write this column, I still smile at that unexpected encounter with the mint.
It is no accident that the sacred books from many religious traditions describe the Divinity as walking in a garden. Stories of Allah and the Creator God in the Old and New Testament depict such experiences. Meditating Buddha statues are among the most popular of garden statuary and NextTag boasts of four thousand-plus Buddha bird feeders online. I personally positioned a Saint Francis in the pocket garden between my house and car—an icon of peace and calm, even headed for the expressway.
Meditation with sweat. As a gardener, I especially like to think of my time in the garden that way. We speak of “working” in a garden. Maybe we ought to think of it more like a quiet prayer.


My faithful spouse and agent has rigged my computer so that it regularly sweeps the web looking for the keywords Time-in-a-Garden. This week it came up with fragments of an amazing obituary from somewhere in Canada. Instead of sending flowers as a memorial , it read, spend time in a garden.
Whether we are gardeners or not, what an incredible tribute for anyone we love or have loved—a way to celebrate a life well and truly lived. And what a powerful message of love and hope it offers in this season when Americans traditionally decorate and tend the cemeteries of our land.
Take time to enjoy, that obituary urges. Life can be a struggle. But beauty is still there to experience—provided we recognize and embrace it for what it is. The richness and happiness we find in a garden doesn’t require a fat bank account or brass engraved nameplates. In a culture driven by over-achievement, there are times our greatest success may be our capacity to appreciate.
Search for permanence in the ephemeral. Setting a plant or seed or seedling into the ground is the consummate act of faith. Gardeners are not naive enough to assume what happens next comes easy. Stuff happens. YouTube brings us images of baseball-sized hail that plummet into a suburban swimming pool in Oklahoma like rocks tossed into a pond. Straight-line winds topple hundred-year-old evergreens and embed splinters in bark with the ease of a sewing needle penetrating a stick of butter. And still gardeners plant—faithfully cultivate the art of growing if only for a season.
Look for strength in humility. Even when the rains come hard and fast, my iris haven’t given up. Heavy with bloom, the bent stalks draw their support from the mounds of day lily leaves cascading behind them. Gardens teach us about community at its best, especially the graceful art of sharing.
Cultivate the joy of Now. How often have we said, Tomorrow—instead of throwing ourselves heart and soul into the moment. Who knows when the petals on the peonies will begin to fall in a feathery shower? No day planner can pinpoint when the fragrance of the rose begins to fade.We need to stop and marvel when and where we can.


It’s the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. I dedicate this column to rethinking what that public holiday can mean in our own lives, not one day a year but 24-7.
–Teach the children well. Environmental awareness begins in the home. To this day, my Mom remembers the time one of us kids heaved a wrapper out the car window and Dad stopped to make us pick it up. We never found that wrapper, but in the process we sure took care of cleaning up a bunch of others Families are in the best position to recognize and use “teachable moments” that make us better environmentalists throughout our life-span.
–Pick honest targets. Too often environmental education programs for kids aim at pointing out the polluters out there—instead of the one in the mirror. I will never forget the aggressive campaign waged by a rural Michigan elementary school teacher to “shut down” a local industry as an Earth Day “project”. Meanwhile those self-same students were dumping their mini mart wrappers and drink containers all over the neighborhoods on their way home from school. To paraphrase the cartoon sage Polo, if we truly want to meet the enemy, it’s us.
–Become a stealth weeder. On the walk from car to office or on our neighborhood strolls, we can stop and bend long enough to root out the interlopers—a weed or two at a time. No one but us may ever notice that we are modeling environmental citizenship at its best, but it is heroic nonetheless. Change begins not with grand gestures, but simply personal actions that say, “I am responsible.”
–Be prepared to bag it. Carry a litter bag, not just for your own trash but everybody else’s. One of my favorite environmentalists of all time was an elderly neighbor. The man no longer drove, but he made it his personal mission in life to pick up every candy and gum wrapper, discarded soda can and other scrap of garbage between his house and the supermarket. He walked the route almost daily. His passing at ninety was a loss to each and every one of us.
–Pass it on. Landfills are full of yard “waste” that could be beautifying our world. A neighbor once stopped to admire my iris garden—an instant clue when it came time for me to divide and thin out one of the clumps. I give thanks to all the gardeners who left bags of discarded plants at the curb with a simple sign, Free for the Taking.
If we look around us, those opportunities to practice random acts of environmental citizenship are out there. We can beautify the landscape and lives in the process. Our own is one of them.


A READER WRITES: I am moving into a home along the Grand River. I recently became aware of 'native plants' and was quite taken by the natural benefits and variety of plants and shrubs. I wish to plant 'native plants' around my home and along my deck-line next to the water. Suggestions are welcome.

DEAR READER: I loved your letter. Like many gardeners, I have strayed into the realm of “exotica” over the years. High-maintenance hybrids have a certain appeal. But like you, I have come to appreciate there is something special about setting one’s sights on a go-with-the-flow survival approach to gardening.

According to the state DNR, Michigan boasts around 1,800 native plant species. In recent years, 46 have been lost and 51 are on the endangered list. Another 800 non-native plants have been introduced into our eco-system over the years.

The Michigan Natural Features Inventory—maintained online by MSU Extension and MDNR— is the most comprehensive guide to native plants. Since cultivating a healthy eco-system is one of the goals of native plantings, Michigan State also maintains a handy list online of 26 Michigan species for attracting beneficial insects ( The Michigan Native Plant Producers Association website posts a list of invasive species to avoid.

Native plants were available for purchase through the Emmet County Conservation District as well as Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council last spring In past years, I believe the Boyne Valley Garden Club also offered a native plant sale. Michigan Native Plant Producers Association member greenhouses and nurseries also are among possible sources for native seeds and plant stock.

From your email, I gather your interest lies in “garden” versus an extensive “habitat”. A homeowner doesn’t need a “woods” or acres of sprawling meadows to make these native gardens work. The trick is to think “pocket gardens”. My own home has four very distinct climate zones—a virtual desert on the West and a wetter shade garden on the East. Similarly, your deck-line along the river and garden space close to the house call for very different plant choices.

“Landscaping with Native Plants of Michigan”, by Lynn M. Steiner (Voyageur Press) is an excellent resource for every setting from bogs and shade to full sun. It also recommends varieties that are compatible and have “year-round” appeal.

Some of my personal favorites in my own garden are the Wild Geranium and Lupine, Foxglove, various Coneflowers, Sneezeweed and Woodland Sunflower. Check out the fun illustrations in “Wildflowers of Michigan Coloring Book 2009" at

After killing off more beds than I can describe, what remains are my sturdy native perennials. No pretense here—just beauty and the sense that a plant is exactly where it is meant to be.


March may roar in like a lion or a lamb. Still, we know winter does not release its hold without a struggle. Thaws come and go. Lack of sunlight contributes to depression both physically and emotionally. We human beings NEED green. Even an article in the online magazine Astrobiology speculates how moon colonies might establish ways for plant life to survive that inhospitable environment.
And where there is a potential customer, innovators step up to the challenge. As my husband stood in line at a home improvement chain over the holidays, he was taken aback at how much retail sales aims at the indoor gardening market for the home and office. The flow of garden catalogs arriving at our house every day bears out that trend.
Live plants in the home are nothing new. Still, the art of bringing the outdoors in has come a long way since bulb-forcing kits and chia pets.
TABLE-TOP GREENHOUSES. These vary all over the map—from fish-tank terrariums and plastic hydroponic kits to hi-tech sealed glass bulb eco-systems. Personally, I can’t resist those miniature Victorian-design conservatories. A friend also gave me a lovely wooden fairy garden kit complete with grass seed, miniature fences and benches.
Unfortunately, these products can be high-maintenance venture. One of my lovely glass terrariums now works as a to-scale greenhouse for one of the dollhouses I built—its plants are silk. The other has hosted a wild assortment of mosses, mini ferns and even a Gulf Coast air-plant collection over the years. It now contains some very realistic plastic grass for that fairy garden scene. Enough said.
SPECIALTY HERB OR FLORAL WINDOW BOXES: Again, not my forte. But I was AMAZED to discover that bringing inside a well-established herb pot actually seems to be working this winter. Before he knew my intentions, my husband got me an herb-garden kit for Christmas. Planting is set for this week. Stay tuned.
GROW LIGHT SYSTEMS: My Mom built a simple version with grow-lights set in a fluorescent fixture raided from my Dad’s wood-working shop. She successfully raises everything from African violets to Christmas cactus. All of them bloom like mad. Only problem, the apparatus is in the basement and even SHE doesn’t see it much except on the way to the laundry. Well-meaning neighbors often over-water the whole garden to death.
PAPER BAG OR UPSIDE DOWN self-watering systems: Has anyone had experience with these out there? They look so happy in the pictures, but the traditionalist in me has rebelled. The whole idea of torturing plants into a gimmicky growth mode seems a bit unsettling, if not downright wrong.
Whatever the batting average for these products, as gardeners they hit home how precarious a balance keep green things growing. Makes outdoor gardening look downright easy by comparison.


It is an understatement to say that Winter has arrived in northern Michigan. The word is slammed—snow, sleet, freezing rain and everything in between. That month-plus of popular tunes on the radio that kept pleading for a white Christmas appear to have gotten a little carried away.
For a gardener, these are worrisome times. We fret over what’s happening to those plants of ours out there alone in the dark. And when it comes to keeping our own spirits up, gaudy red poinsettias in the supermarket can’t quite cut it. Poinsettias have been described as the most abused house plants, ever. Their chances of survival into the New Year are slim to none. If the closest nursery hadn’t been a casualty of high energy costs, the temptation would be to walk the aisles just taking in the reassuring scent of warm earth and chlorophyll.
Winter becomes the ultimate test of a gardener’s character. How resilient are we in the ‘down times’, knowing how much damage those winds and blizzards can do? How honest and realistic can we be—truly careful and wise about what we wish for? A garden can fall victim to a longed-for thaw as well as a hard freeze. Patience and wisdom are called for in large doses. That, and hope.
Face it, a gardener’s dilemma is pretty much ‘ripped from the headlines’. No one quite trusts that the better-than-anticipated Holiday retail season guarantees an economy in recovery. Folks in the tourism business still agonize over weather forecasts. So many unemployed still struggle in the face of stagnant job creation.
I keep coming back to Samuel Johnson's description of second marriages as the “triumph of hope over experience”—a line that also pops up at a crucial moment in Bronte’s wonderful novel, Tenant of Wildfell Hall. We gardeners cannot predict what our acres and furrows will look like in three months. We can only trust our own resilience and persistence as we confront whatever lies ahead.
So, as we head into the New Year, my ‘rallying cry’ to myself as well as gardeners everywhere is, “Take heart!” Through all the changes of our changing times, some things never change:
--How we treat the soil in our private little corner of the world will impact the earth beyond us.
--The cuttings and root-stock we share have the power to enrich the lives of others.
--What we sow, we don’t always reap. But if we don’t plant, nothing can grow.
–The most commonly recorded New Year’s resolution in ancient Babylon was to return borrowed garden tools.
–Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come (Chinese proverb)
In that spirit, I wish us all a New Year full of green things growing!